My ten favorite individual New York stage performances from 2020 are listed alphabetically, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews.
I say “New York stage performances” because that’s what I’ve focused on every year since this blog began. Granted, this year there were no stages past March, and after that you could see most of the performers only from the chest up. They also weren’t necessarily in New York. But in a year when nearly everything about theater is being redefined, a good performance is still a good performance. And I’ll go further: The proliferation of online anthologies of mostly short monologues have showcased, and relied on, good acting to an unusual degree. That is why I have added a second list of ten performances that each lasted only a few minutes, but have stayed with me.
Shereen Ahmed, who takes on the Judy Garland role of Esther Smith in the Irish Rep’s online production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” is a revelation. She has the exquisite voice and luminous beauty of a star, as she portrays the second eldest of the four quirky Smith sisters, conniving to win the love of the boy next door, John Truitt. Her only Broadway credit so far was as the understudy for Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady, followed by the lead role on tour. It seems an easy prediction that she’ll be returning to the stage when Broadway returns, unless Hollywood snatches her up.
Jane Alexander played an older, long-time married woman who suddenly announces she wants a divorce, in Beth Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,” which opened on Broadway in January. Alexander stands out in the matter-of-fact way her character forces her family – and the audience – to take an older woman’s desires seriously. At one point, she tells her younger son (Michael Urie, see below) the practical reasons she married his father why she stayed with her husband and how she tried to make it right. “So I had children, Ben, and then you because I wanted Ben to have a companion.”
This was too much for her son – as it would surely be for any son. It might have been too much for the audience, too, in a different way – too far-fetched – but Jane Alexander managed to pull it off.
Harriet Harris is a Tony-winning New York actress who long has been acclaimed for her quirky comedic roles (her Tony was for evil landlady Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie.) But Harris has lately been portraying serious women of a certain age and gravitas — Eleanor Roosevelt three times, in the title role of a play on the Barrington Stage Company , in the recent Ryan Murphy Netflix series “Hollywood,” and in the forthcoming TV series “Atlantic Crossing.” As Margaret Chase Smith in “Conscience,” (both on stage and lately in a Zoom reading), Harris gave life to a real-life character who would be fascinating as a pioneering woman politician – the only woman in the Senate at the time — even if she had never spoken her conscience against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Intelligent and committed, certainly, she was also depicted in “Conscience” as at times vulnerable, but also wily.
Along with his co-star Ali Ahn, William Jackson Harper was a delight as mismatched, squabbling Jewish sibling in “The Burdens” with just the right comic timing and a gallery of entertaining facial expressions. But, in all honesty, Harper is on this list because he has become one of the go-to performers in the pandemic period, appearing in a range of short monologues in anthology series, including Max Posner’s “Father,” in which he says a series of often funny and sometimes pointed prayers (or perhaps is just going crazy), including one of the most memorable lines from the start of the pandemic: “Father, I have gone in a single millisecond from thinking that the ones wearing the masks were the assholes to thinking the ones who weren’t wearing the masks were the assholes.” He was also hilarious in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Don’t Look Back,” but feel that some of the credit for the effectiveness of that play goes to his acting partner and pet, Chico.
Francis Jue, who last year played David Henry Hwang in “Soft Power” and the year before a father and a penguin in “Wild Goose Dreams,” had a challenging role in 2020 — as the impish, teasing Emcee of Cambodian Rock Band who turns out to be a mass murderer. The character was based on an actual person who was a teacher beforehand, and afterward one of the only to admit his guilt in a court of law. In his arresting performance Off-Broadway, Jue made Comrade Duch in turns entertaining and plausibly horrifying.
Mia Katigbak, the artistic director of NAATCO (the National Asian American Theatre Co.), offers a performance in “Russian Troll Farm” that roots the outlandish satire of the play in the chilling reality of life under first a totalitarian and then an authoritarian regime, especially in her powerful final monologue when her character Ljuba tells the story of her life from heartless childhood to bloodless apparatchik.
