It shouldn’t have worked. Ten actors should not have been able to play all the roles in Stephen Sondheim’s grisly masterpiece, let alone all the instruments. Yet somehow director John Doyle and his ensemble turned this revival into a landmark of musical theater, almost making it seem like a new work. Spare orchestrations made it newly possible to appreciate the lyrics. And Doyle relied not on sets and props to flesh out the onstage world, but the imaginative faculties of the audience.
2 ‘See What I Wanna See’
On Broadway, “musical” may be increasingly synonymous with “fun for the whole family.” But at the Public, Michael John LaChiusa’s short duet of musicals—one a Rashomon-like tale of lust, violence, and deceit in Mancini-era New York, the other about a fallen priest seeking to avenge himself on a godless universe—had more than enough style and smart storytelling to overcome some odd Japanese vignettes.
3 ‘The Light in the Piazza’
There are no new tricks in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s new musical about an American woman and her troubled daughter on vacation in Italy. Yet the writers find plenty of charm in the old fashions of lush music and an occasional comic twist. They’ve proved that, done right, the big, romantic tuner still has a home on Broadway.
John Patrick Shanley’s parable about a nun trying to determine whether a priest is molesting her students is an efficient masterpiece, 90 taut minutes that reach all the way up to consider grand questions of doubt and faith and down to explore one woman’s personal torment. A smart play that’s also a hit, it’s at once thoughtful and thrilling.
2 ‘Hope Leaves the Theater,’
by Charlie Kaufman. Coming from the quirky genius behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, this radio play—half of Theater of the New Ear at St. Ann’s Warehouse—was bound to be thick with self-referential trickery. But who could have guessed how moving a stage debut it would be? Kaufman’s account of a lonely woman watching and leaving a play (written “by Charlie Kaufman”) proved more inventive than a year’s worth of downtown fare, and vastly funnier.
3 ‘In the Continuum,’
by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter. How much extra credit do you get when your grad-school homework becomes an Off Broadway triumph? This harrowing first play about two HIV-positive pregnant women put the city’s longtime pros to shame. During its bleakest moments, it sustains an improbably vibrant sense of humor.
Any number of actresses could have found the steel in Sister Aloysius, the stern principal in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. It took Cherry Jones to find the woman’s gentleness and aching humanity. For this longtime fixture of the New York stage, the highest praise that can be offered is that this year, she managed to outdo even herself.
2 Liev Schreiber
Glengarry Glen Ross
As Richard Roma, the oiliest of David Mamet’s oily real-estate salesmen, Schreiber delivered a flawless performance. He deftly navigated the ego outbursts and flights of Mametspeak, never once ruffling his mustache.
3 Henry Stram
See What I Wanna See
Playing a priest who loses his faith, an actor risks falling into clichés. Yet Stram gave his character an anguished transparency—even at his most bitter, the pain he nursed kept him sympathetic.
A sinus condition has never been so funny. As the nerdy kid speller in respiratory distress in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Fogler showed Broadway what downtown has known for years: He’s a relentlessly funny actor.
2 Remy Auberjonois
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
Rolin Jones’s freewheeling comedy went to some strange places, and Auberjonois nailed the hilarious oddball lurking in every one of them. As a profanely sputtering computer scientist, he delivered a memorable tirade about the twin burdens of living in New Haven and being poisoned by Thai food. It may have been the single funniest speech of the year.
3 Lily Rabe
Colder Than Here
An understated turn in Steel Magnolias suggested Rabe might be a talent to watch; here, her affecting portrayal of the troubled daughter of a dying mother confirmed it. Already she has grace and force—a rare combination.
*Not “debut,” because these people have all been onstage before—but these were likely career-changing performances.