Top 10 New York Theater to be Grateful for in 2021

My gratitude this year is greatest for theater in general: grateful that in-person, live performances have returned; that the experimentation in digital and hybrid theater continues;  that there is what seems a genuine effort to expand who and what gets on stage – a commitment to make New York theater more equitable and more accessible. 

It’s been hard, though, for me to single out ten favorite shows in 2021, although that’s what I’ve done every Thanksgiving for more than a decade, even last year (when all but three of my choices were digital.) 

I’m surely not the only one to become more conscious of the extraordinary effort to mount a satisfying work of theater even in the best of circumstances, and this year has been the worst of circumstances. After so long an absence, it’s also just thrilling to be sitting in a theater.  At the same time, what with the ups and downs in the news about the state of infections and variants, I couldn’t help occasionally thinking to myself: Is this show worth risking my life for?

Add to this, yesterday’s heartbreaking news, and a busier December than usual, and the list, always subjective, never definitive to begin with, this year simply has to be different,  even as I keep the title.

Season of Sondheim

We are all grateful that we had Sondheim as long as we did. He died the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 91 in the middle of what one critic had been calling Sondheim Season: After several revues of Sondheim’s songs earlier in the year, his musical “Assassins” opened earlier this month at CSC;  next month “Company” is opening on Broadway and director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” is coming to movie theaters. In his last interview with a journalist,  he also mentioned the forthcoming revival of “Into the Woods” at New York City Center in May and the hopes for a revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” at New York Theatre Workshop. And in September, he talked about his work in progress with David Ives, which was initially entitled “Buñuel” then “Square One,” saying  it had already had a workshop, and “with any luck, we’ll get it on next season.”

Sondheim’s dozen and a half musicals already figure large in the musical theater canon, and will surely continue to be produced.

“Hamilton,” “Hadestown,” and…

 I’m thankful that two of the musicals I was most grateful for in previous years – Hamilton topping the 2015 list and Hadestown the one in 2019 – were among those that weathered the lockdown. Some 18 shows in total so far in Broadway’s 2021-2022 season — including several proven crowd-pleasers that debuted on Broadway long before I started making these lists (Chicago, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked) — have.come back intact, live and in person, to a welcoming audience. I’m in the unprecedented position of singling out productions I haven’t actually seen this year (although I did see them in the past, albeit some with different casts.) 

“Clyde’s” and…

Clyde’s,” a savory comedy written by Lynn Nottage, better known for her bitter tragedies, is being given a first-rate production by director Kate Whoriskey, her frequent collaborator, with a superb five-member cast, including Uzo Aduba as the heartless owner of a truck shop sandwich shop, and Ron Cephas Jones as a saintly sandwich maker in her employ, but it also features three young performers that you can boast about seeing early in their already-impressive careers: Kara Young, Reza Salazar, and Edmund Donovan. All the characters are formerly incarcerated, their struggles coloring this play with the social consciousness for which Nottage’s work is known. But “Clyde’s,”  only the sophomore Broadway play of this two-time Pulitzer Prize winner,  wears its social significance lightly, given its humor and charm. It’s as if Nottage understands that what audiences need right now is the promise of optimism and entertainment.

“Clyde’s” deserves gratitude as well because it’s the first Broadway play that will be live-streamed during the last two weeks of its limited run — an example of the hybrid theater that’s an outgrowth of the pandemic.

Lynn Nottage’s play was the last of the six by African-American playwrights to open on Broadway within three months, from August 27th to November 23rd.  In chronological order, these were: “Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu, the first new play to open in 2021, “Chicken & Biscuits” by Douglas Lyons, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” by  Keenan Scott II, “Lackawanna Blues” by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress. All except Nottage were making their Broadway playwriting debuts, including Alice Childress, who’s been dead for 27 years. 

What marks these works as unusual for Broadway is not just that they’re by Black playwrights, but that they are all straight plays rather than musicals (although most included singing here and there.)  So many of the new Broadway shows have been straight plays this season that I’m hoping it will at least force the Tony Award ceremony next year to figure out how to present such productions on a par with the musicals.

