The Top 10
1. Sweet and Sad
Richard Nelson’s second chapter in a projected trilogy about the Apple clan was meant as a deciduous, time-stamped commentary on the anniversary of 9/11. (In part one, his fractious clan of center-left, bourgeois New Yorkers pondered their political extinction; here, with humor, grace, and grimaces, they face more existential stakes.) Yet months on, this simple family dinner—its Wilder warmth, cut by icy drafts of dread—remains 2011’s most delicately observed, spellbindingly performed play.
2. Sleep No More
A grown-up haunted house that actually haunts, Sleep No More (devised by the U.K.’s diabolical Punchdrunk company) is six floors of stylish madness that incorporates influences as diverse as Macbeth, Hitchcock, and techno. As you wander, masked, in the murk of the “McKittrick Hotel”—really a trio of converted warehouses next to the High Line—you encounter mute actor-dancers as they literally climb the walls of their infinitely detailed hell-house. If this be gimmickry, let us have more like it. Sleep No More phases through you like gamma rays, transforming you into (or maybe just revealing) the voyeur you were always meant to be.
3. The Book of Mormon
The year’s best, funniest, fiercest new musical comedy is also its most sincere. (How else do you get away with a song called “Fuck You, God” arriving hot on the heels of a paean to the plastic wonders of Orlando, Florida?) Once again, Trey Parker and Matt Stone take a ghettoized medium and make it their social megaphone; once again, they bother to master it first.
The reclamation of Stephen Sondheim’s famous Broadway flops—also known as the great capstone works of twentieth-century musical theater—continues with this towering revival of what might be his most emotionally open show. The tragic set of Bernadette Peters’s button-mouth in “Losing My Mind,” the furious going-nowhere hoofing of Danny Burstein in “The God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues,” Jayne Houdyshell’s soft-shoe-in-combat-boots take on “Broadway Baby”—the heart-deep hits just keep on coming.
Mark Rylance’s Rooster Byron—a drug-dealing Falstaff in modern-day rural England—was one of the great theatrical creations in memory, a character that straddles this world, the old world, and the misty possibility of some other world but can only truly exist on a stage. Jez Butterworth’s play overgrew the Music Box, exploding in real time like some beautiful invasive weed, an ornery, expansive work fighting its way into our age of contraction and diminution.
When the Fiasco Theater company’s stripped-down, no-budget adaptation of Shakespeare’s most troublesome romance opened in the theater next door to Spider-Man, much was made of the contrast: Behold, the folly of Big Money versus shoestring creativity! This gave the young savants of Fiasco too little credit: Cymbeline—with its custom tunes, delightful cast, and joyfully resourceful stage design—would’ve scored in any context, anywhere. (And it’s now at the Barrow Street.)
7. Sons of the Prophet
In a single, dolefully sweet show, and one of the only new plays to take on the Great Recession at ground level, we discovered an important playwright in Stephen Karam and a bright new star: Santino Fontana plays a descendant of Khalil Gibran, a Lehigh Valley Job, quietly gay, ethnically indeterminate by semi-rural-Pennsylvania standards (he’s a Lebanese-American Christian), economically insecure, in chronic pain … and still full of beautiful, put-upon vitality. Greatness is prophesied herein: Perhaps all’s well in the future of American playwriting.
In general, I wanted more sex and less Billy Crudup flibbertigibbetry in this subdued revival of Tom Stoppard’s heart-over-head masterpiece, where laws of passion and thermodynamics overlap and timelines interbleed. And yet, looking back, the ghostly palimpsest created on that stage by David Leveaux and his cast just gets more and more vivid the more I revisit it. The heat’s still there, in brazen defiance of physics.
9. School for Lies
Pastiche is for the weak: David Ives just up and rewrote Molière. In verse. His fun-house The Misanthrope, directed with utter joy by Walter Bobbie, gave us (among other things) the sexiest couple of the year in Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer. Ives’s couplets are so ruthlessly musical, so endlessly and sinuously witty, I was finding them in the folds of my brain for months.
10. Other Desert Cities and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures
Friedrich Engels, the GOP, and great playwrights agree: It all comes down to the family. This year, Jon Robin Baitz and Tony Kushner—masters with vastly different skill sets and a shared belief in the power of language—gave us houses of crooked timber, each struggling for ownership of the past and maybe a narrow tranche of the future. Desert is grandly sentimental and set in a cloud-castle of privilege; Intelligent is a sprawl that courts squalor, chaos, and despair in a vanishing urban middle class. I suspect future generations will seek out both, if they want to understand the fundamental social disintegration we’ve suffered this year, from House floor to home-and-hearth.
Honorable Mention: Andrei Belgrader’s slaphappy The Cherry Orchard, with the fabulous Dianne Wiest and John Turturro, was a sinus-clearer for Chekhov-lovers who’ve sat through one crepuscular, Bergmanesque interpretation after another.
Star of the Year
Actress makes Broadway debut in role (Born Yesterday) originated by Judy Holliday, gets Tony nomination, then goes on to reprise the role that made her the talk of the town (Venus in Fur). So goes the story of Nina Arianda, whose future is as bright as the laughs she garners. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t also call out the very fine work by Lily Rabe in Seminar.
Moment of Surprise Greatness
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People gently touched on touchy class issues, but what elevated this small, heartfelt play above its text was Frances McDormand. As a South Boston mother with endlessly bad luck, she brought unpredictability to a story that played out exactly as anyone might have guessed.
Best Puppetry Moment
While bouquets were rightly heaped on War Horse’s Joey, another, slightly less sophisticated moppet was slaying audiences across town in Robert Askins’s Hand to God. The stunning Steven Boyer pulls double duty playing both a demonic sock-puppet and his hapless Texas-teen puppeteer, and engages himself in what was, hands-down, the best-executed stage fight of the year.
Catch Me If You Can was no stinker, but the purported next Hairspray—same director, composer, and lyricist—closed after 170 performances. The cast was as hard-working as they come, but the conceit of a TV hour never quite jelled.
Jon Robin Baitz, whose playwriting heyday was in the late eighties and nineties, roared back with Other Desert Cities, which had a sold-out run at Lincoln Center before transferring to Broadway. David Henry Hwang, after a long stretch of smallish works and writing librettos for musicals like Aida, debuted a play on Broadway (Chinglish) for the first time since 1998. Finally, there’s Larry Kramer, whose The Normal Heart was once thought too cranky and polemical to endure but received a gripping revival.
Most Exciting Newcomer
The rise of China is the backdrop for Chinglish, but the rise of Jennifer Lim as a Broadway superstar is the real news. As an ambitious local official, Lim is all business and all woman, blending Hwang’s trademark wistfulness with her own snappy good humor. She’s the play’s central mystery, yet she remains un-mysterious and doggedly human throughout.
Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo contains some of loveliest, liveliest onstage poetry in recent memory, much of it delivered by a tiger shot dead by American soldiers in Iraq. That tiger was played (very well) by Robin Williams, whose celebrity may have overshadowed Joseph’s script. The play deserves, if nothing else, a long afterlife.
War Horse is the most intense and epic kiddie entertainment ever on Broadway, and the biggest achievement in mainstream puppetry since The Lion King, but there’s not a single beat of this show that wouldn’t have benefited from wordlessness. That its script won the Best Play Tony boggles the mind more than the show boggles the eyes.
— Scott Brown and Michael Alan Connelly