As 2019 is coming to an end, leaving many of us worn down , it might be more rewarding to express gratitude for favorite New York shows that opened not just this year but for the decade as a whole. As in my normal top 10 New York Theater list each Thanksgiving, the choices are of course subjective; these were MY favorite in each year. But this list is also particularly arbitrary. Why go year by year as I do below, rather than rank my ten favorite overall since 2010? And why ten years? What’s so special about a period of time we don’t even know what to call — “the tens”? The two halves of the decade were distinctly different time periods, certainly politically. But these past ten years also happen to be a time in which I have been seeing as much theater in New York as I can as a critic – and for that I am grateful.
The Orphans Home Cycle
by Horton Foote
“How can human beings stand all that comes to them?” Horace Robedaux asks in “The Story of a Family,” the last play of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” which I saw just as the decade began. In the play, it is 1918 and people are dying of influenza at home or in combat overseas, but the question underlies Horton Foote’s entire nine-play cycle. And the answer, after nine hours watching an ensemble of some two dozen committed actors presenting 26 years in the life of Horace Robedaux and his extended family, is: They just do.
Horton Foote, who is best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” and who died in 2009 at the age of 92, had written the plays that make up “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” between three and four decades earlier. They are inspired by the story of his father, and by his birthplace, the small Texas town of Wharton, which he renamed Harrison. Director Michael Wilson trimmed the plays to an hour apiece, put them in chronological order and grouped them into three parts, “The Story of A Childhood,” “The Story of A Marriage,” and “The Story of A Family.” The result was both ambitious and modest, a surface of simplicity with a deep well of feeling. The producers had plans to bring the show to Broadway, but this never happened.
My top 10 for 2010: Orphans Home Cycle, Angels in America, Fences, A View from the Bridge, A Little Night Music, After the Revolution, The Kid, Enron, Clybourne Park, The Jackie Look
The Motherfucker with the Hat
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Jackie and Veronica have been a couple since the eighth grade, even after he became an addict and a drug dealer and went to prison. He’s out, newly sober, and in love. She remains an addict, but has a good job in a salon.
They are about to have sex when Jackie notices a man’s hat on the table…and the hat isn’t his.
If all this sounds grim, it isn’t. This first scene, exuberantly foul-mouthed, was so hilarious and touching that it was almost thrilling.
“The Motherf**ker with the Hat” (as it was commonly referred to) marked the Broadway debut of (and so far only Broadway play by) Stephen Adly Guirgis, who four years later won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Between Riverside and Crazy” (which was presented Off-Broadway.) The Broadway play was about people on the margins of society reaching for love and stability. It featured a cast, especially Bobby Cannaval and Elizabeth Rodriguez, who combined an authentic-feeling energy and rhythm from the streets with a mastery of stage technique.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Detroit,
Then She Fell
I made three top 10 lists in 2012, which either means that it was an especially good year for theater, or I was just suddenly drunk with the power of creating Top 10 lists.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Its fourth Broadway production opened 50 years to the day after the first Broadway production, and was a hit…palpably, to the guts. The original “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” caused a sensation, and that was true as well of the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production, transferred intact from Chicago, directed by Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park) and starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and Tony-nominated star, respectively, of “August: Osage County.”
This play by Lisa D’Amour takes place in a suburb of what is probably Detroit, but it could be any run-down first-generation suburb that began with hopefulness and street signs named after Nature. It was one of the few shows on a New York stage in 2012 to address the effects of a faltering economy, and, while grounded in reality, it was also funny, dark and surreal, with a spot-on cast. Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer played a couple just hanging on who befriend new next-door neighbors Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie who are even worse off.
The Third Rail Projects’ trailblazing immersive take on Lewis Carroll debuted in 2012 but I didn’t get around to reviewing it until 2016. Over the course of the two-hour running time of this elusive, dark and delightful show, each individual theatergoer feels put in charge of unlocking the mysteries not just of what’s in front of us, but also of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – pen name, Lewis Carroll. For all the atmosphere of mystery, the show offers light bulb moments of great satisfaction.
Shout out as well to “These Seven Sicknesses,” playwright Sean Graney’s adaptation of all seven of Sophocles’ surviving plays—Oedipus, In Trachis, Philoktetes, In Colonus, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone —performed by the Bats, the resident company of The Flea and directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang– neither of which, inexplicably, made any of my lists.
A remarkable musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her childhood with a father who was secretly gay, and her own coming out as a lesbian, this work of theater is inventive, entertaining, in places exhilarating, and almost inexpressibly heartbreaking. It moved to Broadway in 2015 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical
Disgraced and The Invisible Hand
by Ayad Akhtar
Amir is a successful, hard-charging corporate attorney in New York working for a largely Jewish law firm. He has angrily rejected the Islamic religion of his childhood because of attitudes like his mother’s, changed his name so it is not recognizably Muslim or Pakistani, and married a white woman – not a Jew but a blonde WASP. His wife inadvertently sets into motion the two plot lines that explode at a dinner party with another couple. Although it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, there are plenty of people who didn’t care for Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” seeing it as too much like a lecture, too cynical or too contrived. But to me this first play by a major new voice on the American stage managed to be both dramatically satisfying and politically important, confronting us with our assumptions and pieties about the culture clash that is defining our era. “Disgraced” is a play that sparked conversation even among those who didn’t like it.
With “The Invisible Hand,” opening at New York Theatre Workshop the same year that “Disgraced” opened on Broadway, the playwright was in some ways even more daring, turning the story of a kidnapped American banker in Pakistan into a lesson in economics and morality.
In my third review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop opera about the life and times of the Founding Father whose face is on the ten dollar bill, I wondered as it was opening on Broadway whether it had already reached the point in the life of a Broadway hit when “any individual opinion no longer matters. It’s a hit because it’s a hit, and people go because it’s a hit; those who don’t like it are likely to blame themselves.”
“Hamilton” is unquestionably a phenomenon. It’s the first Broadway show in a while to spread so widely into the larger culture. It thrust creator Lin-Manuel Miranda into stardom. But all this doesn’t change what I see as the ways that the show was groundbreaking, and remains breathtaking.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
This sung-through musical adapted from a “scandalous slice” of “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy was on my list of top 10 in 2013, when it had moved from the Off-Broadway theater Ars Nova to a circus tent in the Meatpacking District. I was struck from the get-go by its catchy songs and by its cutting-edge stagecraft.
I list it as my favorite in 2016 because in its move to Broadway starring Josh Groban, it didn’t change much. Its staging came very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s been intriguing theatergoers all over the world – everywhere but Broadway, until now.
The musical was a collaboration among three emerging theater artists who have now fully emerged – composer Dave Malloy, director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien. All of them have an already impressive track record — and promise groundbreaking work to come.
The Band’s Visit
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 from Off-Broadway, hit 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 was both doleful and droll. We fall in love with the characters, almost all of whom harbor an underlying sadness.
by Jez Butterworth
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.
Shout out to To Kill A Mockingbird, which I saw the month after I made the 2018 list, and which I didn’t review until recently.
What made Hadestown most thrilling when it opened Off-Broadway in 2016 remained when it opened on Broadway this year – the delightful score, which mixes sweet and sexy folk, rocking jazz, and exquisite blues. And there are some improvements, most notably the expansion of the role of Hermes as narrator, performed to perfection by the great André De Shields, who commands the stage from the get-go
My top 10 for 2019: Hadestown, The Inheritance, Fires in the Mirror, White Noise, Oklahoma!, The Lehman Trilogy, Hamnet, Novenas for a Lost Hospital, and two hybrid theater pieces/pretend museums – The Black History Museum and The Museum of Dead Words