The Year in Theater

Photo: Carl Skutsch/Courtesy of the Karpel Group

10. The Four-Way Speech in Young Jean Lee’s ‘Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven’
Considering that it’s billed as “A Show About White People in Love,” and that it begins with a close-up video of the playwright being slapped in the face—repeatedly, for several minutes, hard enough to draw tears—it says something for Young Jean Lee that she still manages to save her play’s weirdest, funniest stroke for near the end. In unison, four Asian-American actresses deliver a speech in the author’s voice that rampages through race and gender sensitivities, mocking patriarchal white men, hypocritical white women, angry minorities, and Lee herself. “People think of me as this empowered Asian female, but really I’m just a fucking white guy,” they announce. Downtown saw some fine work in 2006, like Adam Bock’s unnerving office nightmare The Thugs, but Lee’s gutsy, taboo-busting speech was the clearest indication that the avant-garde isn’t dead, and has never been funnier.

Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Ellen Jacobs

9. Bill T. Jones’s Choreography in ‘Spring Awakening’
Thanks to Frank Wedekind’s classic coming-of-age story, Duncan Sheik’s power pop, and a sexy young cast, Spring Awakening lands on Broadway this week loaded with audience-pleasing weapons. Still, nothing in it shines quite as bright as the dances choreographed by Bill T. Jones. In song after song, he translates the twitchy energy of hormonal adolescents into stagewide physical movement: a kind of exquisite mass freak-out. The show wouldn’t be on Broadway without it.

Illustration: Wes Duvall

8. ‘The Coast of Utopia’
Tom Stoppard’s monumental trilogy premiered in London, but credit Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop, executive producer Bernard Gersten, and director Jack O’Brien with mounting a new production around the most outstanding company in recent memory. With a cast that includes New York stage stalwarts (Brían F. O’Byrne, Richard Easton) and movie stars who can actually act (Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke) supported by a dream-team design corps (Scott Pask, Catherine Zuber, Brian MacDevitt), the show ably fulfills part of Lincoln Center’s original mission: to showcase the very best talents of the American stage.

Photo: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop

7. The Nightmare Scene in Will Power’s ‘The Seven’
Many were dubious when New York Theatre Workshop announced that playwright/MC Will Power would rewrite Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes in an all-rhyming hip-hop treatment, complete with onstage D.J. and crew of rapper-dancers. Any suspicions about the unlikely marriage of street poetry and Greek tragedy were banished when one of Oedipus’s sons described a nightmare about being choked by his father, who was being choked by his father: “And all the mack daddys back to the beginning of time / Choking each other on the family line / And my daddy starts to look small / His curse just a piece of it all.” The relentless rhyme scheme established Power—unlikely as his style might be—as the most exciting verse playwright in America.

Birgitte Larsen in BAM's The Wild Duck.Photo: Richard Termine/Courtesy of BAM

6. ‘The Wild Duck’ at BAM
Revivals of classic plays this year ranged from intelligent and respectfully modest (Heartbreak House) to hyperactive and sluttishly inane (The Threepenny Opera)—and that’s just at the Roundabout. To find the revival of a play that best balanced fidelity and innovation, you had to go to Brooklyn. The Norwegian National Theatre’s stripped-down, sleekly modernized production of The Wild Duck brought Ibsen’s concerns with long-simmering guilt and the protective lies we tell ourselves thrillingly close to our own time. bam is sometimes criticized for showcasing over-arty European directors, but Eirik Stubø left no doubt that it’s possible to have characters sing Elvis songs and still deliver a great play’s punch.

Bob MartinPhoto: Joan Marcus

5. Immigration Restrictions Proved to Be a Bad Idea
Having held out even as TV and the movies succumbed, Broadway has fallen at last to funny Canadians—specifically, to a man in a chair. In The Drowsy Chaperone, Bob Martin’s laconic take on the show’s musical-theater obsessive provided the most unexpectedly hilarious performance of the year. Meanwhile, Brían F. O’Byrne reaffirmed that the Irish maintain a hold on all matters theatrical. As an anguished therapist in Conor McPherson’s Shining City, he gave the most closely realized, wonderfully nuanced performance in a career full of them. His snub at the Tony Awards—not even a nomination—should have meant war.

Elizabeth Stanley and Raúl Esparza in Company. Photo: Amy Arbus

4. John Doyle’s Revival of ‘Company’
It may not have gotten the blood pounding the way Sweeney Todd did a year ago, or been as much fun as The Drowsy Chaperone, but John Doyle’s spare, harrowing revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company proved to be the best musical of the year. Doyle once again rejected realism, having his fourteen actors play musical instruments. By leaving so much to the audience’s imagination, the show grows in memory: Long after you’ve gone home, it’s easy to picture Raúl Esparza’s luminous Bobby mired in Sondheim’s chilly, emotionally ambiguous New York.

Daniel Beaty in Emergence-See!Photo: Michal Daniel

3. Actor-Playwrights Got Over Themselves
Solo plays tend to be exercises in narcissism in which actor-writers keep the spotlight fixed on me-me-me. This year delivered three extraordinary exceptions to the rule, as public-minded artists used solo plays to embrace the city. First Sarah Jones brought her panoply of New York immigrants to Broadway in Bridge & Tunnel. Then, at the Barrow Street, Nilaja Sun’s funny and heartfelt No Child explored life in one of the city’s worst-performing schools. Last and most impressive was Daniel Beaty’s astonishing Emergence-See! at the Public. His play about a slave ship surfacing in New York harbor revealed him to be a dynamic and forceful performer, as well as an intelligent and provocative new writer—on both counts, the strongest debut of the year.

