Speaking Out and Listening Closely
The New York theater talked back this year — to its audiences, to a nation, to the world. This new boldness made international headlines when a cast member of the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” (still dominating Broadway more than a year after its opening) addressed an audience member from the stage during curtain calls — one Mike Pence, the vice president-elect — on the importance of honoring his country’s diversity.
But in theaters throughout this city, other productions were issuing similar pleas, more obliquely perhaps but just as resonantly. To grasp the force and complexity of what was being said, you needed only to bring your ears and eyes to the theater and to keep them — and your mind — wide open.
The credo in each case was pretty much the same: “Attention must be paid,” to again quote that well-worn but enduringly urgent line from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In a year that saw the most divisive presidential election in living memory, the New York theater asked us to refocus and listen — really listen — to how we talked about race, sexuality, the demonization of others (as in Ivo van Hove’s radically reimagined Broadway revival of Miller’s “The Crucible”) and even, in the case of Richard Nelson’s beautiful cycle of “Gabriels” plays at the Public Theater, about the election itself.
In the list that follows, I have limited myself to productions that made us rethink not only their subjects but also how we experience theater itself. (That means not including a nigh-perfect and delicious revival like the Roundabout Theater Company production of “She Loves Me.”) Plays as different as Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” (with its frenzied, overlapping dialogue), Simon McBurney’s “The Encounter” (with its sophisticated manipulation of sound) and Adam Bock’s “A Life” (with its thunderous silences) all asked us to retune our ears.
Lucre-minded Broadway made room for precedent-smashing productions that jiggered and blurred the senses, including not only “The Crucible” and “The Encounter” but also the triumphantly transplanted “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” Dave Malloy’s ecstatic musical adaptation of a part of “War and Peace” (which appeared on my best-of-the-year list for 2013 in its Off Broadway incarnation).
So here goes with a far from complete itemization of the year’s great conversation starters — and continuers and expanders — in the New York theater. — BEN BRANTLEY
‘THE GABRIELS, ELECTION YEAR IN THE LIFE OF ONE FAMILY’ Without a whit of stagy melodrama or contrivance, these richly conversational works, written and directed by Mr. Nelson, invited us into a middle-class kitchen in upstate New York to feel the anxiety, ambivalence and sputtering hope of one very American clan. Along with Mr. Nelson’s similar “Apple Family” plays (seen at the Public between 2010 and 2013), “The Gabriels” may be the most immediate and affecting contribution to of-the-moment American theater since the Great Depression. [Read the reviews]
‘THE CRUCIBLE’ Following his Tony Award-winning interpretation of another Miller classic, “A View From the Bridge,” the Dutch-Belgian director Mr. van Hove turned this much-studied tale of witch hunting in 17th-century Salem into a work of breathtaking suspense and even scarier topicality. (He applied the same galvanizing alchemy to five Shakespeare history plays in his sensational “Kings of War,” seen last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) [Read the review]
‘UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME’ What we talk about when we talk about slavery. Written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, this invigorating exploration of the most toxic of American legacies took the form of a seemingly benign teaching exercise. But it ventured far beyond the precincts of the middle school classroom to explore the murky labyrinth of a conflicted country’s id. The year’s most resounding testament to the theater’s continuing power to shock. [Read the review]
‘A LIFE’ Another brilliant shocker, though in this case more existential than historical. The playwright Mr. Bock makes good on the presumptuous promise of his title, with a comprehensive micro-macro look at one middle-aged gay man’s existence, in which even nonexistence becomes a coup de théâtre. Anne Kauffman directs a cast led by a savvily self-effacing David Hyde Pierce. [Read the review]
‘THE WOLVES’ In this dynamic debut from the young dramatist Ms. DeLappe, a group portrait of a girls’ soccer team finds the individualities within a collective identity and somehow manages to touch tellingly on subjects ranging from menstruation to genocide. Lila Neugebauer directs an all-female cast, the freshest, rowdiest and most fine-tuned ensemble of the year. [Read the review]
‘NOTES FROM THE FIELD’ The singular playwright-journalist Anna Deavere Smith delivers her most inspired work in years in a sobering, searing docudrama in which monologues (all taken from real life and all performed by Ms. Smith) become an echoing dialogue on the fraught subjects of race, education and incarceration. [Read the review]
‘THE ENCOUNTER’ The most exotically immersive show ever to be staged on Broadway, Mr. McBurney’s one-man journey into the Amazon rain forest uses ear phones (one set per theatergoer) and an intricate soundscape to asks audiences to hear how they hear — and how they think. [Read the review]
‘HEISENBERG’ Oh, no. Yet another wacky boy-meets-girl story. But as written (with intellectual stealth) by Simon Stephens, directed (with minimalist exactitude) by Mark Brokaw and acted (with explosively mixed feelings) by Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker, a conventional tale becomes a rippling and far-ranging consideration of the intersection of truths and lies in any relationship. [Read the review]
‘HOLD ON TO ME DARLING’ Nobody hears the language of self-deception, American-style, more acutely than Kenneth Lonergan. Here the author and director of the wonderful, brooding film “Manchester by the Sea” took on the power of celebrity to intoxicate, flatten and entrap everyone in its path in a serious comedy about a country-western star (Timothy Olyphant) in pursuit of authenticity. [Read the review]
‘OSLO’ The delicate art of backdoor diplomacy was brought to illuminating life in J. T. Rogers’s vibrant re-creation of the events that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Staged last summer at Lincoln Center Theater’s smaller downstairs space, Bartlett Sher’s gripping production is scheduled to be reincarnated on Broadway next year, an all-too-timely reminder that the road to peace requires patience, flexibility and a suitable sense of theater. [Read the review]
Unlikely Stories and Unexpected Combinations
The year just passed, or soon to pass anyway, has been inspiring, both on Broadway and off. As if speaking to the contentiousness of the election, it has also been a theatrical year rich in diversity, offering unexpected combinations and a welcome dose of topicality. The finest musicals, in particular, did not fall into familiar formulas.
