My Favorite Performances, 2011

Matthew Amendt – Hamlet. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with its first-ever presentation of this most famous of plays, with a kinetic, explosive production directed by Terrence O’Brien. Stripped of almost all trappings, this production was among the most compelling I have ever seen, and it was mostly due to Mr. Amendt’s compelling performance as the young Prince of Denmark. Amendt was riveting from start to finish, a towering achievement especially when you consider that he was sharing the stage with some the Festival’s best repertory players. His choices were big and bold, and made Hamlet something he rarely is: sympathetic. I don’t think I have ever heard so rapt an audience at any other Shakespeare performance I’ve attended.

Nina Arianda – Born Yesterday. I have yet to see Ms. Arianda’s breakout performance in Venus in Fur, but will rectify that this February when that show reopens at the Lyceum Theatre, but I am beyond thrilled I got to witness this star-on-the-rise reinvent a classic role (Billie Dawn, made famous by Judy Holliday on stage and to Oscar-winning effect on film). The Kanin classic, which also starred Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard, doesn’t really take off until Billie Dawn makes her entrance. From that point to the end of the play, it was impossible to look at anyone other than Ms. Arianda, a luminous, effervescent vision on or offstage. I ran out of superlatives with which to rave her performance last spring. Nina Arianda is destined for stardom, not unlike Ms. Holliday, and any chance you have to see her live onstage, you need to run, not walk.

Danny Burstein – Follies. I have been a fan of Follies for years, and usually the bulk of attention gets lavished on the leading ladies. However, in this Broadway revival imported from the Kennedy Center, Mr. Burstein makes waves as Buddy Plummer, the sad-sack salesman married to neurotic-bordering-on-psychotic Sally. Behind the smile is immense pain, expressed brilliantly in “The Right Girl” and “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” In short, in a show that features some of the best songs ever heard in a musical, it is Mr. Burstein who rips your heart out. He is a Broadway treasure and this performance is the latest in a line of personal triumphs.

Tyne Daly – Master Class. After seeing Tyne Daly’s most recent cabaret at Feinstein’s and her various characters in Love, Loss and What I Wore, I knew when I heard that Ms. Daly would be cast against type as the great opera diva Maria Callas, it was going to be a must-see performance. I was right; Ms. Daly transformed herself in look and appearance, creating a galvanizing performance that was funny, bold and fearless. As much as I laughed at the humor in Terrence McNally’s play (a highly fictionalized variation on the famed master classes Ms. Callas gave at Juilliard in the ’70s), it was the two aria-like monologues in which Daly as Callas stepped out of the classroom and into her memory. It was rapturous, and the stuff of great theatre. If you missed it here, you can catch Tyne Daly in Master Class in the West End this winter.

Jan Maxwell – Follies. Over the past few months, I have had the immense joy of seeing the Broadway revival of Follies several times including its first preview, opening night among others. Each time, Maxwell’s performance as Phyllis Rogers Stone has grown only more and more fascinating and deeper. From small nuances, like her absolute joy in the Mirror Number, or the way she clutches herself when Young Phyllis says she wants a child in the Loveland transition to the bigger moments like her killer “Could I Leave You?” and a showstopping display of confidence and elan in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” Ms. Maxwell is just staggering.

Jason O’Connell – Around the World in 80 Days. Mr. O’Connell has proven with past performances that he is one of the most versatile actors working at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. This year, he had the opportunity to express the dynamic nature of his range with a riveting portrayal of Claudius in the HVSF Hamlet, but it was his comic tour de force in this delightful farce that really stood out to me as one of the freshest, funniest turns onstage this year. In a variety of roles, Mr. O’Connell was unafraid to go the extra distance for the play and it worked like gang-busters; his fully-committed performance resulted in some of the largest laughs I’ve had all year.

Mark Rylance. Jerusalem. Every once in a while a performance comes along that just wipes me out. The sheer physicality, emotional breadth and staggering fall of Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterfield’s new play was nothing short of extroardinary, and it seems almost impossible to think that another actor could do what Mark Rylance did onstage at the Music Box Theatre. I practically had to be carried out of the theatre when it was done, I was so emotionally spent. In a good way. Rylance is a contemporary genius and continually surprises audiences with his chameleon-like way of going from role to role.

Leigh Williams – The Life and Death of King John. One of the unexpected surprises of my theatergoing this year was this fascinating adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays. But in the hands of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, and director Ross William, King John was presented with a contemporary twist that fused Shakespeare with the technology and political climate of 2011. In a mostly excellent cast, it was Ms. Williams’ towering performance as Constance in the first act that held me rapt. A pillar of strength and nuance, Ms. Williams commanded every scene in which she appeared, with dynamite results. I had never heard of Williams before this production, but I look forward to seeing whatever she does from here on out.

