For all the Broadway box office records set in 2017, the year in New York theater felt tentative, in transition, as if both theater artists and audiences were trying to figure out how to deal with the changed, and charged, political landscape. Some shows offered the escapist route, like Hello, Dolly with Bette Midler or SpongeBob SquarePants; these crowd pleasers generally didn’t please me enough to include in my top ten. Other shows went in the opposite direction, offering some form of social or political engagement. With one exception (see below), the less satisfying of these dealt directly with politics or political activism in the narrow sense (The Parisian Woman or Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender) or previewed a political apocalypse (1984.) Many of my favorites of 2017 paint a realistic picture of people fighting against a sense of hopelessness; but in telling their stories, the shows paradoxically provide us with a sense of hope – and sometimes a blueprint for action. Theater at its best can function as both a place of refuge and a resource.
The choices below are personal favorites; the ranking is somewhat arbitrary.
The plot of this delicate adaptation of an indie Israeli film by Eran Kolirin hardly seems the stuff of Broadway musicals: An Egyptian police band gets lost on its way to performing at an Arab cultural center in Israel, and winds up spending a single night in an isolated desert town; one of the best songs is “Welcome to Nowhere.” But this show, which transferred this year from Off-Broadway, hits the spot thanks to David Yazbek’s exquisite Middle Eastern score and delicious lyrics, a spot-on cast led by the incomparable Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, and a book by Itamar Moses that’s both doleful and droll. We fall in love with the characters, almost all of whom harbor an underlying sadness.
“Jitney” was the last play to make it to Broadway from August Wilson’s celebrated 10-play American Century cycle, 11 years after his death. In Wilson’s 1979 play, which takes place in 1977 in a gypsy cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, we get to know the drivers, their passengers, and their family members. Some feel trapped; some, defeated. But each has a story to tell, and a full life of faults and wisdom and talents that Wilson presents with humor and empathy. The production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, presented ensemble acting at its best.
The Tooting Arts Club’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s glorious murderous musical began in 2014 in Harrington’s, one of London’s oldest working pie shops, and made the trans-Atlantic voyage intact, setting up in an impressively detailed replica of Harrington’s constructed at Barrow Street theater. I hesitate to include this Sweeney Todd in my top ten of 2017, because I loved the original cast, but made the mistake of seeing it a second time, with its current replacement cast, and didn’t love it anywhere near as much. Still, you can’t take away my memory of the first eight-member cast, especially Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney Todd, Sibohan McArthy as Mrs. Lovett and Matt Doyle as Anthony Hope, as they performed atop the tables inches from the audience, or sat alongside us on the benches
“Burning Doors” was Belarus Free Theatre’s latest arresting play about state-sponsored injustice, and the art of resisting it. A troupe banned in their home country, but continuing to perform there underground, Belarus Free Theatre mixes activism and artistry in a way that frankly puts to shame most American theater’s efforts at doing the same. As with their previous work, “Burning Doors” told real stories, naming names – this time including the story of the activism and repression of the Russian activist performance artists Pussy Riot, re-enacted by a prominent member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina — presented with inventive and athletic theatricality.
A behind-the-scenes look at an all-Jewish, lesbian-themed drama at the dawn of the 20th century that led to a criminal prosecution, Indecent is both a fascinating history lesson written by Pulitzer-winning Paul Vogel, and a cleverly staged entertainment directed by Rebecca Taichman.
This was in my top 10 last year as well, when it debuted Off-Broadway. It transferred to Broadway in April of this year – marking Vogel’s Broadway debut – but lasted only four months. I suspect this haunting play will live on.
Like Grapes of Wrath, Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation. The characters in “Sweat” hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, which 2010 U.S. Census data identified as the poorest city in America.
Everything clicked for me in the Public Theater production of this play in 2016, and I listed it in the top 10 of 2016. As with Indecent, its transfer to Broadway in the Spring apparently didn’t click with the theater-buying public; it closed after some three months, even though it had won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It’s worth noting that Nottage, who spent much time doing research in Reading, continues her presence in that city, developing a site-specific installation in the abandoned Reading Railroad Station, entitled “Out/Let,” to engage the diverse and divided communities of the city in dialogue,
The ushers are wearing “Ghetto Scholar” sweatshirts in Studio 54, where for his sixth solo show John Leguizamo stands in front of a blackboard and lectures on the history, politics, culture and demographics of the 70 million Latinos in the United States. But Leguizamo is too much of an anarchic comic spirit, master mimic and candid memoirist to be merely erudite. “Latin History for Morons” exists on three planes – fascinating nuggets of actual history mixed with political commentary, eclectic comic shtick, and a funny, tender story of the performer’s efforts to connect with his family. “Latin History for Morons” suggests a potentially new and exciting direction in Leguizamo’s theatrical work.
A quartet of fine performances help elevated this play by Lucas Hnath to something more than just a sequel to Ibsen’s drama: Laurie Metcalf was the fifteenth actress since 1889 to portray Nora Helmer on Broadway, who slams the door on her husband and three children. But she was the first Nora to knock on that door 15 years later. The play is clever, and surprisingly amusing, but it is also thought-provoking: The characters’ conversations amount to a spirited and intriguing debate about the institution of marriage. Would it be a stretch to argue that, opening six months before the birth of the #metoo movement, the depiction of the unequal, unfair relationship between the sexes wound up being prescient?
K-Pop was wildly (and loudly) entertaining, offering the audience a pretend-tour of a Korean pop music factory, which included mini-concerts at the beginning and the end, and energetic performances throughout, by credible and incredibly talented Korean pop stars, though wholly created (a la The Monkees) just for this show. If the dramatic scenes in K-Pop could have been better, I pick the show for my top 10 to represent the increasing number and variety of immersive theater, which has turned from a trend into a genre, one that continues to innovate.
I save these two for last, but in some ways, they are the most exciting of the theater I saw in 2017. Both productions adapted Greek tragedies written by Sophocles 2,500 years old in ways that make them more timely and relevant than almost anything else on any stage anywhere.
Oedipus El Rey was Luis Alfaro’s modern adaptation of Oedipus Rex, set in the Chicano barrio of South Central Los Angeles. It was an intense, visceral production, brutal and direct, but also graphically sensuous and oddly tender. It made a startling connection between how the Ancient Greeks viewed their fate and many Latinos view their future.
“Antigone in Ferguson” was performed by stars of the HBO TV series “The Wire,” backed by a gospel chorus made up of residents and activists from Ferguson, Missouri, some of whom knew Michael Brown, the teenager killed by a police officer in 2014. The production was an adaptation written and produced by Bryan Doerries, the artistic director of Theater of War Productions, a theater company he launched eight years ago to use plays to help speciic audiences grapple with trauma. Originally presented in Ferguson, “Antigone in Ferguson” was presented for one night only in basketball court in the shadow of the Howard public housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to an audience touched by violence. The conversation afterward was vibrant, intelligent and moving. It gave me a new understanding of the tragedy – and of theater.