Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of Theatre 2006

I saw 97 shows over the twelve months of 2006, making it my busiest theatre-going year ever. It was also a mostly excellent year for the artform (especially regarding plays), so making a top ten list seemed impossible to me. And it was. That's why I've decided to extend my end-of-the-year roundup to a top twelve, in addition to the other categories I will mention. Without further adieu...

AWAKE AND SING: An almost flawless revival by Lincoln Center that shows that truly great works never go out of style or become dated (Broadway-Belasco Theatre).

CARMELINA: The York Theatre continued their Musicals in Mufti series (their version of Encores!) with this terrific little show by Joseph Stein. Just when I thought there were no great musical theatre comediennes left, Marla Schaffel blew me away as the title character. Hopefully, a full-fledged production will emerge, as was hinted at by York Artistic Director Jim Morgan (Off-Broadway-York Theatre at the Church of St. Peter).

THE COAST OF UTOPIA: In 2006, we were treated to the first two parts of Tom Stoppard's delicious trilogy about Russian intellectuals. The plays couldn't be any more different: Voyage is a soap opera that flits and floats, while Shipwreck delves deeply into the psyches of the central characters. Can't wait for Salvage (Broadway-Vivian Beaumont Theatre).

FAITH HEALER: A wondrous revival of Brian Friel's oft-neglected masterpiece. Incredible performances from the tight ensemble, which included Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones, and the outstanding Ian McDiarmid (Broadway-Booth Theatre).

HEARTBREAK HOUSE: A first-class production of one of Shaw's best, which is still as stingingly potent as it was 100 years ago. The revival, under the stylish direction of Robin LeFevre, featured one of the best ensembles New York has seen in ages (Broadway-American Airlines Theatre).

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS: It is a testament to the power of Brel's music, and to the talents of the fine ensemble cast who perform it, that a revue assembled forty years ago (with songs written sixty years ago) is still as electrifying today as it was at the Village Gate (Off-Broadway-Zipper Theatre).

LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY: Lili Taylor and Sherie Rene Scott commanded the stage in what can likely be called the definitive production of this John Guare play, and in turn gave the performances of their careers. Director Michael Greif also achieved a rare, commendable feat: he culled genuine performances from his group of talented young actors (Off-Broadway-Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space).

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE: A feckin'-good time had by all (Off-Broadway-Atlantic Theatre Company/Broadway-Lyceum Theatre).

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN: Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a Meryl fan, but she did blow me away with her heartwrenching performance as Brecht's signature dame. Tony Kushner's translation (with incredible music by Jeanine Tesori) and George C. Wolfe's strong direction made this outdoor mounting the best Courage New York has seen in years, as well as the best musical of the year (Off-Broadway-Delacorte Theatre).

OF THEE I SING!: City Center Encores! mounted a splendid concert version of what I consider to be America's greatest operetta. It featured a delightful cast, including the sharp Victor Garber, the divine Jennifer Laura Thompson (a dead-ringer for Madeline Kahn), the deliciously delectable and shockingly funny Jefferson Mays, and Jenny Powers, who brought down the house with the best "Jilted" I've ever heard (Off-Broadway-City Center).

SEVEN GUITARS and TWO TRAINS RUNNING: The first two productions of the Signature Theatre's season devoted to August Wilson highlighted the poetry and power of the late author's language in a way that has never been seen before. Putting Wilson's plays in a small, 199-seat theatre also brought an intimacy to the works that is usually lacking when they are presented in giant, cavernous Broadway houses. After these two triumphs, my appetite is wetted for their staging of King Hedley II (Off-Broadway-Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space).

(Omission: Even though I saw Theresa Rebeck's The Scene in 2006, I've left it off the list and out of the running for my other accolades since it doesn't technically open until 2007.)

