To sum up 2018 is impossible. But we reflected on the theater we could not forget. Good or bad. Epic or small. Our writers and editors give you their memorable moments of the past year.
Dance Nation, by Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons, and in particular Ashlee’s “I think I might be frickin’ gorgeous” monologue, performed with zeal and frightening passion by Lucy Taylor. The monologue is bizarre and empowering all at once, and was a perfect mélange of text, performance, lighting design and hitting an audience just at that moment when we thought we’d seen it all…
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris at NYTW. I was devastated when the play was over, I wanted more. More of this play that pulls no punches, is uncomfortable and beautiful and brave. A couple standout moments (though the whole is exquisite) include: the earth-shattering transition from Act I to Act II and Kaneisha’s last monologue, her release, performed superbly by Teyonah Parris.
Angels In America: This was my first 8-hour theater experience. I read the play before seeing the show starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield and I was not prepared for the execution, reverent, kooky, and bizarrely spiritual. I was enthralled with Tony Kushner’s words. One of the stand-out aspects is Nathan Lane’s performance as Roy Cohn, a historical Reagan-era monster, equal parts buffoonish, human, depraved, acerbic, thirsting after tenderness, yet rejecting tenderness at every turn. When Garfield delivers the final monologue, I felt ordained.
Interstate the Musical: With music and lyrics by Melissa Li and Kit Yan, I caught this musical at the 2018 New York Musical Festival. It’s a road trip musical where romantic drama reveals the complexities about the queer Asian American experience and does not shy away from the toxicity that can brew between queer individuals.
The entire experience of Lewiston/Clarkston: The plays of Samuel D. Hunter have always considered big ideas of American life on a small scale. Rarely, though, have the productions they’ve been given – usually tradition, proscenium presentations – matched that unique juxtaposition. So for a sheer sense of scope alone, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s expansive yet intimate double-bill of intertwined works about the descendants of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, and about the changing dynamics of the Western frontier, was overwhelming and memorable. Performances lasted nearly four hours and included a catered dinner (the potato salad was phenomenal), but each audience only comprised 51 members, sitting so close to the actors that we could smell their sweat. As an experience it was exhilarating, occasionally uncomfortable, and always surprising. The close quarters and shared meal, where strangers became dining companions, reinforced the idea of theater as a communal event. Even better: the plays themselves both burrowed deep beneath the skin, and the acting, across the board, couldn’t have been better.
Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women: The rare performance that not only lives up to its hype but succeeds it. Returning to the New York stage after an absence of 30 years – most of them spent as a member of the U.K. parliament – Jackson gave a performance in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-winning meditation on life that was funny, terrifying, raw, honest, intoxicating, soulful, moving, and any host of other adjectives one could dream up. She turned ordinary words into arias in her resonant, purring voice. And she turned a hardened theater critic like me into a blubbery mess. I’m often skeptical when I hear someone say they feel privileged to have seen a certain play or performance, but in this case, I can’t imagine a more accurate word.
Pygmalion: Shaw’s play full of biting social commentary shined anew after the BEDLAM treatment under Eric Tucker’s direction. Pairing an Indian Eliza Doolittle (Vaishnavi Sharma) with a high-English Henry Higgins added layers of imperialism and racial oppression to Shaw’s critique. And there was a good deal of BEDLAM’s signature fun.
Mlima’s Tale: Lynn Nottage has made us empathize with human-trafficked prostitutes, exploited blue-collar workers, a lonely seamstress, and all sorts of other complex human portraits. Could she do the same for an elephant? Yes. Yes she can.
The Seafarer: I continue to be uncertain about what exactly it is in Matthew Broderick that the people at the Irish Rep seem to prize beyond his marquee name (it certainly cannot be his labored efforts at an Irish accent), but The Seafarer was a great success despite Broderick’s anemic Devil. Colin McPhillamy’s bonhomie-filled Richard was a wonderful master of ceremonies for this booze-fueled, sardonic Christmas tale.
