With great joy and a distinct sense of privilege, I am able to share my overview of the New York theater scene during 2011. May I respectfully submit that this list of 10 best, including some less than the best, and even a few of the worst plays and musicals that I have seen on and off Broadway (around 150) during 2011 reflects my definitely partial but always uncompromised personal opinion, all based, of course, on arbitrary artistic values and a plethora of subliminal biases.
Certainly the sheer number of shows that I have both enjoyed and been subjected to have collectively shaped and sharpened my perspective. They have all, whether they are closed now or still running, exposed and defined the gap between excellence and mediocrity and sometimes even more definitively between the invaluable and the intolerable.
For the first time in years, two new musicals created a buzz and made headlines that extended way beyond the pages of the arts sections. “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark” and “The Book of Mormon” dominated all print publications and electronic media this year. The sheer amount of excitement and interest generated by these two controversial (for very different reasons), high-profile musicals gave Broadway a boost that could be measured both in terms of money and patronage.
Just as the web-spinning high-flying comic book hero Spider-Man managed to finally land safely at the Foxwoods Theater on June 11 after more than six months of injurious, calamity-ridden previews (setting a record for number of previews) that also included major script re-writes, directorial changes, and the pre-opening firing of the musical’s major creator/collaborator Julie Taymor, an intrepid pair of Mormon missionaries in “Book of Mormon” arrived intact without injury, and unscathed by the surprisingly negligible protestations of the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Though three of the top 10 shows of the year were produced Off Broadway, there were more Off Broadway shows that merited being on the “nearly the best” list. The Tony and other major awards organizations have already recognized the artistic value of some of the shows that made the lists below. They qualified for awards by opening before the June cut-off. The Broadway season officially begins in June and ends in May. Other shows have since opened and brought to a close a year that will be noted for significant rise in attendance as well as a more steep increase in ticket prices despite general economic woes (an ongoing saga of our times).
That “The Book of Mormon” makes it on the list of 10 Best does not mean that the entertaining, visually awesome “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark” is without merit, only that there were 10 shows listed alphabetically below that were, in my opinion, better. The sad part is that most shows, unlike films and with few exceptions, don’t have a very long shelf life except those that are taped for the archives at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. (You can make an appointment and request to see a show that you missed.)
My list in alphabetical order comprises shows that opened on Broadway and Off Broadway during 2011. Those still running have an asterisk preceding the title.
1. “The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Robin Williams was terrific as a philosophical tiger whose spirit roams the streets of Baghdad after he is shot in a zoo by a marine during the American invasion of Iraq. This haunting, satirical play by Rajiv Joseph had plenty to say about the random cruelty of war, but did it in a way that made us think about the victims on both sides of life and death, and amazingly with bursts of humor.
2. “The Blue Flower.” The Second Stage produced this beautifully incremented multi-media confluence of truth and fantasy, art and history. As conceived and composed by married-to-each other collaborators Jim Bauer (music and lyrics) and Ruth Bauer (book), it was staged as a living collage of human intimacy and abstracted expressionism to romanticize the re-imagined lives of German expressionists Max Beckman and Franz Marc, the German Dada artist Hannah Hoch, and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist/chemist Marie Curie.
3. * “The Book of Mormon.” You will either laugh until it hurts or be stunned into silent submission by the sheer unbridled audacity of this high-spirited musical by collaborators composer Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of TV’s “South Park”). The plot, which concerns two young missionaries who are sent to convert the people of a Uganda village whose lives are imperiled by marauders, is as wittily irreverent as is the score. You can find it, even if you can’t find tickets, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater.
4. “Good People.” If it wasn’t for non-profits like the Manhattan Theater Club, there would be a serious shortage of good new plays on Broadway, probably like this one by David Lindsay-Abaire (winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Hole”). About childhood friends from South Boston who meet in adulthood, one now a successful doctor (Tate Donovan), the other (Tony Award-winner Frances McDormand) living a hardscrabble life, the play focused on their renewed relationship and how being good isn’t always reflected in the way our lives turn out.
5. “The Lyons.” Apparently after reading the script of Nicky Silver’s new play, Linda Lavin quickly made the decision not to return with other original cast members in the Broadway move of “Other Desert Cities.” She made the right choice and received accolades as the viper-tongued mother in this blistering dark comedy about a family trying to connect after the death of the father. Mark Brokaw directed Silver’s best play in years.
