My ten favorite individual human performances in New York stage shows that opened in 2018 are listed alphabetically, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews, but let’s begin with a few noteworthy ensembles:
The cast of Dance Nation showed us what it’s like to be an adolescent girl, though the actresses were as old as 60.
The six performers of Lewiston/Clarkston confess, kiss and fight literally inches away from the audience
The two dozen actors of The Ferryman, most making their Broadway debuts, are all terrific, believable even when the play takes a turn into fantasy, especially the ones charged with taking care of the live baby, bunny, and goose that accompanies them on stage nightly.
The 1,000 performers of the Mile-Long Opera, stood in their position along the entire 30 block length of the High Line elevated park, singing snippets or reciting short monologues over and over and over again about life in New York City. It was an astonishing, spectacular, moving, and deeply odd work of theater that required a massive collaborative effort.
Broadway veteran Stephanie J. Block goes beyond just a spot-on impersonation of the mature Cher, called Star, in The Cher Show. As one of the three actresses portraying the entertainer at different stages of her life, she captures not just her look, her mannerisms, her moves, and her voice, but her attitudes and even her aura.
Nobody can do a nervous breakdown like Bryan Cranston. As Howard Beale, long-time network news anchor gone mad, he sits in front of the camera, unable to speak, his face a dramatic repertoire expressing varying shades of reddened desperation. And that’s just one of Cranston’s many memorable moments in the Broadway production of Network. Cranston became a star thanks to his Emmy-winning performance as chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on AMC’s Breaking Bad, but convinced Broadway of his theater chops in his Tony-winning turn as LBJ in “All The Way.” His performance in “Network” is further proof.
Johnny Flynn portrayed Mooney, the mysterious, sly, sexy intruder in Martin McDonough’s Hangmen. Flynn, who originated the role in England, and played the lead in the bingeable Netflix series “Lovesick,” seems a likely candidate for larger stardom.
In The House That Will Not Stand, Lynda Gravátt portrayed Beartrice, the matriarch of an all-female African-American household in 19th century New Orleans, giving the gravitas it required, but with her character deepened by the suggestion of a willfully suppressed vulnerability. It’s one of the three distinctive roles she performed on New York stages this year – a prophetic cellist in This Flat Earth, a scheming funeral director in The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d. She keeps her sense of dignity even when playing a con artist.
Tom Hollander carried Travesties. His energetic clowning never wavered, but he also managed to bring clarity and feeling to Tom Stoppard’s mind-boggling collage of a play.
Glenda Jackson returned to Broadway in Albee’s Three Tall Women after an absence of thirty years to portray a rich, regal old lady who’s become a monster, and is also dying, a performance that manages to be simultaneously ferocious and vulnerable. Although Jackson herself is now 82 years old, she has that ability that great actresses have of convincing us that her portrayal of a dying 92-year-old is an act; that the actress herself is fully in command of an endless depth and power. In other hands, Albee’s play might seem cold. Jackson’s meditation on facing death finds the heartbreak in it.
In Eve Ensler’s Fruit Trilogy, Liz Mikel gave a final, breathtaking monologue that suggested to me something close to Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, a passionate outburst about the pleasure a woman’s body can give her – but in Ensler’s play laced with a decidedly feminist message. Mikel completely disrobes, but immediately admonishes the audience not to give her labels like exhibitionist. “What if you were there not to be titillated but instead to watch, learn, appreciate, to perceive and understand my pleasure but not in a lascivious way.”
In what was (incredibly) her professional stage debut, Lauren Ridloff portrayed Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God,” whose language (like the actress’s) was American Sign Language. The actress proved passionate, eloquent and graceful in the upper body ballet that is ASL.
Anika Noni Rose conquers in the title role of Carmen Jones, from the moment she enters wearing that red dress and carrying a red rose, and inspects her silk stockings. It is a subtle gesture that shows us a woman out for herself. Sultry, seductive and destructive, her Carmen Jones is an operatic character of outsized appetites, and Rose’s voice one of operatic force and beauty. But her performance, rooted in her training as a Tony-winning actress in both plays and musicals, offers no hint of the stilted formality we might associate with opera stars.
In her timely and informative play, What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck plays herself at age 15 and at her current age. As winning as her play is, her performance as herself is remarkable. There is a certain slyness in her depiction of a teenager, but when she’s herself talking candidly about the history of domestic abuse in her family, or about her abortion, her emotions feel real. It’s bracing to realize she does this eight times a week
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 2018 And so here it is (again alphabetical):
Lauren Ambrose in My Fair Lady, Anthony Boyle in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Nathan Lane in Angels in America, Elaine May in the Waverly Gallery, Lindsay Mendez in Carousel, Laurie Metcalf in Three Tall Women, Chris Perfetti in The Low Road, Angie Schworer in The Prom, Shannon Tyo in The Chinese Lady, Michael Urie in Torch Song
And, it doesn’t feel right to leave out the puppets of 2018.Behind every successful puppet is a person – usually many people.
King Kong in King Kong
(Manipulated by Mike Baerga , Rhaamell Burke-Missouri , Jovan Dansberry , Casey Garvin, Gabriel Hyman, Marty Lawson, Robeto Olvero, Khadija Tariyan, Lauren Yalango-Grant , David Yijae
— collectively referred to as King’s Company)
Sven the reindeer in Frozen (Adam Jepsen and Andrew Pirozzi)
Olaf in Frozen (Greg Hildreth)
Jester, dragon, prince and princess finger puppets by Una Clancy in The Jester and the Dragon
The seventy-five puppets (or one thousand depending on how you cat) amoeba-looking plastic cut-outs and pieces of tinsel , psychedelic pinwheels etc. – in Symphonie Fantastique (Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons, and Rachael Shane, with Basil Twist)