Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Best of 2011: New York Theatre

It’s that time of year. Everyone — Ben Brantley, Charles Isherwood, David Cote & Adam Feldman — has posted their Top Ten of 2011 lists, and so while I’m a little late in the game for this, it’s time to give my own a go, along with a few special awards to select productions…

Top Ten Best Shows of 2011
(in no particular order)

Hello, Again at 52 Mercer Street.

Hello, Again

The Transport Group’s sexy revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1994 chamber musical inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 play La Ronde, didn’t wink-wink, nudge-nudge its way through the carnalities of couplings. About sex at its seediest level, this was a brazen production of one of musical theatre’s most under-appreciated and complex composers.

The Hallway Trilogy and HotelMotel

Ever a fan of the hyper-prolific Adam Rapp, two of his many productions share a spot on my list: One a hyper-ambitious triptych spanning a century in a single decrepit hallway and the other a reboot of the meandering and magically real Animals and Plants (in a doubleheader with Derek Ahonen’s Pink Knees on Pale Skin), these two works were chockfull of signature in-your-face Rapp: daring nudity, jolting language, shocking actions and of course, difficult and damaged, strangely compelling characters.

The Normal Heart on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The Normal Heart

Equal parts hostility and heart, George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey‘s searing, minimalist production did exactly right by playwright-activist Larry Kramer by focusing on content over context with a spare, direct design that drew out the most staggering ensemble work on Broadway of the season. It marked an astonishing example of how truly worthy plays — even less than perfect ones like the preachy-passionate Heart — can endure over time.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying

A dancer’s director, Rob Ashford slickly staged a blissfully bright Broadway musical with a full, fantastic orchestra; clever, beautifully executed choreography and a dynamic, dedicated cast. No wizardry there: just some luck, a lot of pluck and quite possibly the Happiest Boy on Broadway this year, Daniel Radcliffe (who, just this week, was replaced with — sigh — Glee star Darren Criss).

War Horse at Lincoln Center. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

War Horse

A boy and his horse and some awe-inspiring puppets combine to create the most imaginative, visionary and theatrically moving work of the season, garnering the Tony Award for Best Play. Quite naturally, it’s also become a Steven Spielberg film (and an inevitable Oscar nominee).

Good People

Even hardened anti-realism folks such as myself must acknowledge when the form is done well — and few contemporary writers do it better than David Lindsay-Abaire. The female-friendly playwright — his protagonists are almost always women — explored the hot-button American issue of class through intricate relationships and richly complex characters, without ever grasping for topicality.

The Book of Mormon

Praise be for Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone who offered up a well-made, very funny, minimally offensive, brilliantly performed, completely original Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about a pair of mismatched, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Mormons sent on a mission to squalid and violent Uganda. A bit of a musical miracle, indeed.

The cast of epbb's These Seven Sicknesses.

These Seven Sicknesses

Take 23 actors and a bevy of technicians and crew members; throw them in a super-secret Hell’s Kitchen loft; add a select audience, communal dinner and an endless supply of alcohol; mix in a 5-hour play cycle of Sophocles’s works and what you’d come up with is the most intimate, inclusive and enjoyable night at the theatre this year. If you aren’t yet familiar with Ed Iskander’s “theatre collective,” Exit, Pursued by a Bear, you should be. But if you haven’t yet experienced Sean Graney’s epic, clever and affecting take on Sophocles’s work, you still have a chance: The Flea Theater’s production of These Seven Sicknesses, also helmed by Iskander, premieres later this month.

Milk Like Sugar

The pregnancy pact plot is a tad bit Lifetime-y, but Greenidge’s punchy drama has power, and the playwright possesses a knack for language, effortlessly and hilariously fusing urban colloquy with lyricism. With such smart, hip and ambitious work, this talented playwright won’t be “emerging” for long.

Urge for Going at The Public Theater. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Urge for Going

The deceptively simple play follows Jamila, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl growing up in a Lebanese refugee camp, as she desperately attempts to escape the restriction of her desolate home. Beautifully complex and rich in both character and story, this production was a surprise from start to finish, and playwright Mona Mansour’s talent was the most wonderful surprise of all.

The Worst

Baby, It’s You!

This jukebox musical represented the most inept musical offering of the season. Baby, it’s decidedly not you.

Catch Me If You Can

As shallow and soulless as they come, the only person involved who emerged from this Pepto-Bismol-palletted aural attack with full dignity intact was the always stellar Norbert Leo Butz.

The Most Overrated

Punchdrunk's Sleep No More on West 27th Street.

Jerusalem

The success of Jez Butterworth’s hyperbolically praised “state-of-the-nation” play was, in actuality, due solely to the dazzling performance of one Mark Rylance.

Sleep No More

Wandering through the impeccably decorated five-story McKittrick Hotel with actors silently performing “scenes” from Macbeth was mildly entertaining for about an hour. As for the next three, well, I wouldn’t know: I preferred sleep, more.

The Best Drama Off-Stage

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark

Lord knows the drama onstage was dismal — except when actors were falling from the sky, of course — but who didn’t love gossiping about this train wreck? C’mon, admit it: we all kinda miss Spidey, The Hottest Mess on Broadway.

The Best Marketing Gimmick

The Importance of Being Earnest

I still can’t stop laughing, and you know Wilde would approve.


2 comments on “Best of 2011: New York Theatre

  1. Karis Danish
    January 20, 2012

    First of all, I’m glad you gave a shout out to Hello Again. I’m sad it got lame reviews. Also, basically in total agreement about everything….however I will say….
    1) I loved Sleep No More, but it’s def not a play and more a theatrical experience. I literally loved it. OBSESSIVELY loved it.
    2) You are right about Jerusalem being over rated. Mark Rylance was wonderful but…. I spent a large portion of they play going, “WHAT?!”. No literally, WHAT did you just SAY? I was like one of the retired in Sarasota trying to follow DOUBT.

    • Julie
      January 20, 2012

      I think Hello, Again‘s reviews were pretty decent, but I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did; I can never get enough of LaChiusa.

      I shan’t argue with you on Sleep No More, mostly because no one agrees with me. But after an hour, I was bored of running into the same actors doing the same scenes. A+ for atmosphere, though.

      I didn’t have a problem understanding the Brits; I just had a problem with critics treating Butterworth like Shakespeare. There was simply too much over-the-top praise going on around that play.

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This entry was posted on January 8, 2012 by in Broadway, Editorials, Emerging Playwright, Musical, Off-Broadway, Theatre.

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