Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Best of 2014: New York Theatre

It’s that time of year again: “Best of 2014″ 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? Not one for light, fluffy works, here’s my list of not-exactly-uplifting-but-brilliant-nonetheless favorites.

Top Ten Best Shows of 2014
(in no particular order)

Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, and Austin Pendleton in Straight White Men. Photo by Ruby Washington.

Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, and Austin Pendleton in Straight White Men. Photo by Ruby Washington.

Straight White Men
Off-Broadway, The Public Theater
Experimental playwright Young Jean Lee once again defies all expectations by giving us a radically (for her) conventional father-son drama. Exploring white patriarchal privilege, she masterfully crafts four archetypes of the white male, including the inexplicably attractive douchebag banker and the pretentious, liberal academic. But instead of tearing them down with a satirical side-eye, she paints these troubled men with layers of complexity and astoundingly subtle compassion. Warm, funny, and whip-smart, YJL’s latest cements her as one of – if not the – very best American playwrights working today.

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Violet. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Violet. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Violet
Broadway, Roundabout Theatre Company
The Leigh Silverman production was the best possible version of this little musical on the Great White Way. With simple and straightforward storytelling and design, the superb cast — from Sutton Foster‘s sparkling, defiant Violet to Joshua Henry’s heart-melting soldier and Annie Golden’s darkly hilarious Hotel Hooker — shimmered and shone. This feisty musical underdog featured a a wondrous score of bluegrass, country, and gospel by Jeanine Tesori and a touching and funny book by Brian Crawley – and we need many more like it.

Chris Myers, Danny Wolohan, and Amber Gray in An Octoroon. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Chris Myers, Danny Wolohan, and Amber Gray in An Octoroon. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

An Octoroon
Off-Broadway, Soho Rep
While I maintain a giddy affinity for the scandal-ridden 2008 workshop production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 19th century melodrama, there’s no question that the super-heady playwright’s Obie award-winning play deserves a spot high on this list. Sarah Benson directed this deliciously droll and audacious postmodern commentary on race in America with tragicomic precision, and in case you missed this marvelously game cast (which includes the playwright clad in a bunny suit), you have one more chance: Theater for a New Audience will remount the production this spring.

Rebecca Hall in Machinal Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rebecca Hall in Machinal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Machinal
Broadway, Roundabout Theatre Company
It’s not every day that Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionistic play, inspired by the real case of a woman convicted and executed of murdering her husband, is revived gloriously – and on Broadway, of all places. Despite its inclusion in almost every critic’s year-end top 10 list, this startling production helmed by British director Lyndsey Turner and starring the impeccable, harrowing Rebecca Hall, was shamefully snubbed by the Tonys in all but the design categories. But at least they got that part right: Es Devlin’s spinning box design, which seamlessly melded man and machine, was stunning, jaw-dropping perfection.

Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Side Show
Washington, D.C., The Kennedy Center
The weird little musical about Siamese twins and other so-called freaks got a second chance to get it right this past summer with Bill Condon’s production. With American Horror Story‘s fourth season dubbed “Freak Show” (also featuring the inspired-by-real-life twins), Henry Krieger and Bill Russell couldn’t have picked a better time to re-imagine their beloved cult favorite. Odd as ever, the still-flawed Side Show (those lyrics – oy!) will never fully work, but this production highlighted what does: a touching story about community and love set to a lovely score. It’s now on Broadway, but you’d better hurry if you want to catch the Hilton sisters’ final act: Side Show will close on January 6, sadly, with fewer performances than the original premiere production in 1997.

Douglas Smith and Colbie Minifie in Punk Rock. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Douglas Smith and Colbie Minifie in Punk Rock. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Punk Rock
Off-Broadway, MCC Theater
Though Simon Stephens is the recipient of never-ending accolades for his (atypically) sentimental spectacle The Curious Incident in of the Dog in Night-Time, it’s this smaller, ferocious work about adolescent angst and man’s inhumanity to man that hits home to a visceral, frightening degree. British teens, with hormones raging and aggression ascending, crucify and comfort each other with startling alacrity until it all builds to a climax so terrifying, you could actually feel the audience holding its collective breath. It’s rare that a piece of theatre can be so topical and so terrifying and so real – the FSU shooting in the midst of its run is testament to its relevancy – that you wake up the next morning, still shaking. Kudos to the expert, suspenseful direction by Trip Cullman of a stellar, sensitive ensemble.

