Jayne Atkinson, Blithe Spirit. The character of Mrs. Ruth Condomine in the Noel Coward classic isn’t usually the wife audiences leave the theatre talking about. That honor tends to go to the actress playing the devilishly deceased first wife Elvira. The model of upper classic British waspishness, Atkinson gave one of the most underrated and truly memorable performances last season. As Ruth, the actress dominated her scenes with Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole with tweedy precision and gave a performance that got funnier and more vivid throughout the run of the play.
Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts. I recall hearing from friends when the play first opened at Steppenwolf, that Mr. Hill was a name to remember. His performance as the idealistic and almost fatally flawed Franco was the spark plug that really gave Tracy Letts’ new (and gentler) comedy its legs. His chemistry with star Michael McKean was genuine, but it was the younger actor in his first major Broadway role who walked away with this show in his pocket. It’s a performance that will one day give those who’ve seen it bragging rights.
Angela Lansbury, Blithe Spirit and A Little Night Music. It’s a rare thing to be able to put an actor on your list twice, especially when one is a five-time Tony winning octagenarian. Ms. Lansbury is riding high on her late-career renaissance on Broadway. While reviews for both productions have been mixed-to-positive, Lansbury has received nothing but love letters from the critics. Playing two very different Madame’s: the daffy, endearing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s classic and the austere, disapproving matriarch nee courtesan in Stephen Sondheim’s musical revival, Lansbury is the epitome of a star. She exudes grace, poise, charm and a rare star presence that outshines her fellow cast members (in both productions). She’s already now in line for another Tony nomination and the possibility of a record-breaking sixth win.
Stephen Mangan, The Norman Conquests. Mangan’s titanic comic performance in the Ayckbourn trilogy may be the greatest I’ve ever seen in all my years of theatregoing. Mangan’s ability to take the irritable nature of Norman and garner the audience’s sympathy and affection was nothing short of breathtaking, a stand out among one of the most uniformly excellent ensembles seen on Broadway this decade. As I’ve said before, all due respect to Joe Turner’s Roger Robinson, the Tony Award should have gone to Mangan. At the end of the third play in the trilogy, he exasperatedly shouts “I only wanted to make you happy.” Mr. Mangan’s performance did, and how.
Jan Maxwell, The Royal Family. The stylish revival of the Kaufman-Ferber classic about a Barrymore-esque acting dynasty in NYC earned Maxwell some of the best notices of her already auspicious career as the flighty Julie Cavendish, the center of her eccentric family upon whom all burdens rest. In a bravura moment in the second act, Maxwell stopped the show both time I saw it with a comic monologue/breakdown that ended with the elegant, sophisticated Maxwell doing a faceplant into the lip of the stage. However, for evidence of her reality onstage, one only had to look at her reaction in the final moments as the actress finds her mother dead in the living room. I first saw the actress in her memorable turn in the short-lived Coram Boy in 2007. Fortunately, she gets to bring the funny to the upcoming revival of Lend Me a Tenor this March. (Honorable mention to Rosemary Harris for providing such comic support to Maxwell, and by providing an haunting eleven o’clock moment during the final scene of the play).
Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, Mary Stuart. In this instance, I feel you can’t have one without the other. They are only onstage together for about ten minutes of the play’s three hour running time, but whenever one is onstage alone, the other is still deeply present. Both performances resonated with gusto: McTeer had the showier title role, with heightened, crowd-pleasing intensity while Walter had the quieter, albeit more interesting role of Elizabeth I. The symbiosis of their towering performances is what made the Donmar import a must-see revival last season.
Jason O’Connell, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). This year marked my first visit to Boscobel and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. I had also never before seen this comic romp through the Bard’s entire folio, with room for improvisation, camp, cross-dressing and even audience participation. Performed by three actors (with one caustic prop mistress), O’Connell stood out with his comic flair and energy. The actor was the epitome of outrageous one moment, and the next stunned the audience to rapturous silence with a breathtaking delivery of “What a piece of work is man.” Now, here I must also give an honorable mention to another performance of his: he was also playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in rep at the same time. His performance there was also quite memorable and distinctly funny, but it was in the Complete Works that he really stood out. I look forward to going back to HVSF next summer to see what Mr. O’Connell will have in store for audiences.
Phylicia Rashad, August: Osage County. To say Rashad was a revelation as the pill-poppin’, chain-smokin’ mother from hell in Tracy Letts’ brilliant three act drama would be a colossal understatement. Ms. Rashad finished out the Broadway run of the Tony and Pulitzer winner with a riveting and often terrifying performance, with nuances and touches that opened my eyes to parts of the script I thought I knew backwards and forwards. I will never forget being at the final Broadway performance; the one and only time Rashad played opposite Tony-winning Mattie Fae Rondi Reed.
Thomas Sadoski, Reasons to be Pretty. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s tell your best friend you like your girlfriend because she has a regular face, not a pretty face. Sadoski’s Greg learns that the hard way when he says that about Marin Ireland, which sets off a series of introspective, self-affirming events that turns the well-read, non-confrontational slacker into a man. LaBute’s play is stinging, vicious and often violent. While Ireland walked away a critics’ darling over her performance, which involved a gasp-inducing monologue at a mall food court, it was Sadoski who was the heart and soul of the play, leaving a lasting impression as he gives his job the proverbial figure and grows up as the lights fade out.