Here’s my list of the best of the year, in absolutely random order — derived by the algorithm my new robot just invented and, incidentally, not including “The Humans” and other shows that moved to new stages but appeared on this list last year. — CHARLES ISHERWOOD
‘NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812’ This exhilarating musical — with book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy and first produced Off Broadway by Ars Nova — has made an exceptional transfer to the grander stage of Broadway, thanks to its director, Rachel Chavkin. With the pop star Josh Groban making an impressive Broadway debut in the title role (not, um, the comet), this inventive and extraordinarily moving pop opera, adapted from an emotionally potent sliver of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” really is the first among equals on my list. (Algorithms to follow.) [Read the review]
‘DEAR EVAN HANSEN’ The promising musical theater composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul came into their own with their enchanting pop-rock score for this affecting tale of a teenage misfit, played with great nuance by Ben Platt, whose self-affirming note falls into the wrong hands, turning him at once into not just the (smallish) big man on his high school campus, but also a viral sensation. Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul illuminate with humor and delicacy the troubled hearts of their characters, and Steven Levenson’s book matches the complexity, and the compassion, of their work. [Read the review]
‘RIDE THE CYCLONE’ Strap yourself in for a bracingly funny, supremely inventive musical journey into the afterlife. Six teenagers meet their deaths on a roller coaster and have to compete for a chance to return to the land of the living. The darkness of the plot is easily overridden by the sheer spiritedness of Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s score and the terrific young cast. [Read the review]
‘SWEAT’ Lynn Nottage’s drama about the fading fortunes of factory workers in a Pennsylvania city, where she and her director, Kate Whoriskey, interviewed residents for research, was the most achingly topical play of the year. Conventional in structure — by which I mean classically plotted and accessible — “Sweat” explored with evenhanded compassion the race and class tensions laid bare during the tumultuous election. More inspiring news: The show is moving to Broadway in the spring. [Read the review]
‘FALSETTOS’ I didn’t expect William Finn and James Lapine’s 1992 musical about an unconventional family to retain all its joyously neurotic humor, not to mention its gut-punching emotional power. But under Mr. Lapine’s astute direction, and with a cast rarely bettered in a musical revival, “Falsettos” felt both like a disorienting trip in a time capsule — to the dark days when AIDS was claiming the lives of gay men by the thousands — and a remarkably prescient portrait of American life today, when the boundaries between what constitutes “normal” and not remain painfully divisive. [ Read the review ]
‘THE CRUCIBLE’ The unfettered imagination of the experimental director Ivo van Hove has resulted in some dismal nights in the theater. But in the past year, he brought to Broadway, of all unlikely places, not one but two revelatory productions of classic Arthur Miller plays. “A View From the Bridge” won the Tony Award, but for my money Mr. van Hove’s “The Crucible,” with a superlative cast and striking contemporary setting, spoke more powerfully to the moment, when panic and polarization have become an undercurrent in contemporary life. [Read the review]
‘A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC’ The chameleonic artist Taylor Mac, who is a great singer, an incisive analyst of American culture and one of our most promising new playwrights, swanned into Brooklyn this fall with his magnum opus, a wildly inventive, queer-skewed and endearingly immersive (never did I think I would use those two words together!) deep dive into more than two centuries of music and its meanings. I was not, because of sanity and age, able to attend the sole 24-hour marathon, but I saw 18 of the 24 hours and do not regret a single one. [Read the review]
‘INDECENT’ This powerful new play by Paula Vogel charted the tumultuous fortunes of “God of Vengeance,” a drama by Sholem Asch that caused a scandal when it was produced on Broadway in 1923. As much about the lives of the people who created and performed it, the show, which will come to Broadway in the spring, sheds an eye-opening light on a little-known time when theatrical history, Jewish culture and the frank depiction of homosexuality intersected, with explosive results. [Read the review]
‘RED SPEEDO’ In hindsight, this incisive drama by Lucas Hnath, one of the brightest new lights on the scene, seems even more tartly attuned to currents of American culture. A swimmer preparing for Olympic trials comes under fire when performance-enhancing drugs are found in a cooler at the club where he trains. Ultimately, the play becomes “a subtle indictment of the ethos that insists that winning is everything” and that the individual’s only responsibility is to get as much as he can for himself. (I felt the need to quote myself because I wrote those words well before, well, you know.) [Read the review]
‘TURN ME LOOSE’ Searingly funny and, yes, dispiritingly topical, this (almost) solo show starred a simmering Joe Morton as the great black comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in his prime. Written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, the show felt as fresh as any late-night comic’s monologue. With racial tensions in the country reaching a pitch not seen in years, the resurrection of Mr. Gregory in his prime felt not just like a savvy theatrical move, but a necessary reminder of the state of civil rights in America today. [Read the review]