Christine Ebersole as Little Edie Beale.Photo: Amy Arbus

2. Christine Ebersole in ‘Grey Gardens’
It wasn’t just the gorgeous singing, or the expert punch lines, or the affecting emotional climaxes, all of which could be found piecemeal around town. Playing Little Edie Beale in the musical based on the Maysles brothers’ documentary, Christine Ebersole folded these virtues and more into a performance as close to perfect as anybody has a right to expect. Whether she was chattering to other characters in the Beales’s cat-infested house or confiding in us across the footlights, she gave Little Edie an essential dignity while also being totally entertaining: a theatrically vibrant balancing act to rival any in recent memory. And that’s just Act Two, after she spends the first half of the show playing Little Edie’s mother—a beautiful performance in its own right.

Jeff Binder and David Wilmot in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.Photo: Courtesy of Monique Carboni/Atlantic Theater Company

1. ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’
Martin McDonagh didn’t just write the bloodiest, most violent play of the year; it was also the most gruesomely funny. All but inventing the genre of the terrorism comedy, he told the story of Mad Padraic, the deranged head of the splinter group of an Irish paramilitary splinter group, and what happens when his beloved cat Wee Thomas winds up dead. A handful of plays distinguished themselves by taxing our brains in 2006, especially The Coast of Utopia and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. But as the body count rose, it was clear that McDonagh’s play had an unusually incisive focus on one of the intellectual failings of our time. Clinging too stridently to our orthodoxies leads to bloodshed in the end, he argues: hilarious, cat-brain-spattering bloodshed.

Julie WhitePhoto: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of Richard Kornberg

Honorable Mentions
Julie White’s sinfully funny turn as an amoral Hollywood agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed. The amazing first two minutes of the dreadful two-hour-long Tarzan: proof that stagecraft will get you only so far. The Atlantic Theater Company punched above its weight, sending two terrific shows, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Spring Awakening, to Broadway. Speaking of which, Spring Awakening’s slightly naughty publicity push. Hot theater advertising: Who knew? Overlooked History Boy Jamie Parker, the piano player: Even the one you never heard about was terrific. Kate Valk’s riveting, brave blackface deconstruction of The Emperor Jones for the Wooster Group. Scott Morfee and Tom Wirtshafter, continuing their run from Bug to Orson’s Shadow to No Child and making the Barrow Street Theatre a bright spot Off Broadway.

Jeremy ShamosPhoto: James Ambler/Courtesy of Shaffer-Coyle

Jeremy Shamos’s dual triumph: smooth playing an old-fashioned romantic leading man in Trouble in Paradise and hilarious as a goofball in Gutenberg! The Musical! Jefferson Mays stole the show as the feckless vice-president in Of Thee I Sing at the “Encores!” series. André Benjamin’s Cab Calloway tribute under the closing credits of Idlewild—not onstage but still the best old-school musical-theater number of the year. Kiki and Herb’s you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it encore, a larynx-busting, keyboard-pounding cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The heartbreaking Roslyn Ruff in Seven Guitars. Lestat’s silver lining: possibly driving the final stake through the vampire musical’s heart. Led by Meryl Streep, Brecht’s Mother Courage was as fierce as ever. Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor returned as Nixon and Kissinger in a biting revival of Nixon’s Nixon, Russell Lees’s depressingly relevant play about Tricky Dick’s last night in office.

Industry Star: Signature Theater Company
The vicious cycle of New York theater economics kept spinning in 2006: Production costs continued to rise, which led to pricier tickets and, too often, artistic compromise. One company found a way to break free of this dismal logic, with inspiring results. To mark its fifteenth season, Signature Theatre Company worked with lead sponsor Time Warner and another backer, Target, to cut the price of every seat for every show to $15. The response, predictably, has been wild: Since the positive reviews for the first play under this arrangement, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, ran a year ago, every one of those seats has been filled. Even better, founding artistic director James Houghton produced three shows that eminently deserved to be seen. John Guare’s Landscape of the Body received a sharp revival from Michael Greif and offered another showcase for rising star Sherie Rene Scott, and the company’s season devoted to August Wilson began with rich performances in Seven Guitars and, this month, a lovely, romantic Two Trains Running. The only drawback to Signature’s extraordinary year is that when shows extend—as all of these did—ticket prices revert to the usual $55. It’d be better, of course, if the company could keep prices low to the end of their runs. But even now, Houghton’s $15 ticket is more than just the best deal in town: It’s one of the most hopeful signs for Off Broadway’s future.

You can almost feel sorry for Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore. Appearing on Broadway for the first time, each was slapped down for being ravishing onscreen and far less so when called upon to use her entire body and voice. Yet it’s the directors and producers of Three Days of Rain and The Vertical Hour who deserve calling out, for their cynical casting that threatened not only the quality of the plays but even their success. (Don’t you think Julia’s run would’ve been extended if she’d been any good?) Movie-famous names can be great—Ed Harris almost salvaged Neil LaBute’s Wrecks, and Billy Crudup (see No. 8) was more than adequate in the flesh. But please, producers: Remember that on Broadway, the ability to hold a stage beats celebrity every time. —Boris Kachka

The Year in Theater