Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Best Theatre of 2013: New York (mostly)

It’s that time of year again: “Best of 2013″ 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 Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812; Here Lies LoveMr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play; (most of) The Apple Family Plays or Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (though only one or two of those might have made my list).

Top Ten Best Shows of 2013
(in no particular order)


Photo by Joan Marcus

Choir Boy
Off-Broadway, Manhattan Theatre Club
The first New York premiere from Tarell Alvin McCraney since his critically acclaimed The Brother/Sister Plays in 2009, Choir Boy didn’t exactly cover new thematic ground with its coming out story riddled with bullying,  but its dialogue of urban lyricism captivated, with its musicality sublimely matching its use of song (Jason Michael Webb’s fantastic a cappella arrangements of familiar hymns and spirituals). Director Trip Cullman led a flawless, moving production of beautifully calibrated performances by a true ensemble cast (Nicholas L. Ashe, Kyle Beltran, Grantham Coleman, Austin Pendleton, Jeremy Pope, Wallace Smith and Charles E. Wallace).


Photo by Sara Krulwich

Broadway (currently playing)
With a faithfully Dahlian and clever Tony Award-winning book by winner Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin‘s jaunty tunes with tongue-tying lyrics irresistibly mixing snark and sweet (“When I Grow Up” = Musical Song of the Year), Matilda was not only the best new musical of the season, it’s the best new musical in years. Wondrously, bookishly designed by Rob Howell and Hugh Vanstone; directed with ADD-like enthusiasm by Matthew Warchus, and boasting the revelatory cross-dressing genius of  Bertie Carvel as the horrid headmistress Miss Trunchbull, this British import reinvigorated a form, largely magical-less of late, with a vibrancy and imagination equally pleasurable for the eye, the ear, and the heart.


Photo by Sara Krulwich

The Flick
Off-Broadway, Playwrights Horizons
Even with its long runtime —it clocked in at just over three hours and you know I have theatre ADD— one can’t deny Annie Baker’s gift for sensitively detailing the beauty and pain of the ordinary and mundane. While The Flick‘s Pinteresque pauses tested many critics’ patience, sticking with Baker’s hyper-real world and quietly aching trio of characters gifted audiences with a top-notch production, with frequent Baker collaborator Sam Gold gently guiding a spot-on cast to affecting, revelatory, and very funny performances. If you’re an ardent film lover, you’d be hard-pressed to find a playwright as in love with the form as Baker so beautifully is.


Photo by Joan Marcus

Fun Home
Off-Broadway, The Public Theater (closes Jan. 12)
A little musical with big ambitions, Fun Home (by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori) gracefully tackles unchartered territory with its central character and boasts a star-making turn by Alexandra Socha as a charmingly awkward 19-year-old discovering her sexuality. A musical written entirely by women about women, there is love and heartbreak woven throughout, but the female protagonist(s) are groundbreaking as existing not just apart from romance, but apart from men. In a theatrical form that caters to heterosexuality, Fun Home feels quietly revolutionary in its exploration of a girl’s relationship with her father and herself. While it’s not as moving as it should be, ultimately and thankfully, the musical equates to more than all its moving parts.


Photo by Joan Marcus

Bad Jews
Off-Broadway, Roundabout Theater Company (closes Dec. 28)
Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is one little black comedy—about faith and assimilation, grief and family and the haves and the have nots —with a whole lot of bite. While it technically premiered in 2012, Roundabout remounted the stellar production, ensuring that its place on this list is more than deserved. With sharp claws and gut-punching, laugh-out-loud insults, this deliciously nasty play contains — or barely does — the irrepressible Tracee Chimo as savage “super-Jew” Daphna in an astonishing tornado of a performance that lands somewhere between comedy and horror, leaving you alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, gasping with laughter and “oh-no-she-didn’t” repulsion.


Photo by Joan Marcus

Off-Broadway, Classic Stage Company
Stephen Sondheim’s moody love triangle received its first New York revival since its premiere in 1994 — and boy, did we need it. Sure it’s got its flaws —  the musical never gives us a good reason to believe that the handsome and anguished Giorgio would ever fall in love with such a homely and fawning figure as Fosca — but they’re absolutely minor when considering its strengths: Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico, and Judy Kuhn were in gorgeous voice and utterly watchable, with an excellent supporting cast; the full orchestra and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations were divine; and Sondheim and James Lapine’s work exquisitely reminded us of what a musical can be: lushly romantic, generally smartly structured, and musically complex.