It would be remiss of me to recount my favorite performances of the year and leave out the entire cast of The Normal Heart. When browsing through the list of shows I’ve seen this year, I kept coming back to The Normal Heart, and the individual performances of its ensemble, all stellar. Joe Mantello’s impassed Ned was a performance of a lifetime, John Benjamin Hickey was the heart and soul of that show. Meanwhile Ellen Barkin portrayed the takes-no-guff Dr. Brookner with an unsettling bluntness, and her explosion in act 2 is one of the most genuine expressions of rage I’ve ever witnessed in live theatre. Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik and the rest of the company were all so excellent, it was one of the ensemble events of the year and a haunting experience for anyone fortunate to catch this multi-Tony winning limited engagement this spring.

Honorable mentions to those I saw performing as themselves, including Marilyn Maye at Feinstein’s last June (with a terrific song list, a great banter and delicious high kicks during the Jerry Herman encore), soprano Deborah Voight singing musical theatre standards at Carnegie Hall with the Collegiate Chorale (singing some of the best of musical theatre with great fun, but her personal triumph was “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess), and of course Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway.

“Born Yesterday”


Luminous, effervescent, captivating, staggering, astonishing, breathtaking. These are all words I have used in the past five days to describe Nina Arianda’s star-making performance as Billie Dawn in the smashing new revival of Born Yesterday. The truth is these adjectives don’t even begin to describe the magic currently happening onstage at the Cort Theatre. Ms. Arianda isn’t merely making a Broadway debut, she is effortlessly establishing herself as one of the brightest new faces in American theatre. (For the record, I missed Ms. Arianda’s off-Broadway triumph in Venus in Fur and the sound that you hear is me kicking myself).

She makes her entrance casually, gaudily dressed and entirely unimpressed with the opulent $235 a night hotel suite, her tycoon boyfriend’s braggadocio and the world of Washington politics. She quickly exits, but already an impression has been made. In the meantime other characters are talking, extolling necessary exposition that will come to impact the play’s climax and denouement. But it’s already too late for everyone else onstage. The tall, lithe blonde has merely walked across the stage and yet already captivated an entire audience. By the end of Born Yesterday, Arianda’s Billie has earned not only our love, but our respect and admiration.

Much of the credit is due to author Garson Kanin, who wrote in many interesting layers and memorable lines for the character. (When asked, “What’s Democratic?” Billie replies, “Not Republican.”) When the tycoon realizes she may become a liability in Washington circles, he hires a reporter to smooth out her rough edges. She resists these early attempts, insisting that she enjoys being dumb and that she is happy with what she has. But Billie Dawn is someone who has sacrificed her career, her relationship with her father and her dignity for a man who treats her as a business commodity, often brusquely and brutally. Knowledge is power, which the tycoon only realizes when it’s too late and she threatens his business exploits. It makes it all the more thrilling to watch her grow and become obsessed with learning, from asking questions. I haven’t felt so thrilled for a singular characterization in some time; Ms. Arianda is likely to become a sensation, not unlike the role’s originator Judy Holliday.

Jim Belushi plays Harry Brock, an uncouth junk tycoon who blusters his way through life and business, a contemptible bully. He is a mess of instant contradictions: embarrassed by Billie’s lack of social graces while raving about like an uncouth jackass. Much of his performance is pitched higher (even a reference to his yelling in the script), but Belushi provides a fantastic antagonist. Robert Sean Leonard is reporter Paul Verrall, idealistic but cynical; a man for whom integrity is important. It’s not the showiest of the roles, but Mr. Leonard plays him with utter sincerity, but could bring up the romantic spark a few notches.

Frank Wood plays Brock’s self-loathing alcoholic attorney who was once Attorney General, but is easily bought. Wood effectively portrayed these elements of the character, but there were some issues with his diction at the performance I attended. Michael McGrath lurks and menaces as Brock’s cousin and main henchman. Patricia Hodges makes a delicious cameo as a haughty senator’s wife. The cast of thirteen also includes Terry Beaver, Jennifer Regan and Danny Rutigliano in small, but memorable appearances.

While there are some creaky moments, I was most surprised by the play’s relevance. It’s a product of its time, and some of the sensibilities date. However, it was not much of a stretch from 1946 to 2011 watching a corrupt tycoon try to buy government support for his dubious business practices. Harry Brock is a larger-than-life antecedent of those CEOs and banks who brought the country to the brink of financial ruin in 2008. He’s brash, bombastic and so rich that he thinks he’s entitled to everything he wants. He will bully and abuse everyone from a bell-hop to U.S Senator. In our reality, he would most likely get his way. However, Kanin reminds us that the people are the government.

Director Doug Hughes, whose revival of The Royal Family was also a sumptuous period feast, stages Kanin’s text with a deft comic touch. These actors are playing for character and not laughs, making it a warmer experience than I even anticipated. The experience is heightened by the lavish set and costumes, with stunning period detail. John Lee Beatty’s divine navy blue and gold trimmed hotel suite earns gasps and applause as the curtain rises while Catherine Zuber’s costumes are perfection (the way she dresses Billie Dawn as she transforms is pure genius). It’s the best sort of eye candy.

Beg, borrow or steal. Do whatever you can to get to the Cort Theatre. Nina Arianda is not to be missed.