ShakesBEER: A bar crawl featuring pop-up performances of scenes from Shakespeare at each stop sounds great in an of itself, but the Shakespeare Exchange made it even more successful by embracing the peculiar conditions of their performances: the scenes chosen utilized crowds in the bars as part of the stage craft rather than simply as audience. Performances were spot-on, and the beer was good too.
Catch As Catch Can: The show definitely had some flaws, but it was ambitious. It wasn’t something I had seen before, and I’m still thinking about it months later. I can’t wait to see what playwright Mia Chung does next.
Dear Diary LOL: Six women willing donated their diaries, knowing they would be read from verbatim in the play Dear Diary LOL. That’s very brave. The thought of even cracking open my middle school diary makes me shudder. This was one of my favorite shows because the audience got to hear the uncensored thoughts of teenage girls. Adolescent girls have sexual urges that are typically erased or worse, mishandled, by the people who are telling their stories on stage or screen. Dear Diary LOL is one of the rare plays that doesn’t do that. Francesca Montanile Lyons and Michael T. Williams took their characters seriously rather than just portraying them as “silly” girls. It was also a lot of fun and full of early-2000s nostalgia with Britney Spears songs and unfortunate fashion accessories.
Oklahoma!: One of rare shows that lived up to its surrounding hype, Daniel Fish’s downtownification of the 1943 musical stripped away the attendant nostalgia that usually accompanies the remounting of a classic work and – unexpectedly, wonderfully, terrifyingly – revealed that the foundation on which the musical (and America itself) is built upon remains dangerously sturdy after all this time.
What the Constitution Means to Me: In a perfect, terrible conjunction of art and history, I saw What the Constitution Means to Me on the night the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It was a very necessary moment to be reminded of the enduring power of the US Constitution, and also a heartbreaking moment to be confronted with its failures. And a few individual scenes from that show have stuck with me, almost word-for-word, with an amount of precision I rarely have in recall. Frustrating, moving, both personal and universal, and powerful, What the Constitution felt necessary to this particular time and place. I wish it didn’t, but I also won’t forget it.
Catch as Catch Can: It’s not a perfect play, but Mia Chung captures a certain kind of New England community in a way that gave me instant flashbacks to my Rhode Island years, and the three performances (Michael Esper, Jeanine Serralles, and Jeff Biehl, each of whom plays both a parent and that parent’s adult child of the opposite gender) are all remarkable. Even when they’re literally playing scenes against themselves (as mother/son or father/daughter), you see both the lineage/familial resemblance and the distance each child has had to create from the parent, all at once.
Travesties: It’s one of my favorite plays; it mashes up limericks, Oscar Wilde, Dada, Bolshevism, and about eighteen other high-concept things besides, while being screamingly hilarious. (And it’s not like Importance of Being Earnest wasn’t hilarious already.) Not to mention based on a ridiculously true historical footnote.
Pass Over: For me there was no tighter play or production this year. Every element clicked together perfectly for a portrait of the endless cycle of injustice and violence towards Black men in America. It left me stunned.
Rags Parkland: Sometimes a show sneaks up on you. Maybe you didn’t quite know what it was about. Maybe it’s just perfectly timed to the politics of the moment. Or maybe it’s just that good. From the very first moment, I believed in the unusual world-building of Rags Parkland Sings The Songs of The Future. The melancholy of the show struck a nerve. It was like artist Andrew R. Butler had unearthed a song which we all had buried inside us. He and his cast were singing what was in all our hearts. When I emerged from the futuristic bunker we had been hiding in, it did not quite feel like the show had ended–our world here still suffers from the heartache he was singing about. But there had been connection and catharsis in singing together in the dark.
The Waves: I was probably around 20 when I met composer/lyricist David Bucknam. He was a professor at NYU. He was close friends with my former roommate. My abiding memory of the time we spent together is of laughter. He was funny and delightful. He died by suicide maybe a year or two after we had met. I attended his memorial where many of his former students gathered and performed songs from his work, The Waves. This summer at Powerhouse I got to revisit The Waves in full. David’s friend and student, Raúl Esparza, along with David’s student Adam Gwon, and David’s collaborator director Lisa Peterson brought the piece back. It’s a chamber musical that is an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s book. It’s strange, beautiful, and sad. It’s a piece about the passage of time, lost friends, and the imprint of people on your life. So fitting for my memories of David.
