The choices below are personal favorites; the ranking is somewhat arbitrary.
In a political atmosphere that is at the very least fractured, and has often felt just a few steps away from something even worse, I am grateful for theater in 2018 in a way that transcends any strictly aesthetic assessment.
I am grateful for:
…the many shows confronting New York theatergoers with the issue of police shooting unarmed black men, ranging from “Black, White & Blue” a ten-minute play by William Watkins at the Fire This Time Festival to Scraps, Geraldine Inoa’s playwriting debut Off-Off Broadway, to Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son on Broadway
…the welcome revivals of gay plays to remind us how far we’ve come and how much we could lose, especially Angels in America, Boys in the Band and Torch Song; and such Broadway entertainments as The Prom and especially Head Over Heels , which though primarily giddy musicals, seamlessly endorse love and acceptance in all its contemporary forms, especially gay/queer/gender-fluid.
…the plays and musicals that offer a glimpse into the culture, struggles and humanity of individual immigrants and immigrant communities, including Miss You Like Hell, An Ordinary Muslim, Pale India Ale, queens.
None of these specific titles are in my top 10 list, a tradition that this year seems even hoarier than usual, but that I am nevertheless putting together because it’s a proven way of getting more attention for shows that deserve it. I’ve updated this list to consider those I’ve seen in December. I wrote my top 10 in 2017 before seeing “A Room in India,” devised by Théâtre du Soleil and presented at the Park Avenue Armory, which was definitely one of my favorite of the year. But Thanksgiving weekend seems the most apt time to express one’s gratitude.
1. The Ferryman
By the time “The Ferryman” has ended, we have been treated to a breathtaking mix of revenge action thriller, romance, melodrama, family saga, and a feast of storytelling – ghost stories, fairy stories, stories of Irish history and politics, stories of longing and of loss.
Jez Butterworth’s play about farmer Quinn Carney and his sprawling, colorful family is rich, sweeping entertainment — epic, tragic….and cinematic. Its underlying themes (such as the wages of hatred) also add heft to what seemed merely to be the most thrilling play of the Broadway season.
“The Damned,” Ivo van Hove’s intense, extraordinary stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film, offered pivotal turning points in the story of the corruption, perversion and destruction of the wealthy German industrialist family at its center. Van Hove directed a remarkable cast from the 338-year-old Comédie-Français, who perform in French with English subtitles in the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. The real-life events dramatized from 1933 felt like lessons not just in the creep of fascism, but in stagecraft from the avant-garde Belgian director – stagecraft that is ferociously inventive, unrelenting, and unsurpassed.
Elaine May is back on a Broadway stage after more than 50 years, and making the most of it in The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s meticulously observed, funny and sad play about a woman’s decline and its effect on her family. May is not alone. She is one of five stellar cast members, notably Lucas Hedges making a splendid Broadway debut. They turn this 18-year-old play into…if not required, certainly well-rewarded viewing.
It is hard to imagine a better production of Edward Albee’s humorous, caustic, secretly compassionate look at a life – and a death. It felt a fitting homage to the playwright, who died in 2016. Glenda Jackson returned to Broadway after an absence of three decades The play, which debuted in 1994 Off-Broadway and revived Albee’s reputation after 20 years of critical drubbing, had never been on a Broadway stage before.
The first Yiddish-language production of the hit 1964 musical was only supposed to run (at the Museum for Jewish Heritage) for two months. It kept on getting extended, and will now transfer Off-Broadway in February. This is surely proof that the production appeals to way more than just speakers of Yiddish. (Indeed, some fluent in Yiddish have commented that the pronunciation by some of the performers needs work.) It’s as entertaining as any Fiddler I’ve seen, and it’s something of a revelation as well. This makes sense: The musical, after all, is based on the 19th century short stories by Sholom Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish about Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his neighbors.
“ Lewiston/Clarkston” are two powerfully affecting plays by Samuel D. Hunter about 21st century descendants of the 19th century North American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The plays are being presented one after the other in a single evening, separated by a communal dinner during the half-hour intermission, in a production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater that one might consider an experiment in stagecraft. The theater has been completely reconfigured for the show, with the removal of its decades-old proscenium stage and of its raked stadium seating. Now, just 50 members of the audience sit in a row of folding chairs on either side of a plain playing space only 13 feet wide. As a result, the two dramas play out in close-up. The small playing space feels especially appropriate thematically, reflecting the circumscribed lives of the plays’ six characters, who reside in two nearby towns, named after Lewis and Clark, in what was once America’s wide-open frontier.
Perhaps you would have thought it chutzpah that in “In The Body of the World, Eve Ensler merged her story of her fight against uterine cancer with world crises such as mass rape in the Congo and the deadly oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe you would have been squeamish at her graphic storytelling of her illness, treatment and recovery, during which she literally bared her physical scars, and exposed her emotional ones, which were more disturbing. You could well have disapproved of her self-defeating and dubious speculation about what might have caused her cancer – from tofu to Tab to bad reviews.
You could grapple with all these reactions to Eve Ensler and her show – I certainly did at one time or another during its 90 minutes – and still have found “In The Body of the World” (as I did) eye-opening, entertaining, and one of the year’s most satisfying works of theater. Now a fan of Ensler’s, I rushed later in the year to see her play The Fruit Trilogy, which featured one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever witnessed in the theater.
Like Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, and Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, Clare Barron’s play was about something deeper than just a team of 13-year-old competitive dancers from Liverpool, Ohio aiming to win the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa Bay. It was a funny, sharp and very blunt look at adolescent girls – portrayed by a terrific cast made up of actors as old as 60. For all the satirical touches, there are spot-on explorations of the sensitivities and insecurities but also boastfulness and bold curiosities of children who are developing into adults
The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock,” featured 1,000 performers singing lyrics or reciting monologues along the entire 30 block length of the High Line, the park built from what was once an elevated railroad. It was an astonishing, spectacular, moving, and deeply odd work of theater – the sort of the experiment for which you say, in wonder and in pride, “Only in New York.”
10. The Jungle + experimental/immersive
“The Jungle” is a remarkable production that attempts to bring to life the self-governing refugee community in Calais, France that for 11 months became makeshift home to thousands of migrants. From its inventive staging to its authentic casting and vivid setting, “The Jungle,” which arrives at St Ann’s Warehouse intact from its acclaimed run in London, shows what theater can do at its best to open us up to a world we otherwise ignore.
This play shares much with other innovative shows I saw in 2018, many of which could be saddled with the labels experimental, “immersive” and/or “site-specific.” The best of these were (in addition to Mile Long Opera) The Head and the Load; Red Hills by pioneering immersive theater company En Garde Arts; The Hidden Ones, and WalkUpArts’ The End of the World Bar and Bathtub. With these shows, one must often sacrifice basic theatrical conventions and clarity, but, for the best of them, the trade-off is worth it.