New York theater-goers were treated to a variety of quality shows, a surprising number of which were plays. You can revisit a movie or download a song, but you usually have to see a play. (You can sometimes see a filmed play, but that is just not the same.) The following is a list of some of the shows and trends that comprised the best of 2018. It is personal and certainly not definitive nor even exhaustive. If one wonders why there is no mention of shows like Three Tall Women, Network or To Kill a Mockingbird, the answer is simple: I haven’t seen those shows (yet).
ICONIC GAY-THEMED PLAYS
The Boys in the Band seemed so stuck in the 1960s conventional wisdom that it could not be revived. Conventional wisdom was wrong. It not only could be revived but it actually made its Broadway debut, with an all-gay, all-star cast.
Angels in America returned to Broadway in grand style, due in large part to Ian MacNeil’s impressive scenic designs. It also featured standout performances by Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. When it opened in 1992, Angels was seen as an AIDS play, a product of its time, but it is still holding up well, and it deserves to be revived every few years.
Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl made this revival one of the highlights of the year. It is also, along with The Waverly Gallery, the best-written play in New York this fall. At first, I wondered if Urie could manage to play someone who couldn’t get a date, but his acting choices are excellent. His Arnold is warm and funny and wonderfully snarky. Ruehl, as the mother, gives the play depth. She is hysterically funny and seriously nasty. And when the twain meet the sparks fly.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
Lifespan of a Fact Cherry Jones evokes Sister Aloysius, a character for which she won a Tony award in Doubt, in moving from certainty to uncertainty. Her Emily was the key piece that made turning John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s essay into a play. Jones, Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale made for a riveting evening in the theater.
The Waverly Gallery is Kenneth Lonergan’s third play in three years on Broadway—following This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero. As much as I like his movies, his plays are so much better, and this is his best. Elaine May and Lucas Hedges stand out in a stellar cast. May plays a woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Actors talk about reacting to what their cast members say and do. May reacts to things they do not say and do. She is funny, sad and maddening. Hedges shows how exasperating it is to watch someone you love deteriorate.
What the Constitution Means to Me Heidi Shreck has turned a high school debate experience into a small industry—or at least a thought-provoking play for the #MeToo era. Don’t let the title fool you: It is not simplistic. Nothing really gets bashed, but a lot of questions do get asked, and a few even get answered.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF BROADWAY GETS SOME BURNISHING
Carousel You don’t get much darker than this show, but it featured some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best music. Spousal abuse, robbery and a shot at redemption don’t seem like the best ingredients for a good musical, but R&H’s work always has been much more serious than it is given credit for. This revival featured Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Renée Fleming and Lindsay Mendez.
My Fair Lady Some people had trouble with the ending of this revival, which is more #MeToo—or at least 21st century—than earlier versions. But before that, there are about two and a half hours of the best music of Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden Paton and Norbert Leo Butz were great. Laura Benanti and Danny Burstein have replaced Ambrose and Butz, and the show has lost none of its sheen.
THE DEVIL’S GOING ON
Satan and his surrogates paid a visit to New York. The Screwtape Letters made for a tempting look at temptation. Humorist Jean Kerr once noted that “the snake has all the lines.” In theater, he usually has all the good ones.
Irish Repertory Theatre had a typically excellent year: It resurrected the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever by Alan Lerner and Burton Lane and Two by Friel by Brian Friel, among others. But its production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer starring Matthew Broderick was special in a rare dramatic role. McPherson’s Faustian Christmas play was a scary comedy, and Broderick was wonderfully evil and genuinely scary.
IN THEIR OWN WRITE
The title may be old-fashioned, but the writing is about as up to date as anything that is currently on the stage. The mission of the Mint Theatre—another of the hidden treasures of off-Broadway—is to revisit old, forgotten works and breathe new life into them. Hindle has life to spare. “Hindle wakes” refers to an old secular holiday in Northern England, which is the setting of the play. The plot centers on two families—one rich, one not very rich—and a romance between Alan, the rich son and Fanny, the poor daughter. Having neither read nor heard of this play, I felt, when watching it, that I was seeing some long lost George Bernard Shaw play: an extremely literate critique of contemporary mores, featuring a strong woman exercising what rights she had and maybe a few she didn’t.
Denzel Washington gave a different take on Theodore Hickey. His was a kinder, gentler killer—one who is completely in the thrall of his own pipe dreams. The play moved at a brisk pace under George C. Wolfe’s direction and featured a great cast. You won’t often see that many major talents in relatively minor roles.
The Prom emphasizes the comedy in musical comedy. Its four stars who play bumbling do-gooders keep the audiences laughing all night. And at the show’s heart is a touching story about people learning to get along. The best compliment I can give to this show is that now when people ask me what musical to see when they come to New York, I say “The Prom.”