“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord”  and …

In her solo show, Kristina Wong, who calls herself a “non essential performance artist,” tells the story of how she addressed the shortage of face masks for vulnerable populations from the outset of the pandemic by organizing in effect a sewing circle of Aunties (a term of respect and affection for older women in many Asian cultures), who put handmade masks together from odd scraps and donated fabrics – an effort that grew to include 600 Aunties in 33 states, as well as two “child labor camps” (“eat your heart out Nike!”)  “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” accomplishes two things above all: It manages to tell the story not just of this effort, but of the major events that occurred in the United States during the first 500 (!) days of the pandemic – the spread of the virus, the deaths of George Floyd and of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, anti-vaxxer protests, anti-Asian violence, the election, the insurrection.

Wong also manages to be moving,  inspiring, pointed (describing the ways the government failed to take action), but, above all,  hilarious. Although the play ended its in-person run this month, a recording of it will be presented online in December – another indication that hybrid theater may be here to stay. It’ll be a bit different, though: She’ll not be asking audience members for their bras so she can sew them into masks, nor enlisting selected theatergoers to portray anti-vaxxers and read aloud from cards the reasons why they won’t get vaccinated. (“My cousin’s friend’s neighbor’s best friend got the vaccine and now semen is coming out of his mouth.”).

Wong stepped up to the moment, as both an organizer and an artist. Other playwrights also attempted to create art not just during the pandemic, but about it.

“The Catastrophist,”  which streamed online, was a portrait of a widely respected virologist – a man whose job it is to study viruses and prevent pandemics – written by the most produced playwright in America, Lauren Gunderson, who is not incidentally married to that scientist, Nathan Wolfe.

The sixth and final volume of “The Homebound Project,” a virtual anthology series of short plays, also included (as did many of the virtual anthologies the previous year) attempts to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. The most memorable, perhaps because it’s the funniest, was “The Narrows” by David Lindsay-Abaire, who comes closest in my mind to the pandemic’s playwright-in-residence, having written many plays for these anthologies. In this seven-minute play, Gale (Becky Ann Baker)  tells her husband Perry (Dylan Baker) she needs a breather from their 29 year marriage. 

Perry: Did you meet someone?
Gale: Did I meet someone? Where would I meet someone? We haven’t left the house for months except to get to the supermarket?
Perry: What about the computer? You could’ve met them online
Gale: With our wi-fi? I can barely open my email, how could I have an affair?

The pandemic was also the subject of several of the “micro-plays” in “Here Is Future,” this year’s iteration of Christine Jones’ continually innovative Theatre For One — plays with one actor and one audience member at a time that take place in a small booth-like theater usually placed in an outdoor plaza. In Regina Taylor’s “The Transformed Return,” Lizan Mitchell portrayed a woman returning to her apartment after a year and six months, marveling at the science experiment her refrigerator had become.  In kord arrington tuttle’s “The Love Vibration,” Denise Manning asked me off the bat: “Have you ever lost your mind?” then told me that the pandemic had made her lose hers. Presented in August, just as some theatergoers were beginning to return to in-person productions, the character said to me, as if amazed: “We’re both really here, together, at the same time, which is nothing short of magical.”

“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1972,” and…

The  revised production of this 29-year-old documentary drama  bolstered my conviction that Anna Deavere Smith is one of America’s greatest living theater artists, and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” one of her signature achievements. Smith interviewed more than 300 people in the aftermath of the 1992 acquittal of the police officers caught on videotape beating a Black man named Rodney King,. Five actors now portray the 40 real-life “characters” whom Smith selected for the play, all of whom she herself portrayed in earlier productions, It’s startling how similar the Rodney King tale is to that of George Floyd, and how persistent the problem of police brutality against African Americans. Although the full play was presented in-person in November, the theater was smart enough to present a virtual preview this past summer that was just  35 minutes long but got to many of the central issues with just six of the characters.

Other plays that explored the impact of racism:  “Pass Over,” which was inspired by the general plot of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” to present the interaction between two Black men and two white characters, one a brutal, the other seemingly liberal and benign; ,“Trouble in Mind,” which presented the tensions between a white director and the Black actress during rehearsals for a (fictitious) Broadway play about lynching; “Cullud Wattah” by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, that looked at the impact of the Flint water scandal on a family of five Black women;  and “In The Southern Breeze” by Mansa Ra, which present Black male characters from five different eras of American history (including the present)  who live in fear of attack.

“Caroline, or Change”

My enthusiasm for this first Broadway revival of “Caroline, or Change,” Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s inventive, thoughtful and affecting musical, comes not just from those aspects of the show that satisfy audience expectations about big Broadway musicals — such as the  breathtaking performance by Sharon D Clarke portraying a resentful Black maid in a Jewish household in 1960s Louisiana.  What makes this work so powerful, and especially timely, is how this splendid cast tells a small story about change – literal pocket change – while offering a larger glimpse into the complex undercurrents in a tense moment of change in American history.