Rocktopia!: I never laughed at any show so hard as I laughed at this show which somehow involved a squatting fiddler rocking out and karaoke-style projections of someone finger fucking a lake. Also images of Anne Frank. What even was this. I still don’t know.
Performances of Note: I’m late to the Paul Sparks party but glad to have finally caught the bug with his electric performance in At Home At the Zoo. Gregg Mozgala and Tiffany Villarin showing teenage vulnerabilities in Teenage Dick. Shannon Tyo’s progressive exhaustion in The Chinese Lady. Edmund Donovan as the affable on the outside, yearning on the inside Chris in Samuel D. Hunter’s Clarkston. Arnie Burton as the longtime closeted man in Hunter’s Lewiston as he tries to explain his truth to an outsider. The ensemble of Martyna Majok’s Queens. Hannah Gadsby’s protective rage in Nanette. Those set changes in Yerma. James McArdle showing Louis fighting his way through his own fear Angels in America. Nathan Darrow and Marin Ireland making me think lesser Tennessee Williams might be greater in Summer and Smoke. Billy Fucking Crudup reminding me of why I fell for his work in college with everything he did in Harry Clarke. Jack Ferver as the troublemaking, saucy Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Heidi Schreck making me cry in What the Constitution Means To Me.
This Ain’t No Disco: Critically reviled and broadly disliked, This Ain’t No Disco squandered a great concept – the crazy highs and quick decline of late ‘70s Studio 54 – for an overstuffed, undeveloped mess of a musical. But damn if I didn’t have a lot of fun. In Darko Tresnjak’s absurd everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink staging, Disco seemed to embrace its awfulness from moment one, to my genuine thrill. Barely clothed disco boys writhed around on all-fours; simulated blow jobs seemed to last for hours; one song was interrupted halfway through for an unexplained clarinet solo.
My personal favorite scene had Studio 54 boss Steve Rubell inform a disco boy his father has died, then immediately launch into a song about how the boy should fuck him. Rubell was played by Theo Stockman, embodying the show’s camp ludicrousness as he chomped away at the scenery. Meanwhile the wonderful Will Connolly delivered a genuinely fascinating, sometimes moving performance as an Andy Warhol-alike simply called ‘The Artist.’ Sitting outside the action with a sad, detached air and occasionally delivering dry commentary, Connolly captured the melancholy status of an artist as outsider. Yet he also suggested, in moments, that The Artist might simply be a sociopath. The character was a genuinely fascinating puzzle. It wasn’t entirely clear why he was in this show, but, still.
Mint Theater Company: A number of smaller off-Broadway companies quietly toil each year at various rental venues around New York, presenting two or three productions a year in short runs. Often these companies are hit-or-miss – Play Company, Keen Company, etc. One troupe that never disappoints is the Mint. Their mission is reviving forgotten plays from the past, in small-scale but always sumptuous stagings.
This year they delivered three winners – Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton, Conflict by Miles Malleson, and Days To Come by Lillian Hellman. All three works were perfectly performed (mostly by actors I’ve never heard of) and expertly directed. All three works brimmed with themes and ideas relevant to our current moment, making it hard to believe they were written so long ago. Conflict was the strongest production, but Hindle Wakes featured the best performance – a commanding, scene-stealing turn by theater veteran Jonathan Hogan.
Breakdown in Uncle Vanya: In terms of single, specific moments in a theatrical production this year, I’m not sure anything can compete. When poor defeated Vanya breaks down at a family meeting late in Chekhov’s masterpiece, it’s always a devastating moment. But in the hands of Jay O. Sanders, the emotional nakedness of Vanya’s reaction was truly terrifying. Sanders shook so uncontrollably that I wondered, for a moment, if the actor was still in control. In a way, he is not. Sanders lets true devastation and rage overtake him in this moment. For the audience, the experience is just as overwhelming.
