Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Best of 2015: New York Theatre

It’s that time of year again: “Best of 2015″ lists are proliferating, taking up valuable space everywhere from The New York Times to New York magazine. So, heck, why not add to the pile? Below are my favorites of 2015.

Top Ten Best Shows of 2015

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Cloud Nine at Atlantic Theater. Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Cloud Nine
Off-Broadway, Atlantic Theater Company
My first time seeing Caryl Churchill’s classic, clever take on sex(uality) and gender from Colonial Africa to 1979 London, I was thrilled to see James Macdonald’s exceptional in-the-round production at the Atlantic. Everything was on point, from the direction to design to sound, but the cast was simply fantastic. The standout, though, was the extraordinary Rebecca Bloom, who played both Edward, the young, effeminate boy molested by a family friend, and the matriarch Betty as she discovers sexual liberation in her twilight years. This production was so good I didn’t mind the uncomfortable seating or the 2.5-hour runtime; I left absolutely elated.

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Constellations. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Constellations
Broadway, Manhattan Theatre Club
Nick Payne’s compelling two-hander examines the concept of parallel universes in a patchwork of scenes that stop and start and move forward in backward in time. Director Michael Longhurst adroitly directed Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson as on-again-off-again lovers with only the help of  some strategicly-timed lighting and balloons in this stylishly sparse production. But it’s Gyllenhaal and Wilson that made this puzzle-piece play sing; the latter, especially, amazed with each nuanced change of gesture and vocal inflection in each “re-do” of a moment. This Constellations was starry in all the right ways.

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Alison Fraser and Cassie Levy in First Daughter Suite. Photo by Joan Marcus.

First Daughter Suite
Off-Broadway, Public Theater
Comprised of four vignettes about Patricia Nixon and daughters Tricia and Julie, Roselyn and Amy Carter, Betty and Susan Ford, Patti Davis and mom Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush and daughter-in-law Laura, First Daughter Suite, a companion piece to Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite, follows the women as they sort through the complexities of private issues while being in the public eye. The vignettes became stronger as the show goes on: the Nixons’ segment is just fine, but then we transition into Amy Carter’s (Carly Tamer) completely absurd and delightful dream segment, and it only got better from there. Cassie Levy was a standout as the damaged and bitter daughter of Nancy Reagan (a stoic, all-business Alison Fraser) and Mary Testa won the night with her tough, no-nonsense Barbara Bush who softened, heartbreakingly, in memory of her daughter who passed away of leukemia at age 3. The very-MJL, intellectualized score has moments of lush, sweeping beauty that are suddenly displaced with discordant chords. You didn’t walk away humming anything, but I loved every minute of it; it’s a rare and wonderful thing to have a musical comprised entirely of women that passes the Bechdel test 100% of the time. Bless Michael John LaChiusa – arguably our most feminist of musical theatre composers.

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Jeanine Serralles and Ryan Sphan in Gloria. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Gloria
Off-Broadway, Vineyard Theatre
If you haven’t jumped on the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bandwagon yet, what the hell are you waiting for? He is one of the smartest, most risk-taking and most talented playwrights (An Octoroon, Neighbors) working today. On the surface, Gloria is a sharp office comedy, a clever takedown of print media and privileged, stymied millenials. But one should never get too comfortable at a BJJ show, and just when I had no idea where Gloria could possibly be headed, I found myself screaming in horror – literally – at a sudden turn of events. A hyper-intelligent commentary on violence, media, and the ownership of tragedy, with complex, engaging characters, no other work this year shocked, moved, provoked, amused, scared, and challenged me like Gloria did – like only BJJ can these days, it seems. Evan Cabnet’s direction was tight, funny, and tense, and the cast was perfection. How good was it? It’s the only play this year that I paid to see twice – and if it wasn’t a sold-out run, I would’ve paid again and again and again… I’ll be thinking about this one for years to come. My #1 pick for the year.

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Jason Biggs, Elizabeth Moss, and Bryce Pinkham in The Heidi Chronicles. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Heidi Chronicles
Broadway
I loved this. The cast was  fantastic and the direction (Pam MacKinnon) and design, especially Peter Nigrini’s projections, were strong (you found yourself wishing they were selling a soundtrack for the show). Wendy Wasserstein’s play is still very relevant (even if a few beats were off); and there was a feeling of utter euphoria when four women discussed equality onstage. While it’s disappointing that the female-male relationships are more fully developed and, frankly, interesting than the female-female, at 2.5 hours long, I wanted more, not less, and that is an increasingly rare feat for a Broadway, or any, show. Also: Tracee Chimo for everything. The woman has insane comic timing.