Intar’s MicroTeatro Festival, “Seven Deadly Sins,” and…

For its inaugural MicroTeatro Festival, Intar presented an evening of six plays, none longer than 15 minutes, inside and outside actual storefronts  in the neighborhood formerly called Hell’s Kitchen – a meat market, a paint shop, a gymnasium, a former lumber supply store —  for audiences no larger than four at a time.

In “Seven Deadly Sins,” Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company presented an evening of eight plays, each connected to a specific sin (preface by an introductory play “Purgatory”), each two-character play repeating at regular intervals in front of roving groups of theatergoers behind various store windows and makeshift stages on the streets of the Meat Market District. 

Both anthologies were written by a series of established playwrights, and both were offered way back in June, a wonderful way to celebrate the incipient reopening of in-person theater. They felt like  promising examples of the “reimagined theater” that people have been hoping will emerge post-pandemic. 

There were other fun site-specific shows outdoors during the summer, including a revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Alcestiad across from the old Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, “Seize the King,” a reinterpretation of Richard III by Classical Theater of Harlem in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, “Endure” a play in which we had to chase after a marathon runner in Central Park, and several theatrical events on the newly-opened Little Island.

“Ratatouille The TikTok Musical” and……

 “Ratatouille The Tik Tok Musical,” which was created in the middle of the pandemic by countless Tik-Tokers riffing on the  2007 Disney Pixar animated film, and wound up a more or less traditional musical translated into the visual language of the Internet, was  deeply satisfying for a whole host of reasons, not least because of the exuberance with which it was created, and the enthusiasm with which it was received. 

I gave this show, which was presented in January, one of my American Connected Theater Awards for Pandemic Year One.  The question now is whether it turns out to be a harbinger of a new way of creating theater, or simply a memorable example of a distinct moment in theater history. There are signs that such work may continue. Examples I’ve seen in Pandemic Year Two (starting in March 2021) that deserve recognition for storytelling that is both substantive and innovative in the ways they use the Internet as a theatrical medium include “The Woman’s Party,” multiple episodes about a historic moment in the feminist movement from Clubbed Thumb, and “All The Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died,” one of the many adventurous works from Theatre in Quarantine created and presented live in Joshua William Gelb’s East Village apartment closet. 

NY Pops Up: Paul Rudnick’s “Playbills,” Savion Glover, Amber Iman, and…

Broadway reopened in April for 36 minutes, at the St. James Theater, with a double bill of Savion Glover and the original, very funny play “Playbills!” by Paul Rudnick, performed by Nathan Lane, who portrayed a theatergoer in lockdown imagining that Broadway stars like Hugh Jackman visit him to perform for him personally in his studio apartment. 

A week later, Amber Iman performed on the same Broadway stage.

These were wonderful experiences – if you were connected (and vaccinated) enough to be invited, or lucky enough to catch it livestreaming on Instagram.

They were the highest profile productions in the  well-meaning project called NY Pops Up (or more often #NYPopsUp), announced at the beginning of the year by the (now disgraced former) governor  of New York, who installed a (now-disgraced) Broadway producer as one of the two in charge. Dozens of stars were enlisted to participate in at least a thousand free, in-person performances promised from February to June throughout New York State. The catch: They wouldn’t tell you where or when any of them were happening.

The tenth choice is….

My choice is between “Enemy of the People,” and “Six the Musical,”

They are, in almost every way, very different shows. The first is a quirky adaptation of Ibsen’s drama about a man who warns the town that their water is contaminated — with the result that they hound him, worried that the resort town’s economy will be ruined. It was a solo show, with Ann Dowd portraying all the characters. Five times during the performance, each table (a “pod” made up of people who got the tickets together) was asked to vote on where the play should go from there — resolving a series of ethical dilemmas. The following scene would be different depending on the vote.

The second is in effect a rock concert about King Henry VIII’s six wives, two of whom he divorced, two of whom he beheaded.

What they had in common is that they both thrilled me. The first because, coming in July, it offered an excuse and an opportunity for people who might not have seen each other for more than a year to get together in person and actually talk with one another. The second because it was a high-energy spectacle, loud, busy and (initially) electrifying — in other words, it screamed “You’re back on Broadway, baby!”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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