The Box: A Black Comedy. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

The Box: A Black Comedy. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

The Box: A Black Comedy
Off-Broadway, The Foundry Theatre
The U.S. imprisons more than 1 out every 100 adults – more than any other nation – and when it comes to minorities, the numbers are even higher. In The Box, poet-playwright Marcus Gardley, in partnership with ex-prisoners, retired NYPD officers, reform activists, prison abolitionists, and anti-violence educators, draws on myth and hip-hop to examine the crippling relationship between minorities and prisons. Stylistically messy and disjointed, Gardley’s ambitions can get the better of him, but he never fails to affect, edify, and infuriate. An important and insightful piece – and much of it in rhymed couplets, no less.

Magdalena Cielecka in 4:48 Psychosis. Photo by Richard Termine.

Magdalena Cielecka in 4:48 Psychosis. Photo by Richard Termine.

4:48 Psychosis
Off-Broadway, TR Warszawa at St. Ann’s Warehouse
It’s not often Sarah Kane’s work is produced this side of the pond – her Blasted didn’t receive its American premiere until 2008, nearly 15 years after it was written – so when it is, you just buy a ticket and go. The last work by the troubled playwright – she took her own life in 1999 at the age of 28 – 4:48 Psychosis is essentially a long list of reasons not to keep living. On the page, there are no stage directions, dialogue, or even characters; on the stage, there’s poetry and pain, a searing combination culminating in a singular horror-tragedy that builds, terrifyingly, until its heart-stopping finish. Produced by the Polish company TR Warzawa and starring a fiercely dedicated Magdalena Cielecka as the young woman haunted and destroyed by her demons, this fragmented work of fury and despair leaves us aching and helpless, gazing upon bloodied walls and pill-strewn floors. An astonishingly sad and beautiful work.

Leah Karpel, Danny Wolohan, T.R. Knight, Elvy Yost, Cameron Scoggins, Jessica Dickey.

Leah Karpel, Danny Wolohan, T.R. Knight, Elvy Yost, Cameron Scoggins, and Jessica Dickey in Pocatello.Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Pocatello
Off-Broadway, Playwrights Horizons
At an Olive Garden knock-off in the middle-of-nowhere Idaho, restaurant staffers and their estranged families commune, often under duress, to share awkward silences and passive aggressive barbs along with their unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks. As touching as it is depressing – we’re given a tragicomic list of chain stores that have overtaken Pocatello – playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s sensitive and candid work of emotional and geographical isolation stars an excellent T.R. Knight as the pained and earnest focus amongst failed marriages and angry teens. Catch this warm, funny, and beautifully sad work before it closes on January 4.

brand-new-ancients-widea

Kate Tempest in Brand New Ancients. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Brand New Ancients
Battersea Arts Center/Under the Radar Festival at St. Ann’s Warehouse
There are storytellers and spoken-word poets and rappers and monologuists – and then there’s Kate Tempest. This pounding whirlwind of poetry and playwriting set against a score that surged and waned with the fervor of her words was, by far, one of the most moving, breathtaking performance pieces of the year.

Other Awards that I’ve Made Up

Best Performance in the Most Undeserving Show: Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
As Billie Holiday, the classically trained soprano with vibrato for days transformed into a lower-ranged, more leisurely soloist, replete with perfectly recreated idiosyncratic phrasing and vocal catches. As the booze flowed, tracks raked arms, and a tiny dog was cuddled, McDonald offered a stunningly sensitive portrayal of a declining diva– despite the ghoulish, unrealistic script by Lanie Robertson. That she could sustain such a demanding performance for 90 minutes (no intermission) was a McDonald miracle.

Hello, gorgeous. Ramin Karimloo in Les Miserables.

Hello, gorgeous. Ramin Karimloo in Les Miserables.

Best Reason to See Les Misérables for the Millionth Time: Ramin Voice-of-a-God Karimloo
The Iranian-born Canadian performer is a tall, lean (incredibly lean) drink of water (sorry, but good lord) who renders the famous bread-pilfering ex-con as a muscular vision with honeyed pipes. Karimloo maintains such a purity and focus that his “Bring Him Home” is actually miraculous in its restraint — not to mention simply gorgeous in its execution.

Most Overrated Show: On the Town
Someone please explain the appeal of this 3 hour-long narrative-less, musically forgettable ballet that, in its most enjoyable (but utterly nonsensical) moment features dancing dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History. Silly and soulless, I second the little girl sitting behind who vehemently exclaimed, “This is NOT a family-friendly show!” and to that, I add: Zzzzzzzzz.

Worst Use of Tonya Pinkins: Holler If Ya Hear Me
If you’re going to use Tonya Pinkins, use her. In this misfire of a musical, Tupac’s music is shoehorned into a shoddy sketch of a script full of clichés that left the masterful Pinkins largely standing on the sidelines. For shame.

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