Theatrical Highlights of the Year

1. Reasons to Be Pretty. May 13, 2009 @ the Lyceum Theatre. Never make an unfavorable comparison between your girlfriend and the new hottie at work. That was Greg’s, the hero of Neil LaBute’s play, big mistake. After the news gets back to his girlfriend, it opens up a maelstrom of life-changing and affirming moments for his character, who ultimately learns to man up. The four-hander was well cast, with Tom Sadoski standing out above the rest but overshadowed by the more mature four-hander down the street that seemed to show what how these characters would end up in about 15-20 years (God of Carnage).

2. Mary Stuart. May 19, 2009 @ the Broadhurst Theatre. There’s nothing like watching two of the most fascinating figures in British history duking it out live onstage. Imported from the Donmar in London, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter dominated in a spare, riveting staging of the Schiller play (in a new adaptation by Peter Oswald) directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Yeah, there were men onstage (namely John Benjamin Hickey and Nicholas Woodeson) but this revival belonged to both leading ladies in superlative performances. The play also sparked six months of bliss as Sarah, Kari, Roxie and other bloggers participated in “The Summer of Harriet Walter.”

3. Hair. May 24, 2009 @ the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Well, I guess we all have dreams of making our Broadway debuts. I never actually thought I’d get to sing and dance onstage but lo and behold the revival of Hair captured me in ways I never thought possible. I’ve never really been a fan of the show – until I took in this performance where I was overwhelmed by Diane Paulus’ exceptionally organic staging. It’s a special experience, and one of a lifetime. If you see this revival, it’s imperative you make your way to the stage for the curtain call. You may never be the same.

4. The Royal Family. September 18, 2009 @ the Samuel Friedman. I have a soft spot for older comedies, particularly those set in NYC in the early half of the 20th century. Jan Maxwell led the cast with a superlative comic performance for the ages as the put-upon Julie Cavendish, a diva at wit’s end. Rosemary Harris supplied moments of hilarity and haunting poise as the family matriarch. The comic exploits of an eccentric, loving and larger-than-life theatrical dynasty were explored by Kaufman and Ferber in their 1927 comedy (a take-off on the Barrymore family) The revival was lovingly directed by Doug Hughes (and oh, what a set! And those costumes!) I’ve rarely wanted to become part of a fictional family onstage.

5. Superior Donuts. October 1, 2009 @ the Music Box Theatre. It’s not easy following up a Tony and Puliter Prize winning juggernaut, but Tracy Letts’ second Broadway outing was another import from Steppenwolf. This time, Tina Landau directed a tight ensemble in a much gentler comedy about the unlikely father-son relationship between disconnected former hippie Michael McKean and energetic, idealistic Jon Michael Hill. The story, which presents a more optimistic vision of America than August: Osage County is less ambitious and wholly different, offering an unexpectedly moving and often quite funny new play.

6. Finian’s Rainbow. October 8, 2009 @ the St. James Theatre. I thought the show was charming at Encores, but didn’t think it warranted a transfer to Broadway. Those thoughts were dashed when the show started previews in October. The cast was augmented by stellar replacements, including Christopher Fitzgerald’s winning turn as leprechaun Og. Warren Carlyle directed one a valentine to old-fashioned, Golden Age musicals. The production took on its reputation as a badly dated show and emerged one of the freshest and best reviewed experiences of the season. It also provided the luminescent Kate Baldwin her first leading lady turn on the Rialto.

7. Ragtime. October 23, 2009 @ the Neil Simon Theatre. I’ve waited ten years for the chance to see this musical, and in the first-ever Broadway revival I found myself inordinately moved by the staging, scenography and performances. Stripping away some of the excesses that are attached to the original lavish production, this import from the Kennedy Center (directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) was actor-driven and a most memorable experience. Quentin Earl Darrington makes an auspicious debut as Coalhouse Walker Jr and Christiane Noll is a revelation as Mother.

