My ten favorite individual performances in New York stage shows that opened in 2017 are listed alphabetically, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews, but let’s begin with three noteworthy ensembles:
In Belarus Free Theatre’s latest politically charged play, Burning Doors, the cast reenacts violence with such acrobatic intensity that spectators might fret about the performers’ well-being. Two of the actors literally throw each other around the room, ripping off their clothes. Two of the actresses slap each other silly.
They also plunge into acts of vulnerability – being tortured naked is a large one – that require an unusual courage. But these moments on stage only hint at the bravery of this company and these performers, who have used their art to defy the authoritarian regime in their home country, and other countries as well,
Cost of Living focuses on two pairs of characters, each made up of a caretaker and a disabled person being taken care of. The evocative scenes would not have worked as well as they did without the exceptional performances – Katy Sullivan as a foul-mouthed and sarcastic girl from Jersey, who somehow lets us know that in her own way she is moved by her estranged husband’s insistence on caring for her; her husband, played by Victor Williams as a regular guy from Bayonne, a former trucker, who has messed up more than once, but wins us over because he seems genuinely to care; Jolly Abraham as the caretaker who seems to need as much care taking as the person who hired her, a witty, difficult man with cerebral palsy, portrayed by Gregg Mozgala. It’s an added gift that the two disabled characters are portrayed by actors who are themselves disabled
The main pleasures in A Doll’s House, Part 2, were rooted in the chance to watch four accomplished performers. The original cast (the one I saw) featured Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Chris Cooper as Nora’s husband Torvald, Jayne Houdyshell as her former nanny Anne Marie, and Condola Rashad as her now grown-up daughter. Much of their conversation amounts to a spirited and intriguing debate about the institution of marriage. But even their pleasantries are engaging. I could easily list each of them individually in my top 10 list.
Juan Castano played Oedipus in Luis Alfaro’s modern adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus El Rey, set in the Chicano barrio of South Central Los Angeles. This should be a star-making role for Castano, whose Oedipus seems at most times in various states of undress — often shirtless, sometimes completely naked in the most explicit love scene on a legitimate New York stage since the 1960s, occasionally in orange prison uniform or wife beater t-shirt and dungarees. But in a way he is always naked before us in Oedipus’ vulnerability, immaturity, anger, impetuousness, resentments, hunger, ambition, greed and need….and horror.
In “Hold These Truths,” Joel de la Fuente portrays Gordon Hirabayashi, a 2012 posthumous winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom who was imprisoned during World War II for openly defying the internment of Japanese-Americans. De la Fuente’s performance is subtle and shows great skill, portraying the low-key protagonist and countless characters with whom he came into contact, from Hirabayashi’s Japanese immigrant parents to his Quaker girlfriend to a Southern sheriff to a streetwise New York City ticket-taker to the individual Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Significant Other, Gideon Glick portrayed Jordan, a gay man who watches as one by one his three best friends get married, leaving him feeling alone and lonely. “Your wedding is my funeral,” Jordan says. Glick invested the role with just the right notes of comic awkwardness, energy, and warmth, accompanied by a consistent underscoring of melancholy. He made his character both adorable and irritating. His plaintive arias of loneliness were so masterfully done that the audience applauded them. One moment alone was enough to get him on this list — an elaborate dance of indecision as he struggled with whether or not to click the key on his computer that would send a gushing e-mail proclaiming his love to a new office colleague.
In “People, Places and Things,” Denise Gough reprised the role that won her great acclaim and an Olivier Award in London, as Emma, an alcoholic and drug addicted actress who blacks out during a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and is ordered to get clean if she ever wants to act again. It’s a brave, intense and vulnerable performance, challenging physically and emotionally. But it’s also a nuanced one — befitting a complex woman who is funny, observant, cunning, defiant, desperate; in denial – that feels like a compendium of Emmas, shifting over time. Even when she slurs her words or weaves unsteadily, it’s in subtle gradations, indicating improvement or relapse. Gough is set to make her Broadway debut in February as Harper, another addictive character, in the revival of Angels in America – yet another reason to be looking forward to that show.
Following up on her impressive Broadway debut last year as a sex slave turned soldier in Eclipsed, Zainab Jah performed two Off-Broadway roles that couldn’t have been more different — an exploited 19th century African woman in Venus and then, in “School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play,” a character named Eloise, the embodiment of Miss Ghana 1966, all grace and worldly sophistication – until Eloise opens her mouth. Then the racist self-hatred bubbled up, albeit elegantly, in euphemism.
Andy Karl would have shined anyway in his inventive, energetic and wholly winning performance as TV weatherman Phil Connors, which was the main reason to see the musical Groundhog Day/. But he deserves extra admiration for soldiering through, with extra aplomb, in the face of an injury three days before the show opened. The doctors ordered him to take a few days off, but he returned to the show quickly, and made the most of it. In a cheeky bit of improvisation in what was supposed to scene of seduction, he proudly showed off the elaborate black knee-brace on his bare outstretched leg, and stuck a glass of Scotch on top of it. The audience roared.
Katrina Lenk portrays Dina in The Band’s Visit the laid-back owner of the local café manages simultaneously to be hilariously deadpan and a hidden volcano of feeling. This would be enough, but Lenk also stood out in the cast of Indecent on Broadway this year, as the actress Dorothee, who portrays Manke the prostitute in the play within the play.
Sure it was a gimmick to have Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney switch off roles in The Little Foxes, Nixon playing Regina one night while Linney portrayed Birdie, then Nixon playing Birdie and Linney Regina the next. But it wouldn’t have worked had their performances been less expert. I liked the latter casting, since each actress was playing against type – Nixon’s Birdie, rather than just a skittish loser, was a woman with natural enthusiasms, and innate intelligence, who is constantly being beaten down. This makes her victimization all the more upsetting. Linney’s Regina was at times calculatedly charming, at other times sarcastic or bitter or venomous, at all times hardened steel.
Michael Urie showed off a singular gift for physical comedy in The Government Inspector— gracefully and athletically bumbling around the stage drunk or suicidal, or full of lust or greed. This is the performance that counted as one of my favorite this year, but Urie also took on the task of portraying Arnold, the character that made Harvey Fierstein famous, in a revival (really a revisal) of Fierstein’s Torch Song. It one of the many gay characters that Urie has proven especially adept at portraying — these include The Temperamentals, Homos or Everyone in America, and Buyer and Cellar, the play by Jonathan Tolin in which Urie portrayed every part, including that of Barbra Streisand – but not, if you can believe it, in a campy way.
Dianne Wiest took on what she called “the ‘Hamlet’ for women” as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Her Winnie was a more a practical, no-nonsense woman than the prattlers I’ve seen in the past — somebody who works hard at a sunny disposition, but is obviously beaten down. Wiest handles the comic moments deftly, but there seems real feeling when her Winnie momentarily drops her deliberate optimism to say “So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great.” The fact that she is no longer wearing makeup after the intermission reinforces the sense that things have gotten worse – which is more obvious by the fact that she’s now buried up to her neck.
One thing about New York City – there’s no end to the stage talent. I could easily fill another Top 10 list of performances in 2017. And so here it is (again alphabetical):
“Mizz June” Brown in And She Would Stand Like This, Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke, Jonno Davies in A Clockwork Orange, Peter Friedman in The Treasurer, Oscar Isaac in Hamlet, John Leguizamo in Latin History for Morons, Patti LuPone in War Paint, Ashley Park in K-Pop, Karen Pittman in Pipeline, Ari’el Stachel in The Band’s Visit