Every year around this time, the list-making comes. Who was naughty, who was nice, and who kept us engaged when the lights went down. Here’s my list of the best NYC stage productions of the year.
1. Between Riverside and Crazy (Off Broadway) Stephen Adly Guirgis‘ drama is one of the most stirring American plays of the decade — a portrait of a prickly diabetic ex-cop who is fatherly and kind-hearted as well as petty and bull-headed. In other words, he’s familiarly and challengingly human — and he’s played by the superb Stephen McKinley Henderson with all those contradictions intact. Thank heavens Second Stage will remount Austin Pendelton’s superb production next month following its premiere run last summer at the Atlantic Theater Company. (Is it too much to hope that the Second Stage transfer it to its soon-to-be-reclaimed Helen Hayes Theatre for a Tony-qualifying Broadway run?)
2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Broadway) To dramatize Marc Haddon’s 2003 best-seller about an autistic 15-year-old boy named Christopher, director Marianne Elliott and her team created a jewel-box performance space that mimics the workings of its hero’s brain — with artful projections, flashing lights, and staircases that appear out of nowhere. The tour-de-force production also boasts a star turn by the young Juilliard grad Alex Sharp, who makes Christopher both convincingly closed-off as well as compellingly accessible. It’s a magical evening of theater.
3. The Cripple of Inishmaan (Broadway) Daniel Radcliffe’s name may have been above the title, but this spot-on revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1997 Irish dramedy was truly an ensemble effort. In director Michael Grandage’s hands, what at first seemed like a grab-bag of stock characters became a rich stew of quirky townfolk who continually defied our expectations.
4. Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 (Off Broadway) Forget the off-putting business about the parts. Suzan-Lori Parks’ stunning new work unfolded like an old-fashioned three-act drama, the first in a planned trilogy (or nine-part saga, in her preferred terminology) that aims to chart the African American experience from the mid-19th century to the present day. The first installment, focusing on a slave who “volunteers” to join his master in fighting for the Confederacy, is thought-provoking, inventive, and (yes!) deeply entertaining. Who said that works about slavery have to somber?
5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Broadway) I’m tempted to include The Hurt Locker: The Musical on my list, but I should stick to actual productions rather than the faux bomb that offered a clever conceit and set design for Michael Mayer’s rockin’ revival. Who’d have thought this downtown cult phenomenon could play so well on the Main Stem, or that dude next door Neil Patrick Harris scruff up his image in fishnets and four-inch heels?
6. A Doll’s House (Brooklyn) British playwright Simon Stephens emerged as this year’s wunderkind. Not only was he responsible for the stunning adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the jolting Off Broadway drama Punk Rock, but he created a notably sprightly version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic as well. Hattie Morahan played a memorable Nora scrambling to keep her household intact — a feat made more difficult by the spinning of Ian MacNeil’s multi-room turntable set. She was like a rat caught in a maze of her own devising.
7. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (Broadway) One of my favorite theater-going moments of the year came during the “curtain call” of this show. The lights dimmed on the bedraggled Billie Holiday, and then seconds later came up on bright-eyed Audra McDonald — revealing the Tony-winning star’s remarkable transformation, body and soul, into the legendary jazz singer with the equally epic personal traumas.
8. Violet (Broadway) Sutton Foster un-glammed herself in revelatory revival of Jeanine Tesori’s undersung country-folk musical about a disfigured woman on a naive quest for a miracle from a TV preacher. It’s a homespun gem, boasting a memorable turn by Joshua Henry as a Vietnam-bound soldier who befriends the heroine.
9. Bullets Over Broadway (Broadway) Yes, I realize this short-lived musical based on Woody Allen’s 1994 film will land on many critics’ worst list. I had a blast. And the production boasted some of Susan Stroman’s best choreography and her most fluid directing with almost cinematic scene changes. Plus, Helene Yorke was a hoot as champagne-bubblehead yearning to be a Broadway star.
10. Macbeth (Off Broadway) In terms of sheer spectacle, it’s hard to top Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s elaborate jousting-on-the-heath production of the Shakespeare tragedy at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory. You could even smell the peat as you entered. But Branagh backed up the visuals with a bold interpretation of the Scottish usurper as both sweat-soaked action hero and apologetically naughty little boy.
Honorable mentions: The Elephant Man on Broadway; Grand Concourse at Playwrights Horizons; The Open House at Signature; Our Lady of Kibeho at Signature; Rock Bottom at Joe’s Pub.