Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Best of 2012: New York Theatre

It’s that time of year again: “Best of 2012” lists are proliferating, taking up valuable space everywhere from The New York Times to New York magazine. So, hell, why not add to the pile?

For the record: I didn’t see The Whale. Or Bad Jews. Or Cock. Or Uncle Vanya. Or We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… Or Glengarry Glen Ross (though I hope to see this last one in the coming month). I suspect all — or most — of these would be on this list; my heart is sad to have missed them.* And now, without further ado…

Top Ten Best Shows of 2012
(in no particular order)

James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors

James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors
Broadway via The West End
Had I simply read Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, I wouldn’t think it was one lick funny. The silliest of slapstick, this farce could fall flat on its face without Nicholas Hytner’s breakneck-speed, endlessly inventive direction or, especially, without the brilliantly expressive, exceedingly likable and “easily confused” James Corden in the lead. The latter, a checkered-suited softie with out-of-this-world physical comedy skills was sidesplittingly, Tony Award-winning funny. I’ve never laughed as hard as when he got in a knockdown, drag-out fight with himself — and I doubt I will again any time soon.

Peter and the Starcatcher
Broadway via New York Theatre Workshop
Co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers exuberantly directed a cast playing over 60 characters to create a whimsical, quickly paced and quick-witted show. Led by Christian Borle’s foppish, sashaying, proto-Captain Hook in a deliciously shameless scene-stealing performance, Starcatcher is a delightfully silly and wonderfully low-tech adaptation of Peter Pan that appeared as if bursting forth from the wildly creative imagination of its child-heroes.  It’s also the most refreshingly old-school-theatrical piece I saw all year — and that’s no small feat.

(L to R) Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Mare Winningham, Jeff Perry, Russell Harvard in Tribes.

(L to R) Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Mare Winningham, Jeff Perry, Russell Harvard in Tribes

Off-Broadway: Barrow Street Theater
Quick-witted and provocative in the questions it asks about language, Tribes‘s insights, like David Cromer’s direction and the performances of the superb cast led by deaf actor Russell Harvard, are sharp and quick: there’s the vast emptiness of words, music’s inexplicable emotiveness, the palpability of silence, the ceaselessly overlapping chatter of a self-important family converging into a dull roar for the hearing impaired. This incisive, Olivier Award-nominated, Drama Desk Award-winning play’s Off-Broadway production, after what seems like a dozen deserved extensions, will finally close on January 20th. See it while you can.

The Best Man
Michael Wilson’s production was elegantly staged, grippingly paced, and nearly perfectly cast: James Earl Jones was wonderfully funny, sharp as a tack, and consistently surprising as the ex-President being courted for endorsement by two front runners for the party’s Presidential nomination, and he was well-supported by the absolutely terrific John Larroquette, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, and Sherman Howard. But was this really written in 1960? Old-school in form, Gore Vidal’s political drama was amazingly relevant in this election year, with language that cut one minute and took your breath away in the next.

Molly Ranson and cast in Carrie.

Molly Ranson and cast in Carrie

Off-Broadway: MCC Theater 
This wasn’t the Broadway adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 gothic tale that Frank Rich described as “uninhibited tastelessness,” left a bloody trail all over Broadway, and appalled/amazed audiences so much that half booed while the other half stood cheering. But if you looked closely, you could catch a glimpse of her: the deliriously golden camp of orgiastic oinking, the paralyzing fear and cruelty of adolescence, and the terrifying fanaticism of Marin Mazzie’s hyper-evangelical, misogynistic matriarch. Insanely good, Mazzie found depths of crazy — and even empathy — that I didn’t know could exist in such a slight form; her rendition of  the show’s best song,”And Eve Was Weak,” was extraordinary and ferocious. Carrie may have disappointed us, but this revival gives us hope that maybe, someday, she’ll rise camptastically once again.

Warrior Class
Off-Off-Broadway: Second Stage Uptown
Who doesn’t love a good political drama during an election year? An Assemblyman makes a bid for Congress, and all his old scandals come to bite him in the bud. Like any good Sorkin speak-piece, Kenneth Linn’s back-room politics tale is structurally streamlined and rocks a masterful slow reveal. Even with a few cliches and David Rasche’s halting delivery as a Republican Party operator, Linn’s intelligence shines through in this play that packs a political punch.

Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd & Michael Shannon in Grace

Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd & Michael Shannon in Grace

I may have been bored by its theological concepts, and the miscasting of Paul Rudd is a detriment (Paul: Love you, man! Seriously.), but still: plot devices (going backwards and forwards in time) and revolving sets that could seem gimmicky add even more ominous tones to Craig Wright’s already unsettling play. Add to that Ed Asner who gives the best monologue on genocide after Kathleen Chalfont, and Michael Shannon’s performance as a scarred scientist who, even whilst donning that silly and obtrusive Phantom mask, reigns in one of the most startlingly nuanced performances of the year (PS. Why haven’t you been in an Adam Rapp play yet, sir?), and you’ve got one odd duck of a show on The Broadway. And who doesn’t love that?

The Great God Pan
Off-Broadway: Playwrights Horizons
Amy Herzog’s newest is not about sexual abuse (except that it, of course, is), but rather what we destroy in order to create something seemingly, and vitally, better. The cast, headed by Jeremy Strong (The Coward, Zero Dark Thirty) and featuring PH favorite Peter Friedman is pitch-perfect subtle, and the writing is haunting as the notions of time, memory, and coming to terms with the past swirl and collide, leaving us wondering: What was he doing, the great god Pan/Down in the reeds by the river? 