Jefferson Mays’ extraordinary talent for quick-change artistry won him a 2004 Tony for impersonating three dozen characters in “I Am My Own Wife” and was demonstrated again in his 2014 Tony nominated performance as each and every member of the murdered D’Ysquith Family in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” In A “Christmas Carol,” he portrays some 50 characters, including The Dying Fire and An Indignant Potato. He achieves his art with no change of costume, largely with just an adjustment in his voice and subtle facial expressions – although for the more over-the-top characters, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he is aided immensely by the lighting and sound designers. But the main achievement of this adaptation is Mays’ storytelling.
For the Broadway transfer of the Bob Dylan/Conor McPherson musical “Girl From The North Country,” Jay O. Sanders took on the role of Nick Laine, the debt-ridden, desperate and casually adulterous proprietor of the failing boarding house. He made Nick the center of gravity, almost single-handedly creating a sense of coherence to what otherwise often felt like random episodes in unrelated lives. If this was Sanders’ first Broadway performance in some dozen years (in a show that was the last to open on Broadway before the shutdown), Sanders has been an anchoring figure in play after play Off-Broadway, most notably in Richard Nelson’s multi-party family dramas. And he was there again, when Nelson created three more plays in the Apple Family series specifically for Zoom. In these plays, especially the splendid first one “What Do We Need to Talk About?”, Sanders worked as part of an awesome ensemble who all belong on this list as well – Maryann Plunkett (who is his sister in the plays, and his wife in real life), Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken.
Almost exactly seven years after Michael Urie performed in the one-man show “Buyer & Cellar,” Jonathan Tolins’ comedy about an underemployed actor hired to work the fake mall that Barbra Streisand has set up in the basement of her Malibu home, Urie performed it again, this time online in lockdown out of his own apartment. Once again it was a tour de force performance, but it was something else. Urie has served as a role model of an engaged theater artist during the pandemic, producing the Pride Plays Festival, and popping up everywhere in energetic comic performances of various lengths and formality. In “Frankie and Will” by Talene Monahan, he portrayed William Shakespeare as trapped in quarantine with his unpaid apprentice. He even served as host and the sole audience member for Audra McDonald at her gala concert at New York City Center, where she admonishes him for unwrapping a candy, and he gets to applaud her on behalf of every theatergoer who’s ever heard her sing.
Kara Young was adorable as a spirited, brainy and queer teenager with a movie star as an imaginary friend n C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans,” which was staged Off-Broadway in February. What we were left with at the end of the play was not just the sadness of the family’s situation, but the affection that the characters can’t help having for one another despite it all, and the way Young and the other actors brought to their characters — and to us — their warmth. The year before, Young was fierce as the street urchin Lil Melba in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches,” She was both fierce and adorable as the 18-year-old orphaned title character in “Bulrusher,” a production by Paula Vogel that was so well-done it is hard to refer to it as a Zoom play. Again, the characters are unhappy, and the revelations grim, and again our enjoyment comes from their warmth, as well as a surprising amount of humor in their interactions, brought home by Young’s performance.
Memorable Minutes-Long Monologues
(plus one four-minute musical, and a 10-minute two hander)
Kimberly Hebert Gregory in “These Hands” by Loy A. Webb, Jake Gyllenhaal in “Across the Way” by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, Chris Herbie Holland in Holla by Lee Edward Colston II, Andre De Shields in A Father’s Sorrow by Shakira Senghor, Rachel Dratch in A Story of Survival by David Lindsay-Abaire, Judith Light in All The Old Familiar Places by Jon Robin Baitz, Laurie Metcalfe in Only Light by Stephen Karam, Thomas Sadoski in Satori by John Guare and Love Letter to an Irish Pub by Martyna Majok, Lynn Whitfield and Esau Pritchett in Mississippi Goddamn by Aurin Squire