Justin Bond, Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway
Natascia Diaz, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens
Raul Esparza, Company
Carla Gugino, Suddenly Last Summer
Jessica Hecht, The House in Town
Ian McDiarmid, Faith Healer
Cynthia Nixon, Rabbit Hole
Marla Schaffel, Carmelina
Meryl Streep, Mother Courage and Her Children
Nilaja Sun, No Child...
Lili Taylor, Landscape of a Body

MOST WELCOME RETURN: Julie White, The Little Dog Laughed (The show, and her performance, made my list last year, but I sure am glad to have them back in 2006!)

BREAKTHROUGH MALE PERFORMANCE: John Gallagher Jr, Rabbit Hole and Spring Awakening

BREAKTHROUGH FEMALE PERFORMANCE (tie): Halley Feiffer, Suburbia/Samantha Soule, The Voysey Inheritance

Awake and Sing!
The Coast of Utopia
Heartbreak House
The Pain and The Itch
Seven Guitars

FIVE SHOWS I'M SAD I MISSED: Almost, Maine; Bhutan; Blue Door; Indian Blood; Pen

SHOWS MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO IN '07: The Year of Magical Thinking; Salvage; Dying City; The Home Place; 110 in the Shade; King Lear; Journey's End; Follies; Eurydice; King Hedley II; Deuce; Prelude to a Kiss; LoveMusik

Have a Happy and Safe New Year and I'll see you in 2007!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Two Trains Running

The Signature Theatre Company continues its season-long examination of the late August Wilson with a near-perfect revival of Two Trains Running, his play about eminent domain and racial issues set in 1960s Pittsburgh. We view the world through a claustrophobic diner in the African American Hill District, owned and operated by Memphis (the phenomenal Frankie Faison) and the extraordinary characters who populate it. Director Lou Bellamy, a longtime Wilson collaborator, beautifully paces the action (which, at three and a quarter hours, never drags) and drama, and the fine cast expertly deliver Wilson's trademark poetics. Particularly excellent is January LaVoy as the troubled and tortured waitress Risa. After two triumphs back to back, my appetite is wetted for King Hedley II.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A little break...

Well, I'm officially home for winter break, which means not a lot of theatre for the next six weeks. I won't be writing that much in the coming weeks. I will post my end-of-the-year top ten list after the first of the year, since I still have one more show (Two Trains Running) to see this year. Also, I'm going in over the break to see four shows: Regrets Only, Translations, The Fever, and Kathy Griffin's concert. They will all get reviewed. Until then...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Name is Rachel Corrie

Watching this 90-minute one woman show brings to mind a very interesting question: how can a play with timely and provocative subject matter and a real message be so deathly boring? Part of the fault lies in Kerry Bishe, who played Rachel at yesterday's closing performance. She was flatly monotone throughout, and played Rachel (a Washington State native) with an overexaggerated Midwestern accent. The text itself is also at fault. It was adapted by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner directly from the journals and e-mails of Ms. Corrie, who, let's just say, didn't exactly write or speak like a Nobel laureate. The show could have greatly benefitted from the gentle hand of a dramaturg. Rachel Corrie was an idealist who died for what she believed in. Sadly, with this treatment, she comes off merely as a quixotic fool.

Heartbreak House

I attended the closing performance of Roundabout's top-notch revival of Shaw's Heartbreak House yesterday. It was my third time seeing the show, and I was once again dazzled by the wit and timeliness of Shaw's language, and the quality of the performances. Everyone brought their A-game for this show: Philip Bosco was appropriately dry as old Captain Shotover, and Swoosie Kurtz brought drollery to a whole new level as his eccentric daughter, Hesione Hushabye. Lily Rabe (the best young stage actress I've seen in years) and Laila Robins were divine, and Byron Jennings-a dramatic stalwart over the years-proved himself a brilliant comic performer. New York needs more visible Shaw productions, if I do say so myself, and ones of the quality of this revival. Might I suggest a major revival of Man and Superman?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Scene

Theresa Rebeck redeems herself after The Water's Edge with this razor-sharp black comedy about the New York party scene. Three entertainment industry professionals go through significant life changes after they become acquainted with a naive Ohio transplant and unapologetic party girl. Patricia Heaton and Tony Shaloub (both playing against their type) are absolutely terrific, as is veteran stage pro Christopher Evan Welch, but it is Anna Camp as the scenester who steals the show. I have never seen her on stage before, but on the strength of this performance I would say she can look forward to a nice, long career in theatre.

