A great deal of pleasure is derived from going back over the past year and selecting the 10 most outstanding shows from the pack even as I also have to recall those abysmal theater experiences that I believe may have brought me one step closer to martyrdom. The difficulty in making definitive lists is that the criteria on which a critic might judge get a bit cloudy and is certainly subjective. Herewith, I present the 10 most outstanding plays and musicals of 2010 (as well as three outstanding runner-ups plus five of the worst).
How could I leave out “Driving Miss Daisy” (still running) when it affords us the opportunity (repeat, it’s still running) to see the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones reignite the delights of Alfred Uhry’s 1989 play about the developing relationship over decades between a Southern Jewish matron and her black chauffeur. Could I have endured the arguably offensive “The Merchant of Venice” were it not for the empowering performances of Al Pacino as Shylock and Lily Rabe as Portia? Certainly the dynamic performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis made the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” a must-see. A treat was in store for those lucky enough to see the impressive Broadway debut of film star Brendan Fraser and his terrific co-star Denis O’Hare as two emotionally challenged roommates in the charming and underappreciated “Elling.”
This was also the year when endurance played a part for audiences deciding on what shows to see. Some of this year’s most talked about shows were very, very long. The trend for marathon-length plays began last season with “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” which took nine hours from start to finish, unless you opted for three separate evenings. This year, you couldn’t give the bum’s rush (pardon the pun) to the two-part six-hour revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” or the three-part nine-hour “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” Of all the long sit-spiels (new word), it was the two-part eight-hour “Gatz” that became the hottest ticket in town.
It was not altogether surprising that political satire fared better Off Broadway. Despite enthusiastic notices and good box office activity, both “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” failed to draw audiences when they were transferred to the main stem. How sad that these were the only two musicals to open during the calendar year that I considered outstanding. The only new play of exceptional merit to open on Broadway was Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still.” Audiences who enjoy good drama have come to realize that those productions of merit are more readily found Off Broadway.
Following are the 10 Most Outstanding Plays of the Year 2010 (in no particular order). An asterisk after the blurb indicates that the play is still running.
“Time Stands Still.” Donald Margulies’ absorbing and topical play concerns the unsettling romantic relationship between a wounded photojournalist (Laura Linney, who has been nominated for a Tony for Best Leading Actress) and her long-time lover, a war-correspondent (Brian d’Arcy James).*
“Through the Night.” Daniel Beaty not only wrote but portrayed many characters in this terrific one-man play in which we saw how the faith and perseverance of a bright 10-year-old boy helps change the attitudes and the psyche of the African-American males in his world. (This tour-de-force, under the direction of Charles Randolph Wright, premiered at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick before it went on to a successful run in New York.)
“The Scottsboro Boys.” Composers John Kander and Fred Ebb (their last collaboration before Ebb’s death) and director/choreographer Susan Stroman used the provocative frame of a minstrel show to tell the true story of a group of innocent African-American boys accused of rape during the 1930s. The daring mix of minstrelsy and reality may have proved too disconcerting for Broadway audiences. A masterpiece nonetheless.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” An audacious mix of history and rock-star glitz told the story of the President (electrifyingly portrayed by Benjamin Walker) responsible for the wholesale slaughter of the American-Indians. It might still be running had it stayed Off Broadway, where such irreverent satire is appreciated.
“The Kid.” This rambunctious, funny, and touching musical (a jovial score by Andy Monroe (music), Jack Lechnerto (lyrics), and Michael Zam (book), was based on the real life obstacles experienced by sex columnist Dan Savage and his lover to legally adopt their 12-year-old son. It deserves a return, but perhaps not on Broadway.
“Freud’s Last Session.” Mark St. Germain’s play about an imagined yet entirely possible meeting between the controversial and legendary psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud and the rising literary voice and religious philosopher/professor C.S. Lewis is a wonderfully entertaining and intelligent consideration of their opposing views on religion and philosophy. The play is at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in the West Side Y but currently on hiatus until January 11.*
“Brief Encounter.” Emma Rice adapted and directed (based on a one-act play by Noel Coward) this delightful, funny, and imaginatively staged musical (with songs by Coward) about a romance between a doctor and a married woman who meet in a train depot. It premiered at UK’s Kneehigh Theater and also played St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn before it was transferred by the Roundabout Theater Company to Broadway.
“The Divine Sister.” Playwright/drag performer non pareil Charles Busch plays the outrageously resourceful Mother Superior in this hilarious send-up of every movie ever made about nuns. The laughs surpass the number of beads on a rosary as Busch and company camp it up as they outsmart a sinister sister in an old convent.* Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street off 6th Ave. For tickets: www.DivineSisterOnstage.com.
“Gatz.” The Elevator Repair Service cleverly and inventively presented F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” in its entirety. Not a word was left out in this dramatic feast of words and unexpected faithfulness to its source.
“The Collection” (1962) and “A Kind of Alaska” (1982). The Atlantic Theater Company presented two gripping, beautifully acted (kudos to the five actors and Lisa Emery in particular) and flawlessly directed (Karen Kohlhaas) one-act plays by Harold Pinter, each reminding us that every precious pause has a stunning meaning of its own.
“Angels in America.” Tony Kushner’s monumental work in two parts about a Mormon lawyer who comes out of the closet while working for Roy Cohen is beautifully acted and spectacularly presented in this revival presented by the Signature Theater, which is devoting the entire season to Kushner’s work.* Signature at Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street (11th Avenue). 212-244-PLAY.
“Clybourne Park.” There were subtle and sly echoes of “A Raisin in the Sun” in this cleverly funny and socially astute comedy by Bruce Norris in which we see the way gentrification and re-gentrification of a neighborhood affect first a black family and then a white family. (This production was another reason to praise and support Playwrights Horizons.)
“After the Revolution.” In Amy Herzog’s very intelligent and compelling play, a young woman lawyer is conflicted when she discovers that her family, long known for their ultra left political activism, may have something to conceal. This was another gem from Playwrights Horizons.
The Worst of the Year
“Mr. & Mrs. Fitch.” John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle played the title characters — married-to-each-other gossip columnists who do nothing but talk at (not to) each other until the curtain falls in Douglas Carter Bean’s seriously unfunny comedy.
“Looped.” Valerie Harper impersonated Tallulah Bankhead in this travesty by Matthew Lombardo in which the legend arrives, remains, and exits looped.
“The Addams Family.” The only thing there is to say about this ungainly, unappealing musical based on the Charles Addams cartoons is this: thank heavens for Nathan Lane. 212-307-4100.
“Devil Boys from Beyond.” The title tells you quite enough.
“Play Dead.” I can’t believe it, but this gruesome, magic-enhanced entertainment in which people are raised from the dead is still playing dead at the Players Theater, 115 MacDougal Street.* 800-745-3000.