6. “The Motherf—ker with the Hat.” A gutsy gift from the LAByrinth Theater Company’s co-artistic director and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, this brilliantly written (and directed by Anna D. Shapiro), beautifully acted (Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Annabella Sciorra, Yul Vazquez) drama was about people on the lower rung of society who, although messed up by sex, drugs, and alcohol, were seeking redemption. It should have won the Tony for Best Play (“War Horse” took the prize).
7. “The Normal Heart.” Larry Kramer’s heart-wrenching, anger-propelled play about the pleas by the activists to get the New York City bureaucrats to address and respond to the AIDS crisis in America between 1981 and 1984 was originally produced and presented at the Public Theater in 1985, and revived and lauded there again in 2004. But this 2011 Broadway production with a dynamic cast (that included film star Ellen Barkin in her award-winning Broadway debut) under the direction of Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe seemed more passionately ferocious in its resolve, especially in the light of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage debates.
8. * “Other Desert Cities.” Stockard Channing, Judith Light, Thomas Sadoski, Stacy Keach, and Rachel Griffiths (best known for TV series “Six Feet Under” and now making her Broadway debut) are collectively terrific in Jon Robin Baitz’s tantalizing play about a wealthy California family that is are forced to come to terms with a rebellious daughter, the author of a revealing, soon-to-be-published tell-all book. This play, which is a safe bet to win the Best Play Tony Award this spring, was originally presented in a limited engagement a year ago Off Broadway by the Lincoln Center Theater. It is now having an open-ended commercial run under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater. Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street.
9. “Sons of the Prophet.” There is no comedy like a dark one, and we can thank the Roundabout Theater Company for producing Stephen Karam’s acclaimed play about a Lebanese family coping with medical mysteries, gay siblings, and nutty employers. It will surely end up a prize winner when it comes time for those awards organizations like the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle to honor the best of Off Broadway.
10. * “War Horse.” Nick Stafford’s wonderful adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, about a young man who won’t be deterred from finding the adored horse he raised and conscripted into the cavalry during World War I. You can’t help but be carried away by the story’s unabashed sentimentality as well as by the incredible puppetry and scenic design. Lincoln Center Theater is presenting this play with music, the winner of the Best Play Tony Award that was originally staged in the U.K. at the National Theater.
Close to the Best
1. “The Cherry Orchard.” A new dimension was given to the Chekhov play directed by Andrei Belgrader with an all-star cast including John Turturro and Diane Wiest, as produced by the Classic Stage Company.
2. “The Whipping Man.” This original and gripping play by Matthew Lopez was about a former black slave who returns to the deserted Richmond home of his wealthy Jewish masters where the family’s wounded son has also returned.
3. * “Venus in Fur.” This is the scarily funny play about sex and domination by David Ives that catapulted Nina Arianda to stardom Off Broadway. The Manhattan Theater Club returned it to Broadway earlier this season for a limited run. It will resume a commercial run on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater beginning in February.
4. “Private Lives.” A delightful revival of the Noel Coward comedy starring Kim Cattrall (of “Sex and the City” fame) and Paul Gross. Music Box Theater.
5. * “Sister Act.” This musical version of the 1992 film is great fun and a revelation being much better than the film. Broadway Theater.
6. “Bonnie & Clyde.” Despite those many critics who always seem to be out gunning for composer Frank Wildhorn, this was an exciting and ambitious musical version of the lauded 1967 film about the Depression Era’s most notorious lovers/criminals.
7. * “Stick Fly.” This enjoyable, well-written soap-opera-ish comedy-drama by Lydia R. Diamond is about a wealthy African-American family gathering at their home on Martha’s Vineyard. Cort Theater.
The Unforgivably Bad
1. * “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” The talented Harry Connick, Jr. must have been put in a trance by the director and stays in one throughout this boring, ill-conceived revival of Lerner and Lane’s 1965 musical. St. James Theater.
2. * “Lysistrata Jones.” A lot of very talented young performers sing, dance, and dribble basketballs exuberantly through this vulgar, idiotic modernized version of the ancient Greek anti-war satire. Walter Kerr Theater.
3. * “Relatively Speaking.” A relatively embarrassing evening of three barely tolerable one-act comedies contributed by Woody Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen. Brooks Atkinson Theater.