Murder Mystery Blues

I was really taken with this silly little show at 59E59. British writer-director Janey Clarke has smartly and stylishly adapted six of Woody Allen's early short stories for The New Yorker and added sultry jazz as incidental music. Some of the acting is sophomoric, and just as many jokes fail as fly, but there really is something utterly appealing about the piece. Of the actors, the former alternative rock musician Mary Fahl (in her theatrical debut) makes the biggest impression. Her raspy alto makes her sound like the love child of Karen Akers and Cleo Laine. She could have a fine career in musical theatre.

Friday, December 15, 2006

an oak tree

an oak tree is a theatrical conceit and nothing more. In this play (and I use the term loosely), two actors play the parts of a grief-stricken father and the hypnotist who accidentally killed his daughter. The hypnotist is always played by Tim Crouch, who also wrote the play, but the role of the father is played by a new actor (or actress) every night. The second actor has never seen or read the play, and gets all of their lines through sight readings, an ear piece or directly from Mr. Crouch. At the performance I attended, the wonderful Lili Taylor was the father. It amazed me how natural she was with brand-new material and reminded me just how brilliant she is. Sadly, the show is far from brilliant; it is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Post Mortem

The prolific A.R. Gurney's new play is an interesting concept poorly executed. In the near future, after our country has become a fascist theology, a professor of theatre and her lovestruck student reconstruct the final, banned play of a long-forgotten author named A.R. Gurney (insert coy inside-joke here). Once the play is returned to its former state and produced, it changes the world, and the nation is back on the right track again. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen with what is a very good plot, but it never came. The fine cast cannot be faulted, though; stage veteran Tina Benko is especially good as the academic in love the theatre's past.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Agony and The Agony

Since Nicky Silver's new play at the Vineyard is still in development, and technically not open for reviewing, I won't say much about the show. However, with some rewrites and a stronger ending, this often riotously funny modern-day drawing room comedy could be quite a success. The actors, which included Silver himself playing a blocked playwright, are all top-notch. Musical theatre goddess Victoria Clark, as Silver's long-suffering, wannabe leading lady wife, proves herself a comedienne par excellence, and Cheyenne Jackson essays the part of her dimwitted lover to perfection. Thankfully for the audience, there's more ecstasy than agony in this show.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck

Shipwreck, the second installment of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, is not as much fun as its predecessor, Voyage, but it is certainly a better made play. Focusing mostly on the life of Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne), it chronicles the writing of The Communist Manifesto (Marx is a character), the French Revolution, and the lives of the Russian intelligensia in European exile. O'Byrne is slowly growing into the role of Herzen; he's not quite there yet, but he's certainly not unwatchable, as others have said. As usual, the brilliant Jennifer Ehle shines as his wife, Natalie; she gives a beautifully natural and heartbreaking performance. Watch out for her at Tony time.

Also wonderful is Josh Hamilton as Nicholas Ogarev, the celebrated Russian poet and Herzen's best friend. Hamilton, who was only in one scene of Voyage, proves once again that he is one of the finest stage actors working today. I cannot wait for Salvage, where I hear that Ogarev is the central character.

Ethan Hawke's Bakunin and Billy Crudup's Belinsky both reappear here, and they are still lively and interesting characters. Both of these great actors are, in my opinion, giving the performances of their careers. Amy Irving also does terrific work (and looks twenty years younger) as Ogarev's estranged wife, Maria. After watching two-thirds of this trilogy, I'm wondering if there is anything Stoppard can't do. Please, someone, bring Rock 'N' Roll to these shores at once!

