Looking back as my year of theatregoing ends, I wanted to give a shout out to those performers in 2009 whose debut work made me sit up and take notice. Some are unknowns taking their first steps, others are established stars coming into NY theatre for the first time. There is no rhythm or rhyme to the list, just stream of consciousness. Here goes:
Seth Rettberg, Avenue Q: Performing the roles of Princeton and Rod on the national tour, and assuming understudy duties during the final months of the Broadway engagement of this little show that could, Rettberg assumes the mantle of leading man of this motley crew of subversive puppets. Mr. Rettberg gave a high energy performance, complete with offbeat charm and winsome presence, not to mention his pleasant pop tenor voice and stellar comic timing.
Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts: This is the Broadway debut this year that will one day give you bragging rights. Mr. Hill, a Steppenwolf Ensemble member, takes this new Tracy Letts play, puts it in his pocket and walks away with it. As Franco, the young, idealistic African American who reinvigorates star Michael McKean, Hill displayed skill and professionalism far more advanced than many of his peers. He has made a name for himself in Chicago, but his NY debut is only the first of what looks to be many great career successes.
Susan Louise O’Connor, Blithe Spirit: Most people don’t walk away from this classic Noel Coward play talking about Edith, the maid. But in this charming, but unevenly cast revival, Ms. O’Connor made many in the audience do just that. As the nervously eager maid in the Condomine household, the young starlet made an indelible comic impression with what little stage time she had, particularly a showstopping sequence in which she cleared a breakfast table. It cannot be easy to be in a play with such star quality, but where Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole failed in their comic characterizations, Ms. O’Connor picked up their slack and then some.
Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King: He’s a world famous actor and an Oscar winner but that doesn’t stop the excellent Australian actor from making my list. Ionesco isn’t really my cup of tea. That said, I don’t know if I’ve ever been haunted by the memory of a performance more than I have been by Mr. Rush’s auspicious NY theatre debut. I’ll long remember Mr. Rush’s physicality as his King Berenger, fighting to keep his own life up until the very end of the play. I vividly see the actor, decked out in garish makeup and wearing pajamas and a crown, dancing around the stage, leading a march, etc. He was surrounded by choice costars including Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose and the perennial favorite Andrea Martin. While all performed well, the evening belonged to Rush, who ended up taking home every award possible for his comic and tragic work. Those final moments, as Berenger slowly gives in to his mortality, will stay forever etched in my mind.
Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root, The Norman Conquests: I couldn’t just pick one here, it wouldn’t be fair given that ensemble nature is what made this production so successful. In what is one of the great productions of the decade, this revival of Alan Ayckbourn marked the American debut of this brilliant ensemble, all of whom transferred from the sold out run at the Old Vic late last year. While these six actors are well known for their theatre, TV and film work in London, they are not so well known here. However, the six actors, with director Matthew Warchus created one of the most vibrant and astounding experiences I’ve ever had inside any theatre in my life.
Quentin Earl Darrington, Ragtime. It’s not easy filling the shoes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, especially given the indelible mark the actor left on the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the original Broadway production. Mr. Darrington comes to Broadway in the part, after having played it in Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s acclaimed Kennedy Center production and is one of the many strengths in this actor-driven revival of a contemporary classic. Large in stature and voice, Darrington provides a gentle presence in the first act, and his fall into terrorism is all the more devastating as a result.
Alexander Hanson, A Little Night Music. The lone holdover from the original London production of this Trevor Nunn revival, Mr. Hanson strikes all the right notes as Fredrik Egerman. Expecting to be overwhelmed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, I was surprised at her mere adequacy especially when stacked against his superb, nuanced performance. Often the unsung lead of the show (let’s face it, most people talk about the ladies in this musical), Mr. Hanson strikes the right balance as the aging lawyer in search of his remote youth.
Honorable mentions: Noah Robbins, Brighton Beach Memoirs; Jude Law, Hamlet; Donna Migliaccio, Ragtime; Julia Stiles, Oleanna.