Don’t look here for pronunciamentos anointing the best of the year in theater. No squishy Top 10 lists either, with their inevitable ties, runners-up, honorable mentions and other equivocations. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, the dramatic hyphenate (comedy, tragedy, melodrama, farce) unfolding daily in Washington, not to mention Moscow, Kyiv, London, Budapest and Jerusalem, pulled focus from the comparatively tame offerings this past year on Broadway and Off.
Yet it wasn’t a bad year at all, and so, honoring the trend toward overstuffed, possibly overlong two-parters, I offer this survey of the highs, along with a few lows, from the last 12 months.
2019, Part I: Really Big Shows
Really big shows are the ones that, months after seeing them, still buzz around in my brain. Inevitably they all had strong individual elements, but it’s the whole shebang – and the ambition behind it – that gave them staying power. Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance (Broadway), a seven-hour, two-part epic staged by Stephen Daldry with elegance and finesse, is not the Angels In America Lite that some expected. The story (okay, one story) of AIDS filtered through the structural prism of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, it’s closer in style to a John Irving novel in which many lives come together, drift apart and ultimately resolve in an unexpected and deeply moving finale.
How many musical adaptations of beloved (and not-so-beloved) movies have come and gone before you can say “stop clause?” More than you and I have fingers to count on. So it’s a pleasure to report that Moulin Rouge! (Broadway) not only beat the odds, it did so with class (John Logan wrote the book) and flair bordering on camp but not overkill in Alex Timbers’ ingenious staging. And if Moulin Rouge! seems to have sampled the entire catalogue of contemporary music, American Utopia (Broadway) stuck mostly to the work of its creator, Talking Heads founder and pop iconoclast David Byrne. The songs – woke, fanciful, often both – were brought to electrifying life by Annie-B Parson and, again, Alex Timbers.
Set near the campus of the fictional Transfiguration College of Wyoming, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Playwrights Horizons) trod where few others have dared to roam: inside the heads of articulate young conservatives figuring out their place in a world devoid of ethical sentience. They demand moral structure. That’s the opposite of what Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen are praying for in Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (Broadway), a serious vaudeville so giddily over-the-top in its post-carnage dementia that many missed the point altogether. When is a penis joke not a penis joke? When it’s told in a charnel house accompanied by a piercing cackle.
Similar ambition was evident in David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s trenchant musical Soft Power (Public Theater),which expanded Hwang’s lifelong wrestle with the fraught push-me pull-you relationship between the West and the East that his parents (and ancient spirits) left behind. The Public also hosted Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise, which addressed the no-less-fraught relationship between black and white Americans in a bold, unsettling way. Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival brought over Druid Theater’s production of Richard III, in a fleet, spare yet rich staging by Garry Hynes that was as fully unified as it was powerful. And I have to include Nantucket Sleigh Ride (Lincoln Center Theater), John Guare’s loopy moebius strip of a play, overflowing with that uniquely Guarian, poetic admix of outward-pointed mystery and internal chaos that reward the theatergoer unafraid to give himself over to this odd world.
Two more significant musicals came from the non-profits: The marvelous Sing Street, at New York Theatre Workshop (which also was the proving ground for the sensational Hadestown, now on Broadway) and A Strange Loop, the freshmanshow from the very talented Michael R. Jackson, at Playwrights Horizons.
2019, Part II: Really Big Performances
Actors of modest and even immodest stripe often say they’re only as good as the words or songs given them. Yet we all know that brilliant performances make a great work greater and a mediocre work bearable and sometimes more. The performances in this category are drawn from both kinds of shows.
For example, Toni Stone (Roundabout Theatre Company), Lydia R. Diamond’s play about the first black woman to play professional baseball, is beautifully written and was given a spectacular production under director Pam MacKinnon. Yet what has stayed with me is April Matthis’ exquisite performance in the title role. Matthis suffused Toni Stone with a roiling mix of humility, self-assurance, angst and, well, ballsiness, that was simply irresistible.
Much the same could be said of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who brought her solo show Fleabag, which became the beloved BBC series, to the tiny Soho Playhouse and instantly became one of the hottest tickets in town. And of Tina Satter’s documentary drama Is This A Room (Vineyard Theater), in which the extraordinary Emily Davis played Reality Winner, a government contractor now in prison for releasing to the media a classified document concerning the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
I wouldn’t call Adrienne Warren’s knockout, nonstop cyclone of a performance in the title role of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical a surprise as much as it is a wonder of the world. The promise this extraordinary triple-threat showed in Shuffle Along is more than fulfilled here, powering a standard-issue jukebox biotuner into the stratosphere.
Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm (Broadway), a twisty tale of an elderly couple confronting dementia, gave us double the pleasure: The Manhattan Theatre Club import brought us two incomparable actors, Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, delivering a master class not just in acting, but in listening for more than just the cue to their own next line.
Among the other Brits who elevated the year’s theatergoing were Glenda Jackson, whose King Lear (Broadway) was wily and imperious in a production that I found to be eccentric yet never less than involving. There were two memorable trios: Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni were quietly searing in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène’s Why? at Theatre for a New Audience, while Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton were not-so-quietly dazzling in Jamie Lloyd’s revelatory revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (Broadway).
As examples of unflinching self-exposure, I return to two unforgettable performances: Mary Louise Parker, as a novelist and writing professor confronting death in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside (Broadway), and Alan Cumming in Jeremy O. Harris’ wildly underappreciated play Daddy (New Group/Vineyard Theater). Parker was fully absorbed and absorbing as a woman who has adjusted to a life of compromises until a gifted student turns those personal accommodations inside out. Cumming was naked in every sense of the word as a wealthy Los Angeles philanthropist who plays Pygmalion to his latest Galatea, a young black male artist.
My final salute goes to Annette Bening, who returned to the Broadway stage for the first time since her 1987 debut. As Kate Heller in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, she was transfixing as a mother with a dead son she can never bury and a husband whose secret she’s shoveled over for so long that its revelation leads her to a poignant, sorrowful madness.
Sorrowful madness: that seems to sum up the year on stage and off, doesn’t it? So, best to leave it at that.