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This column by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 5,

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Theater Scene in Review

The New York theater community was, if nothing else, united by strong feelings and an impassioned resolve in 2004. This did not prevent the theater, famously known as the fabulous invalid, from having a major setback for a time. It was August. It was very hot, but not so hot to discourage the hordes of Republican delegates, friends, and supporters from attending the political party’s week-long convention at Madison Square Garden. As we know, and as Mayor Bloomberg presumably knows, Republicans don’t go to the theater. They do, however, go to the opera, ballet, and concerts for reasons that you can find in the society pages.

But with the cry, "The Republicans are coming, the Republicans are coming," tens of thousands of New Yorkers, brave citizenry all who had not previously flinched at the numerous orange or red alerts that were simultaneously sending thousands of Texans into a state of near panic, packed up and fled the city. Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays, who was starring in Douglas Wright’s acclaimed "I Am My Own Wife," about a German transvestite, shrewdly decided to go on vacation that week.

Understandably, there was also a dearth of Broadway theater-loving tourists, who may have been concerned by news of the massive anti-Bush/anti-war march and the numerous protest rallies being organized around the city. Box office receipts plummeted so severely that half a dozen shows shuttered prematurely and the rest were lucky to fill 20 percent of their seats. Even the few smash hits had empty seats. But the real problem Broadway had to deal with in the face of the Republican insurgency was that there was barely a show on the boards that didn’t contain something to offend them. Except for the revival of "Wonderful Town," almost every play and musical running on and Off-Broadway was a little left of center and something for the right to disdain or outright abhor.

Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that theater producers, writers, and artists used the stage this past year, more than any other year in memory, to counter the government’s deplorable political tract and its support of a terrifyingly anti-inclusive social trend. People of the theater vigorously voiced their concern – if not downright disapproval – of the direction this country is headed. The year 2004 was notable for its number of solo star-driven vehicles on the Rialto, providing Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Mario Cantone, and Dame Edna golden opportunities to cast well aimed stones at the president and his policy administrators and advisors – all within the framework of entertainment.

With a couple of exceptions, fewer plays with higher prices and smaller casts were also continuing a trend on Broadway. For the most part, the Off-Broadway shows offered a richer and more adventurous theatrical experience, although ticket prices, with few exceptions, were also on the uptown express.

The biggest surprise on Broadway last June was the winner of the Tony for Best Musical. The witty, funny, and intimate people and puppet populated "Avenue Q" won over the grander and louder musical "Wicked." But neither the lyrics in "Only For Now," from "Avenue Q," or "Wicked’s" plot about a repressive government were designed to gladden the hearts of those in support of a regressive administration. Wouldn’t you know that the splendid and splashy revival of the one musical that is a peon to family values – "La Cage aux Folles" – extols the virtues of same sex parents?

You just couldn’t escape politics and politicized entertainments this year.

Award winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") saw his revised – and still extraordinary play – "Homebody/Kabul" revived at the BAM Harvey Theater. A gripping revival of Wallace Shawn’s "Aunt Dan and Lemon" reiterated its searing message that a government has to be brutal so that its people can continue to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Also a standout among the politically-themed plays were Larry Kramer’s heartbreaking "The Normal Heart," about, among other things, the reluctance of President Reagan to respond responsibly and compassionately to the outbreak of AIDS; Tim Robbin’s controversial "Embedded," which lampooned Bush, his cronies, and their self-serving agendas; "Guantanamo," a profoundly stirring docudrama that brings to light the plight of the detainees being held without legal representation in the infamous American concentration camp in Cuba; "Bug," a hallucinatory dramedy about a paranoid escapee from a military hospital; the insightful and emotionally charged "Nine Parts of Desire," in which Iraqi-American actress Heather Raffo portrays various Iraqi women coping with the American invasion; and Sam Shepard’s frightening allegory, "The God of Hell," about the advent of overt government supported brain-washing in the USA. Shepard also returned to the stage for the first time in 30 years in Caryl Churchill’s startling "A Number," about the effects of cloning, another hot topic to incite the right.

Two of our best playwrights had multiple plays produced. Two plays by A.R. Gurney – "Big Bill," about the famed but sexually troubled tennis legend Bill Tilden (1893 – 1953) – and the audacious "Mrs. Farnsworth," about a woman who has written a provocative short story about one of young Bush’s indiscretions and its subsequent cover-up, provided excellent theater.

But it was John Patrick Shanley who created the most buzz with three plays – a revival of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," and the two new plays "The Sailor’s Song," a romanticized fantasy, and "Doubt" (see my 10 best list below).

Although the fall of this year welcomed a pair of musicals – "Dracula" and "Brooklyn" – so unspeakably awful that they defy defense, "La Cage" arrived a few weeks ago to keep our faith-based belief in the American musical alive. Picking out the 10 best from a list of more than 50 worthy productions, both off and on Broadway, new and revivals, plays, and musicals was not easy. I am sorry that so many of them have already closed, but these are the best in my opinion – not necessarily the most popular or in any particular order.

Doubt is a stunning play by John Patrick Shanley in which a sister in a Catholic boys school confronts a priest whom she believes is sexually abusing one of the boys.

The Day Emily Got Married by Horton Foote, who has chronicled the lives of the citizens of Harrison, Texas in past plays. He hits the peak with this tender compassionate play about a lonely previously-wed woman’s desperate need to leave her mother’s home. (Closed.)

Valhalla by Paul Rudnick. This wild and wacky laugh-out-loud farce gave new meaning to the madness of Ludwig, the King of Bavaria. (Closed.)

Beautiful Child by Nicky Silver. A daring play about the most difficult aspect to understand in the guise of love and the lengths and limits to which parents will go to protect their pedophile son. (Closed.)

Rose Rage. A gift from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, their brilliantly acted condensed and fast-moving five-hour version of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses chronicles was set in a Victorian meat market. (Closed.)

Gem of the Ocean. August Wilson’s ninth play in his 10-cycle chronicle of the black experience in America is a gem and empowered by Phylicia Rashad, who, as old Aunt Esther, helps to cleanse and mend the souls of former slaves.

A Number by Caryl Churchill confronts the nature vs. nurturing of cloning as it concerns a father and his son(s).

Fat Pig by Neil LaBute. A frank and honest play about the difficulties of a romantic relationship between a rising young executive and his very fat girl friend.

Sailor’s Song. John Patrick Shanley’s poignant romantic seaside fantasy with dancing suggested Gene Kelly meets Eugene O’Neill. (closed)

Well, a wise and witty multi-character play by Lisa Kron (known for her monodramas), dealt with the complicated path to getting well in the face of family conflicts that lead to health issues. (Closed.)

It’s no fun unless we can also ferret out the 10 worst of the year:

Dracula, The Musical.

Brooklyn, The Musical.

(does anyone spot a trend?)

Jumpers.

Twentieth Century.

Bombay Dreams.

Ears on a Beatle.

Blackbird.

Where Do We Live.

Dames at Sea.

People Be Heard.

If you don’t recognize some of these, consider yourself lucky.

-Simon Saltzman

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