8. The Norman Conquests. May 16, 2009 @ the Circle in the Square Theatre. I tend to make this list chronological, so as not to play favorites. But I can’t help but saving this best production for last. Of all the theatre I saw in the calendar year, this exceptional revival of the Alan Ayckbourn classic was the best. In fact, it may very well be the best I’ve seen in my life, but only time will tell. I took in two marathons of the show, and if time had permitted would have done it more. It was seven hours of hilariously heartbreaking theatre, and found myself sad that it was over by the end of the evening. The show was imported from the Old Vic and featured the brilliant six person ensemble, one of the best on stage this year. This production, directed by Matthew Warchus (and which trumps his Tony-winning work in God of Carnage), reminded me why I loved theatre in the first place and has inspired me to make certain changes in my life over the past six months. I only hope you were as lucky as I was to see such a magnanimous theatrical event.

Shows I want to see next year: The Addams Family, A View from the Bridge, La Cage Aux Folles, Promises Promises, Memphis, Race, Lend Me a Tenor, When the Rain Stops Falling, Sondheim on Sondheim, Enron, A Behanding in Spokane, The Miracle Worker, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Next Fall, Present Laughter, Time Stands Still, Collected Stories, Fences, and Wishful Drinking.

The Aficionado Goes to Town, Part 2

Reasons to be Pretty – I have a soft spot in my heart for the Lyceum Theatre. The shows that I have seen there have been failures, including Souvenir, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and [title of show] – all of which I enjoyed immensely. So whenever there is anything playing at the house (which has a notorious reputation for housing flops), I tend to anticipate seeing something of merit. Once again, there is something incredibly special going on at the Lyceum: playwright Neil LaBute is making his Main Stem bow with the transfer of Reasons.

Before the play starts, our hero (Tom Sadoski in a stellar turn as a well-read, non-confrontational slacker) has compared his girlfriend’s face unfavorably with that of a younger new coworker. The idea that he prefers his girlfriend because she “has a regular face” pushes his character into a seemingly endless maelstrom, causing the character to re-examine himself and the direction of his entire life. The curtain rises on the middle of the break-up of these characters, with Broadway newcomer Marin Ireland making one of the most auspicious Broadway debuts this season as the girl who is permanently scarred by this one off-hand remark. Ireland is unafraid to expose the rage and vulnerabilities of her character, with one showstopping monologue in which she announces her ex’s faults to a crowded mall food court. (During this scene one night, an audience member clearly got carried away and started to yell back at her. The night I saw it, a gentleman in the orchestra section gasped a clearly audible “Oh, fuck!”)

Their friends, a married couple and coworkers, provide stark contrasts. Steven Pasquale is spot on as the boorish best friend and Piper Perabo quite impressive as his pregnant wife, a security guard at the factory where the men work (also the best friend of Ireland, and the person who tells her what happened). By the end of the play, Sadoski’s character has done the impossible: he’s grown up, taking great strides in his establishing his moral fiber and standing up to someone who is nothing more than an adult bully. The two hours interceding are engaging, surprising and captivating. I have to confess, I have never experienced any other LaBute plays, but many people with whom I have talked have expressed reticence to seeing this particular play because of the way he treats women in his work. The play at hand offers an eviscerating critique on our contemporary society and its obsession with the superficial, the final entry in LaBute’s trilogy of plays that involve our obsession with appearances (the other two being The Shape of Things and Fat Pig).

The Tony race is pretty much between the hit God of Carnage and the struggling underdog Reasons to be Pretty. However it plays out on Tony night, I can’t help but stress that both plays should be seen. I may be the only one to think this, but I find that they make great companion pieces, with GoC an unrelated sequel of sorts to r2bp. Both plays are four-handers involving two couples who find themselves at odds with one other, ultimately finding themselves isolated and fending for themselves after some terrifying displays of honest human behavior and emotion. r2bp is a play that captures what it’s like to find oneself a few years out of college, with little aim or direction and wasting life trapped in static relationships and dead-end jobs. GoC looks upon the archetypes about 10 or 15 years later, with characters who are wiser, more confident and settled into careers, marriage and family obligations, with very little changed as it is still every man and woman for his or her self. I had seen GoC first and while watching the themes being bandied about in r2bp (including some genuine primal rage from Pasquale’s character in the second act), I kept being drawn back to my evening at the former play. Plus, in about ten or fifteen years down the line I could easily see this cast reuniting for some Carnage. Just my $.02.

As for the Tony awards, one will emerge victorious but both plays are epic wins this season.