The cast of Untitled Feminist Show

The cast of Untitled Feminist Show

Untitled Feminist Show
Off-Off-Broadway: A Young Jean Lee Theater Company production presented by P.S. 122
Young Jean Lee doesn’t simply push boundaries — she cleverly dismantles, examines, ravages and then reconstructs them in a way you couldn’t even anticipate — and in this, her first of two productions of the year, she choreographed a naked ballet of sorts. In her effort to create a “utopian feminist experience,” six nude actresses frolicked and mimed across the stage for an hour, playfully commenting on traditional female roles and joyfully celebrating the female form.  Fuzzy in focus and unstructured in form, Untitled Feminist Show confirmed that YJL is one of our most adventurous playwrights.

Off-Broadway: The Public Theater via the Dallas Theater Center
In our over-saturated culture of movie-to-musical fare consisting of high-flying cheer stunts and grown men donning pointy green shoes and elfin hats while belting generic, forgettable pop songs, Giant‘s full, sparkling, classical-sounding score; fine, established cast (including a gloriously voiced and strapping Brian D’Arcy James); and sheer, blinding ambition are a great big breath of fresh air. Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel (made into a 1954 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean) has artistic potential to spare — and its messy imperfection is far more interesting and than any glossy mediocrity currently taking up real estate on 42nd Street.

And now for the
Entirely Superfluous But Always a Good Time Awards

Best Drunky Face: Carrie Coon

Best Drunky Face: Carrie Coon

Best Drunk: Carrie Coon in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
As Honey, the insipid wisp-of-a-wife who was pregnant and then — POOF! — was not, Carrie Coon is the tipsy and tittering scene-stealer of this Steppenwolf transfer, giddily drowning herself in Brandy. Sodden and swaying, her eyes shrinking to sharp slits, Coon maps an astonishing and hilarious physical progression from silly-cognizance to sloshy-sickness.

Best (Only) Reason to See the Broadway Revival of Evita:
Rob Ashford’s choreography
A complex combination of  spicy-sexy tangos and sensuous waltzes intersperse with tactical military movements: the tension between the silky and arousing couplings and the stiff, sharp thrusts of the soldiers threatens, and then gradually builds upon, an oppression that Tim Rice never thoroughly explores in the libretto; and the result is electric. When a revival of a musical that has never been known for its choreography is suddenly admired solely for its movement, attention must be paid.

Worst Show: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Kathleen Marshall indulged half of her director-choreographer hyphenate by overstuffing this Gershwin songbook musical with rusty mechanisms and filler movement.  She then failed to draw out any kind of chemistry from her two leads: Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara are like a brother and sister who can’t even really muster the energy to tease (flirt with?) each other in the two laziest performances of the year. Nice work? Not even close.

Caissie Levy in Ghost.

Caissie Levy in Ghost.

Best-Worst Show: Ghost the Musical
The Brits aren’t known for their dexterity with the musical form, and this screen-to-stage adaptation of the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore supernatural romance is just as spectacularly tacky as you’d expect it to be. With its wall-to-wall projections; pouring, body-soaking rain; and nifty ghosty tricks (ghosts jumping out of bodies! hands going through doors!), I had fun keeping up with the constant whir of the shifting technologies deployed. Sure the music was utter crap and the performances generally wooden (except for a spunky Da’vine Joy Randolph in the Whoopi role), but some shows are meant to be enjoyed tipsy — and Ghost was a sloppy delight.

Most Overrated: Once
When you take a beloved slip of a film and add a bunch of shtick, decreasing the charm and upping the “quirk” factor, what should be a 90 minute one-act is a 2.5 hour-long (!) musical with a cast of minutely sketched and interchangeable characters. The quiet, romantic Once should be whimsical and slim, but Enda Walsh’s book is overstuffed and jokey. Skip the lines and the exorbitant prices — stream the Oscar-winning film on Netflix instead.

Kathleen Chalfant in Red Dog Howls at NYTW

Kathleen Chalfant in Red Dog Howls at NYTW

Best Performance in the Worst Show (AKA The Trooper of the Year Award): Tie: Norbert Leo Butz in Dead Accounts & Kathleen Chalfont in Red Dog Howls
In what’s surely a contender for the worst, most manipulative play (about the Armenian Genocide) of the year, Chalfont, like the old pro she is, nails the I-was-forced-to-eat-my-own-baby monologue, which would’ve been absolute torture in a lesser talent’s hands. And rising, as ever, to his expectations of awesome, Butz does his Butz thing, bouncing and thrashing about the stage like a stockbroker on speed, exerting abundantly more effort and talent than Teresa Rebeck’s shoddy attempt at a play deserves.

Best Non-play Written by a Playwright: Lincoln
It’s so rare to see a well-scripted, smart and political mainstream film these days. But Lincoln is all that thanks to Tony Kushner who can craft scenes that are both intellectually hefty and emotionally vigorous. I don’t exactly wish our best playwrights to abandon the stage, but Lincoln certainly makes the case that, duh, Hollywood could use the help.

Best Drama off-Stage: Rebecca
I’m still not entirely sure what went down — it’s all so fabulously convoluted —  but there was something about a shifty Long Island stockbroker who made up an investor who was supposed to give millions to the show but who died, suddenly, of malaria in London. With this mysterious, totally fake death, came the actual death of the show that I’d been looking forward to for the past two years. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever meet this Hungarian megamusical of Rebecca — but man, what a story she told in the wings!

Oh, Rebecca! How I wish I had met you.

Oh, Rebecca! How I wish I could have met you.


One comment on “Best of 2012: New York Theatre

  1. thoughtsontheatre
    December 21, 2012

    Poor poor Rebecca. Up in flames like that staircase itself…


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