My annual list of my favorite New York stage shows, which I’d posted for a decade, morphed in the last two years into an appreciation of the innovative and impassioned attempts to redefine theater in the face of disaster. The year 2022 has been challenging in its own way, not least because of its promised — but elusive — return to normal. The theater’s recovery is a work in progress.
So again, I keep the title for this list, but the emphasis is on the “grateful” rather than the “top” (or the “10”) in part because of the busier than usual schedule of openings in the remainder of the year. What was once my attempt at well-considered evaluation, albeit always admittedly subjective, has become something more emotional.
A play by Tom Stoppard inspired by the death of his own extended family in the Holocaust, “Leopoldstadt” follows several generations of a Jewish family in Vienna over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. It is bustling with characters, bristling with debate, packed full of facts, a straightforward if sprawling epic about a dark history that also winds up both intimate and ultimately moving. It’s hard not to see it as the 85-year-old playwright’s attempt at a personal reckoning.
….and other theater about Jewish life and antisemitism
“Leopoldstadt” is one of the plays and musicals this year that chronicled Jewish life and antisemitism, two subjects that are unfortunately difficult to disentangle, which makes these half dozen shows all the more necessary and appreciated during a time of a visible rise in antisemitism: Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski; Harmony; Witness; Prayer for the French Republic and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
A Strange Loop
The dizzying musical by Michael R. Jackson, a big, gay Black guy, is about a big, gay Black guy who is struggling to write a musical about a big, gay black guy who is struggling… The musical won the Pulitzer and the Tony, but apparently did not win over the average Broadway theatergoer; it’s scheduled to close after only nine months, on January 15, 2023. But I’m grateful for this unusual original musical, about the interior world of a character in a demographic rarely treated with such depth and respect on a New York stage; and for its transfer to Broadway, where it added another strange loop: it became a Broadway musical while skewering Broadway musicals.
…and other works by Black theater artists
The New York theater community is so far trying to live up to its post-reckoning commitment to make the theatrical landscape more equitable, and I was especially grateful for “Exception to the Rule” by Dave Harris; the first-rate Broadway revival directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson; and Robert O’Hara’s reimagined production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun
Shaina Taub’s inspiring, instructive and entertaining sung-through musical was about the extraordinary women, portrayed by first-rate actresses, who led the final seven-year push to win American women the right to vote, culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. I saw this show late, after the leak of the draft of the ruling overturning Roe, when it felt more urgent and relevant. Even Mimi Lien’s set design hit harder: The steps and Corinthian columns look like the exterior of the Supreme Court, except it was (appropriately?) painted black. Shout-out to another work this season by Shaina Taub, the return of her musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It
A Case for the Existence of God
There seemed at first a large gap between the cosmic title of this play and the mundane situation it dramatizes: A factory worker was meeting a mortgage broker for a loan. The two actors rarely left their chairs.
But this play written by Samuel D. Hunter, in his first production directed by David Cromer, was as sublime as Hunter and Cromer’s separate works have been over the past decade. The Bard of Idaho made me feel a connection once again to the people of Idaho, a state I’ve never visited, and a greater understanding of American loss, a state we all seem to be in.
Oratorio for Living Things
Heather Christian’s sung-through concert, impressively staged in a the completely reconfigured theater at Greenwich House, felt like a combination of a music-heavy religious service (occasionally in Latin!) and a syncopated lecture on cosmology and the science of time. It was not always accessible intellectually, but it was consistently sublime; a line in Christian’s piece might help explain why: “out of mystery evolves curiosity, and out of confoundment evolves wonder. “
The Suppliants Project Ukraine
Theater of War Productions’ first hybrid production – both online, and in the middle of the football stadium of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana – was the latest in the company’s 13-year effort to present classic plays, principally those by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, to stimulate discussion about current issues.
…and other works of hybrid or digital theater
I am grateful for all theaters that are continuing their digital innovations even after the return of in-person theater, such as the simulcast of Clyde’s on Broadway, and Addressless, theater as online game to find an apartment in New York City — an entertainment that cleverly embedded its aim of enlightening us about the many vexing issues and practical problems surrounding homelessness.
Out of Time
“Out of Time,” an in-person anthology of five long monologues by older Asian-American actors, shared some concerns with the online ones that sprouted during the pandemic lockdown: isolation, trauma, loneliness, loss. If the writing was uneven, the performances were all persuasive, and the aims of the evening admirable –to showcase older actors, and tell the stories of Asian-Americans.
…and other Asian-American theater
I welcomed the return of “The Chinese Lady” (a previous top 10 pick), and impressed by Daniel K. Isaac’s debut play “Once Upon A (Korean) Time”
This was supposed to be Taylor Mac’s take on Plato’s Apology, but what made me grateful was how terrifically entertaining it was — a jazz opera, a pageant of dazzling drag couture, an exercise in excess, a celebration of queerness, but above all a downtown party welcoming us all back to live in-person theater
and other other elaborately designed shows
especially The Skin of Our Teeth
Intimate Apparel The Opera
I’m grateful that I could be so moved by a contemporary opera, fashioned from Lynn Nottage’s already lovely play about a lonely seamstress.
Into The Woods
I saw this much-praised concert version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical of fractured fairy tales after having spent a month in bed with COVID-19, and several things annoyed me on my return to in-person theater: the dropping of the mask mandate, the exorbitant top ticket prices, the apparent lack of commitment to true accessibility.
But then – like a fairy tale? – I was transformed, becoming part of an audience deeply grateful for Sondheim’s work living beyond him, and for being able to affirm by our presence the pleasure and power of gathering in person.
…and new Broadway musicals that aim to entertain and often succeed.
eg (so far): Kimberly Akimbo and & Juliet