Ending of The Ferryman *SPOILERS*: Sometimes a play’s ending is so great, it erases all the quibbles you had with what came before. The final moments of The Ferryman hit a very tricky balance – both shocking and, in retrospect, totally inevitable. Just before his final violent act, I thought Quinn Carney’s arc was ending on a note of defeat. That felt bold but, honestly, not too satisfying. Then came the turn. There is real pleasure in over a thousand people experiencing an ‘oh SHIT’ moment as one. “Holy fuck” yelled a man nearby, as Quinn slashed an IRA leader’s throat.
Further gasps followed as he gunned down his associate. As the final line hit and the lights cut out, a groan of pleasure spread throughout the room – followed quickly by a standing ovation. Now, Broadway Standing-Os are now basically meaningless. This one, though, felt like a genuine response to a perfectly executed finale. We leapt to our feet.
Honors Students: One of my my favorite downtown shows this year was Mariah MacCarthy’s dark new play at Wild Project. Explorations of female friendship are all the rage these days, but MacCarthy manages to capture something uniquely powerful in this piece that brings a “Heathers”-like black humor to the social media age. Strong performances by Arielle Goldman, Chris Harcum, Olivia Levine and Thanh Ta and direction by Leta Tremblay helped make it an unexpected gem.
Bryan Cranston in Network: I won’t soon forget Bryan Cranston’s performance in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Academy Award-winning film. While big screens and live video capture made the actor highly visible for those in the highest reaches of the balcony, nothing could beat seeing tears spring from the man’s eyes at close range from the second row of the orchestra. From that vantage, there was no mistaking Cranston’s unrelenting commitment to the role.
Am I allowed to second What the Constitution Means to Me? There were flashier, more dramatic shows begging to be remembered, but this is the one that I actually wish I knew precisely by heart, partly because I keep finding myself trying to recall a moment, particular phrase, argument or insight to others. The personal is political and Heidi Schreck renders U.S. history, politics, and the title document achingly human; that feels so essential, perhaps now more than ever (but perhaps always and ever)? I was also there with a group of community college students and it felt especially important for them to see it.
Here are some of my favorite performances from this year: Joan Allen’s exhausted/frustrated/distraught daughter in The Waverly Gallery, Ken Barnett’s aching reformed child molestor in America is Hard to See, Quincy Tyler Bernstine’sjoey two opposite roles in The Amateurs and Our Lady of 121st Street allowing her to prove for the umpteenth time that she is impossibly talented, Stephanie J. Block doing Cher, but also playing the goddamn role in The Cher Show, Rosedely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck, and Mike Iveson walking the impossible line between off-the-cuff conversation and scripted text and using that to bridge a gap and bring the audience closer in What the Constitution Means to Me, Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Ali Stroker, Mary Testa, and Patrick Vaill reinventing Oklahoma!, Edmund Donovan as the damaged son in Clarkston, Gideon Glick using humor to cover pain and loneliness in To Kill a Mockingbird, Marin Ireland’s tour-de-force in Summer and Smoke, James McArdle delivering one of the most alive performances I’ve ever seen in Angels in America, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill tearing into two difficult Albee monologues in Three Tall Women, Christophe Montenez defining scary-sexy in The Damned, Billie Piper exposing her very soul in Yerma, Mare Winningham exterminating the Public Theater with her rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Girl from the North Country.
The Jungle: It is one of the most well-crafted productions I’ve seen ever, without going overboard with gimmicks. Every single one of the wide array characters are thoroughly developed and the complex plot is easy to follow. It transports, it illuminates, and it beckons the audiences to listen, to learn, and to act. The subject matter is so urgently relevant and it exemplifies everything theatre is meant to be.
Fairview: This is THE show that illustrates perfectly the people-of-color experience.
The Undertaking: A thousand stories packed into one intimate conversation on life, death, and letting go. I think it’s The Civilians at its finest for it doesn’t rely on the device of using verbatim texts from interviews, but rather crafted an idea into full fruition.