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.

“The Normal Heart”

It’s been 25 years since Larry Kramer took NY theater by storm with his seminal play The Normal Heart, simultaneously an indictment of those who turned a blind eye to AIDS in the epidemic’s infancy as well as a cry for someone to, as the character Dr. Ellen Brookner implores, “Do something!” Agitprop tends to date quickly, but in this sincere, simplistic revival currently playing the Golden Theater, Kramer’s play and message feel timelier than ever.

In short: The Normal Heart ripped out my heart and stomped on it in the best possible way. This revival is the sort of production that reaffirms why I love live theater. To call this galvanizing experience a must-see would be the grossest of understatements. The play is set between 1981 and 1984, and offers a no-holds barred look into the earliest days of the disease: the fear, the uncertainty and, most aggravatingly, the blind-eye the government, press and pharmaceutical companies turned toward the issue.

Joel Grey directed the high acclaimed benefit reading that inspired this production earlier in the fall. It was producer Daryl Roth who made this Broadway engagement happen, and for that we should all be most grateful. Since Mr. Grey has been busy in the hit revival of Anything Goes, George C. Wolfe has stepped in to stage the production. Even with limited rehearsal time and a brief preview period, The Normal Heart features one of the most exceptional ensembles in recent seasons. I found myself impressed across the board by the powerful performances of each and every actor onstage.

At the center of the play is Joe Mantello, as Ned Weeks (based on Kramer himself) in an exhaustively nuanced performance. Mantello has spent the last fifteen years or so as a director, but with all due respect, I think he’s a far better actor than director; his performance here only shows what Broadway has missed since his last appearance in Angels in America. John Benjamin Hickey provides the play’s emotional center as Ned’s lover Felix, who wastes away before our eyes during the play’s second act.

Lee Pace and Jim Parsons make stellar Broadway debuts as fellow founders of a GMHC-type foundation. Also on hand are Patrick Breen, Luke MacFarlane, Mark Harelik, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox and the lone female, Ellen Barkin as Dr. Brookner, the stern but compassionate doctor who finds herself the only one of her profession responding to the illness. Barkin is also making a Broadway debut, and is sensational in her second act tirade (which received the kind of showstopping applause you usually expect across the street at Billy Elliot). To play favorites would be criminal, because they all are so utterly spectacular.

This marks the first time in my theatregoing experience that I’ve witnessed an audience leaving a show in total silence, as though departing a church service. But that’s most appropriate, as the play’s final moments project the names of thousands of victims over the stage and walls of the theatre; The Normal Heart is now not only a call to action, but also an elegy for the 35 million people the world has lost to AIDS in the last thirty years.

On the sidewalk, a young man handed me a letter with some startling statistics on the nature of AIDS in contemporary America. Despite progress that has been made, the disease is still incurable and is still an international pandemic. The play onstage reminds us all how terrifying it once was, but the reality is, there is still a long road ahead.

The Normal Heart is at the Golden Theater until July 10 – a strictly limited engagement. Do not miss this.