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.

Under the Wire

I saw the following shows just in the nick of time. It seemed that my schedule might force me to skip them, but my gut instinct told me I had to see them, come hell or highwater. As a result, I saw all three shows on their closing weekends, two of which I attended the final performance. Jerusalem and Master Class both had extended limited engagements on Broadway, while Sammy Gets Mugged was scheduled for a five performance run as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

Jerusalem – I love big British plays, so Jerusalem had been on my radar for some time when it hit Broadway this spring. Mark Rylance was offering his second tour de force of the season as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a performance which swept London by storm, and was also incredibly well received here in NY. The play had a surprising effect on me; it was visceral and surprisingly funny in spite of its vulgarity and the generally disagreeable nature of practically everyone on stage. Rylance is just staggering. I marveled at the sheer physicality of his performance. (He thanks his chiropracter and trainer in his bio). I am amazed that a single human being can deliver a performance like this just once, let alone that 8 times a week (and will do another four months in London starting this fall). On top of his physicality, it is a performance of extraordinary range and depth. I was startled by the play’s effect on me; the third act left me quite rattled and I left the theatre literally trembling. Strangely enough, Jerusalem reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Howards End in its exploration of the impact of social and economic change on England. Kudos to director Ian Rickson for staging the play with bravado. Able support was provided by the ensemble, most notably Mackenzie Crook and Geraldine Hughes.

Sammy Gets Mugged – I only saw one Fringe show this year, in my first real visit to the Lower East Side and the Living Theatre. There was supposed to be one more performance of Sammy, but Hurricane Irene made the performance I attended the closing. Playwright Dan Heching’s play is loosely based on his own experience being mugged in Paris a few years ago. Using that traumatic as a stepping stone, Heching explores subjective memory and perception  – and a la Rashomon we see different perspectives on the same incident. The cast of three was nimbly directed by Noah Himmelstein, who staged the play with imagination and clarity. Patrick Byas was simply superb as the Mugger, the most fully realized character in the piece. Stephanie Pope Caffey added grand support and a deft comic touch as the sole witness. Heching himself played Sammy, and while he was charming and likable, I feel that Heching needs to step aside and let another actor play the role in its next incarnation. I look at Sammy Gets Mugged as a work in progress, therefore stepping out of the play will allow Heching, the playwright, to fully realize the scope and potential of the play he has written.

Master ClassI will see Tyne Daly in anything. Mama Tyne, as I like to call her, is one of the most fascinating – and I think underrated – actresses working today. She is not typical casting for La Divina Maria Callas, but then again neither was Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role in 1995. Having seen her play various characters off-Broadway in Love, Loss and What I Wore and her delicious cabaret outing at Feinstein’s, I became convinced that Tyne can do anything. One of the things to remember is that the play is a fantasia on the life of the great opera diva and so those looking for a bioplay should just read a book about her instead. Tyne was in total command of the stage from her entrance to her exit. She was funny, she was scathing and ultimately she was captivating – especially during those two aria like monologues where we step out of the reality of the classroom and into Maria’s memories. She found the humor, pathos and heartbreak (you should have heard the audience sobbing toward the end of act 2) in the myth of a woman who may be the most legendary opera singer. It was fascinating to see her take the students, break them down and build them back up (especially Garrett Sorenson, whose acting may not be the strongest but whose aria brought down the house). Jeremy Cohen had quiet charm as the accompanist, while Clinton Brandhagen scored big laughs as the unimpressed stagehand. It was the final performance, and during the curtain call each actor presented Tyne with an orange, a reference to a gesture at the top of the second act. It was charming and lovely, and a beautiful way for Tyne’s towering performance to top off its acclaimed Broadway run.