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Steven Boyer in Hand to God. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Hand to God
Broadway via MCC Theater and
I haven’t laughed this hard, actually doubling over, in I don’t know how long – not even The Book of Mormon had me in stitches like this. Robert Askin’s Hand to God is a cross between Avenue Q and The Exorcist, i.e., right up my theatrical horror-lovin’ alley. It’s like an extreme, extended version of the Bad Idea Bears, but with an über-aggressive, trash-talking puppet that’s got a vendetta with all things nice. The entire cast, helmed smartly by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is excellent, but Steven Boyer, as the shy, confused teenager whose anarchist alterego is unleashed via his bad-boy puppet Tyrone, is sensational. The philosophical bookend scenes feel a bit tacked on and the emotional arc of the show a little too familiar (daddy issues), but for me, none of that really mattered considering how much fun I had. Also, AKA wins for most brilliant slash hilarious ad campaign of the year.

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Sarah Steele and Reed Birney in The Humans. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Humans
Off-Broadway, Roundabout Theatre Company
In Stephen Karam’s latest play, astutely directed by Joe Mantello at Roundabout Underground, Erik Bake brings his family from PA to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter Brigid’s new Brooklyn apartment. Karam sympathetically – and quite beautifully – depicts a family rife with secrets, defenses, and genuine love and warmth for one another. David Zinn’s cold, cavernous two-story duplex apartment perfectly showcases the distance and fear – of loneliness, failure, death – that grows between the Blakes even as traditions and fond memories bring them together. The action unfolds in a seamless 95 minutes with the help of an fantastic cast: Jayne Houdyshell, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Lauren Klein, Cassie Beck, and the ever-incomparable Reed Birney. The passive-aggressive familial dynamic on display was uncomfortably, heartbreakingly on point; on board from moment one, I became all the more excited when it dipped into the supernatural. Thankfully, the producorial gods are also on board – The Humans is coming to the Broadway this spring.

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Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The King and I
Broadway, Lincoln Center Theater
I’ve raved about this one ad nauseam, but it deserves repeating, since a lot of people fretted over Ken Watanabe’s accent. Even if you didn’t get every word, you understood him (and if you didn’t, check your ears and your heart), because Watanabe was excellent. When he reached out to Anna (played to perfection by the angel-voiced Kelli O’Hara) for a dance, your heart melted into a puddle all over the Vivian Beaumont. The production was, and surely continues to be sans Watanabe, stunning – especially the airy (not heavily ornate) sets by Michael Yeargan and the attention to character from the wives to the children to the monks by director Bartlett Sher. All are specific, with intention. This is the dream production of The King and I; it simply won’t get better than this.

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Jeremy Jordan in Parade. Photo by Jason Mun.

Parade
Concert, Manhattan Concert Productions 
Of course I had to include this one-night-only concert presented by Manhattan Concert Productions at Avery Fisher Hall. When the music – with an insanely huge, glorious orchestra – began playing, it cued all the tears for this excellent concert of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award-winning musical. A miscast, but dedicated Jeremy Jordan vocally highlighted the sympathetic undertones of the tough-to-crack Leo Frank. Laura Benanti (Lucille Frank) and Joshua Henry (Jim Conley) were the other standouts in a superb cast; the latter brought down the house with both of his solos (this man should be cast in everything). Some characters were lost because of Gary Griffin’s limited concert staging, but despite its few flaws, one must applaud MCP for taking a cue from ENCORES! and offering up shows that we otherwise wouldn’t see. It’s a shame that the stellar Donmar production never made it to the east coast, but here’s hoping that the MCP got folks thinking about revival possibilities.

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Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

A View from the Bridge
Broadway, Lincoln Center Theater via the Young Vic
Maybe we should only allow Brits (and a Belgian) to do American classics, because they nailed it – Brooklyn accents and all. There is no weak link in this cast, but Mark Strong is an undeniable presence as Eddie Carbone, aka the man with inappropriate feelings for his niece (played by the no less fantastic Phoebe Fox). The timeliness of the story (immigration) makes the sparely designed (scenic and lighting by Jan Versweyveld), rawly emotional production all the more moving and vital. It’s 2 hours with no intermission and I didn’t care. Based on this production (never mind Lazarus), everyone should book a ticket to Ivo van Hove’s The Crucible ASAP.

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