Photo by Michael J. Lutch

The Glass Menagerie
Broadway (closes Feb. 23)
Everyone’s least favorite Tennessee Williams play (am I right?) is revived about once a decade, but it has finally received a riveting production — even if director John Tiffany (Once) doesn’t fully follow through with his slightly-pretentious memory concept. But directorial quibbles aside, this cast is currently one of Broadway’s finest: a delicate Celia Keenan-Bolger and charming Brian J. Smith own the production’s most heartrending scene, but it’s a remarkable Cherry Jones’s moving matriarch — not your typical delusional diva — that grounds the production with a tender, if difficult, love for her children.


Off-West End, Battersea Arts Center
I didn’t have much theatrical luck on my most recent London trip (though I did manage to leave the Apollo Theatre unscathed, physically speaking), except for this sad-sweet gem by Caroline Horton. It’s a small play with silly songs about anorexia — but don’t let that put you off. It’s also one of the most charmingly theatrical and emotionally honest portraits of disease and recovery, and it’s performed with such intelligence, love, and humor. If you missed her extensive tour (Horton also performs), keep an eye out for her next show — it’s sure to be just as thoughtful and imaginative.


Be the Death of Me
Off-Off-Broadway, Irondale Center
Sometimes you just need to head to a church in Brooklyn and see soul-searching choose-your-own-adventure theatre for the morbidly curious. The newest installation performance piece by the The Civilians, New York City’s premiere investigative theatre company, offered an immersive exploration of matters of life and death, taken verbatim from dozens of interviews with experts who deal with death in ways large and small, personal and professional. Carefully curated, Be the Death of Me was an evening of astonishing personal revelations and philosophical ruminations.


Photo by Carol Rosegg

Off-Broadway, Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters
In this companion piece to Mike Barlett’s critically acclaimed Cock, three co-workers partake in some verbal and physical jousting in a boxing-ring arena stage in menacing and perfectly pressurized choreography by director Clare Lizzimore. At only 55-minutes, Bull was a swift, brutal, yet devilishly funny one-act that began at a feverish pitch and remained there, so thank goodness for its brevity.

Other Awards that I’ve Made Up

Best Show I Saw 10 Years Ago: Twelfth Night
Yep, it’s the same production — same cast, same costumes, etc. — the Globe put up a decade ago (I saw it at the University of Michigan). Sure, it’s utterly delightful — and Mark Rylance’s Olivia predictably brilliant — but c’mon, Globe: Let’s try something new.

explorersBest Show Poster: The Explorers Club (Off-Broadway, Manhattan Theatre Club)
The ostrich in a top hat looks suspiciously — and hilariously — like one of many ridiculous characters in Nell Benjamin’s madcap comedy. Preposterous perfection.

Best-Worst Show: Jekyll & Hyde (Broadway)
Frank Wildhorn’s notoriously terrible take on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic is just as bloody awesome — er, awful — as you remember it (and I do remember; I saw the original Broadway production in 1998). Constantine Maroulis screamed marvelously and Deborah Cox belted like nobody’s business while pyrotechnic projections raged in the background. Most Amazing Drunk Theatre Experience of the Year.

Most Overrated: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
If Steven Lutvak’s pastiche is one of the most accomplished scores in years (seriously, Charles Isherwood?), musical theatre is in a bad way.

Most Disappointing Show: (A Tie) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Broadway) and Anna Nicole (Off-Broadway, BAM)
One is a favorite Tennessee Williams classic (am I right?) massacred by the miscast Scar Jo and Benjamin Walker who were (mis)led by the usually brilliant, but this time incredibly off, Rob Ashford. The other, a crazily over-the-top opera by the genius behind Jerry Spring the Opera about the infamous small-town Texan with big… dreams, lacked insight and poked fun of its titular subject, which it didn’t bother to develop at all. Big bummers, the both of ’em.

Billy+Porter++Stark+SandsBest Reason to Get Kinky: Billy Porter & Stark Sands
I only saw one Broadway show twice this year and it wasn’t because of Cyndi Lauper’s generic debut musical score or Harvey Fierstein’s hackneyed book. It was because the best bromance happening on and off-stage (think: shopping at Macy’s in  two feet of tubular sex) this Broadway season is between these two beautiful boys in Kinky Boots. A-dorable. See ’em one last time before Stark leaves the show on Jan. 28.


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