Monday, December 11, 2006


I'm sad to say that the World AIDS Day concert production of Rags was a dissapointment in almost every respect: the cast (for the most part) seemed underrehearsed and ill-at-ease with the material, the acoustics at the Nokia Theatre were god-awful, and the show was delayed by an hour due to the theatre's inept staff. Carolee Carmello has a gorgeous voice, but she's miscast as Rebecca: this role needs to be sung by a soprano. Eden Espinosa proves that she actually can sing, but she wasn't Jewish enough to play her character convincingly. Michael Rupert (a last minute replacement for Harvey Fierstein) is his usual reliable self, but he could have used a bit more rehearsal time to properly draw a character. And, of course, Gregg Edelman was vanilla. What do you expect?

The positives were Lainie Kazan, wonderfully vamping up the role of Rachel, and Lewis Cleale's impassioned union leader Saul. The best of all, however, was David A. Austin as Bella's boyfriend Ben: this kid has a real future. He sings and dances beautifully, and really acts the hell out of his part. Here's someone who deserves to be a headliner.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes

To quote a character from the show: "There should be U.N. sanctions against things like this."

No Child...

Writer/performer Nilaja Sun offers an incendiary look at the inner-city public school system with her terrific one-woman show. Ms. Sun, an actual "teaching artist" within the NYC school district, recounts her experiences trying to stage a production of Our Country's Good using the students of a tenth grade class at Malcolm X High in the Bronx. A completely malleable actress, who plays around twenty characters, Sun is reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in her prime. You won't regret spending time in her classroom.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Fantasticks

My friend Patrick hit the nail on the head when he described this new production of The Fantasticks as akin to watching a show in someone's basement. Everything about this production smacks of community theatre: forgettable acting, mediocre voices, and threadbare sets abound. The production's only exceptions are the lovely Sara Jean Ford and Burke Moses, who turns in a dead-on Jerry Orbach impersonation. I'm sure that this style of show was charming 45 years ago, but now it's just stale. I spent the better part of two-and-a-half hours trying to remember the original cast recording.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Dai (Enough)

Iris Bahr's masterful solo show at The Culture Project is everything that Bridge and Tunnel tried to be and wasn't. An incredibly talented writer and actress, Bahr plays at least a dozen characters, all of whom inhabit an Israeli cafe that is about to be bombed. She infuses her personae (which include an American actress doing research for a film role, a wealthy Israeli-American housewife who is openly contemptuous of the country, and a right-wing Christian zealot who believes that Israel must survive so that the rapture prophecy can be fulfilled) with humanity and heartfelt passion, and left this audience member sporting a tear or two. A bonafide must-see.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Torch Song Trilogy

Seth Rudetsky is a personality, that's for sure, but he's definitely not an actor. His performance as Arnold Beckoff, the lovably neurotic drag queen of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, is entirely forgettable and passionless. There were times when he was delivering his lines so fast that I could barely understand him, and times when it seemed to take him forever to utter one sentence. He simply doesn't have the chops for this marathon role.

Brad Thomason, as his bi-sexual sometimes lover Ed, and Andrea Wollenberg, as Ed's long-suffering wife Laurel, do much better, but neither can save this listless production, which clocks in at an almost unbearable four hours. What was once a galvanizing piece of social criticism, sadly, is now nothing more than a quaint period piece.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Apple Tree

Roundabout's new staging of Bock and Harnick's unsung masterpiece The Apple Tree does not resonate the way it did at Encores! almost two years ago, but it's still a wonderful evening of theatre. Kristin Chenoweth is beyond wonderful in a trifecta of quirky roles, including Eve (to Brian D'Arcy James' very solid Adam), a barberous princess, and a lowly chimney sweep who dreams of movie stardom. She owns the stage, and honestly, I don't think I've ever heard "I've Got What You Want" or "Feelings" sung better. And who doesn't love Marc Kudisch, deliciously diabolical as The Snake? That man can make anything sound good.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky

I've never had a stronger urge to jump off the highest cliff in Montana in all my life. Shame on Playwrights Horizons for sanctioning such dreck.