Best Broadway Plays 2013

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It was a very good year for Broadway theatre lovers. Here are my picks, not really in any order, although I don’t think anyone would argue too strongly about The Glass Menagerie headlining the group. (I apologize for the very long post).

The Glass Menagerie: Double punch: Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest American playwrights, and Cherry Jones, one of the most talented actresses of her generation. It is always a privilege to see Ms. Jones on stage. She shines, as expected, as the overbearing matriarch Amanda. But it is Zachary Quinto, (an experienced stage actor who is better known to filmgoers as the new Spock) as Williams’ stand-in Tom, who leads the production into the sublime. His performance of Tom’s opening soliloquy, spoken in darkness at the edge of the stage, weaves a spell that lasts through the final curtain. Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura) and Brian J. Smith (The Gentleman Caller) are also fine. I didn’t love some of the director’s staging decisions, specifically, Laura’s appearance and exit from inside the sofa (really) which distracted and detracted from the play’s magic, and the use of pantomime for some stage business. But given the beauty of the overall production, let’s not dwell on it. This is probably the best Glass Menagerie we’re going to see for a long time.

Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike: Christopher Durang’s multi-award winning play provides all of the drama and angst of Chekov, but with way more laughs. It’s intelligent fun. The main characters are all named after Chekov characters (except for Spike) and the action takes place in a Bucks County farmhouse, an updated version of a typical Chekovian setting. The plot involves sibling resentments, unfulfilled dreams, Voodoo, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Each member of the 6-person ensemble gives a perfect performance: David Hyde Pierce (who wows in a Luddite rant), Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, Shalita Grant, Billy Magnussen, and Genevieve Angelson. Kristine Nielsen is especially fine as Vanya and Masha’s lonely sister Sonia. Her shining moment occurs during a telephone conversation with her own “gentleman caller” that involves a hysterical imitation of Maggie Smith and her character’s slow, amazed realization that the man on the phone is actually interested in her. (She was nominated for a Tony but lost out to Ms. Tyson. Hyde Pierce was also nominated, losing to Tracy Letts). It’s a truly unique evening at the theatre and possibly Durang’s best work. He took home aTony for Best Play.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: As with The Glass Menagerie, this is one of our most celebrated American plays, in a 50th anniversary production that is likely the best we’re going to see in a long time. Also, like Menagerie, it’s a four-character intimate piece where every cast member turns in a perfect, vital performance. The 2013 version of Edward Albee’s masterpiece featured the original Steppenwolf cast, led by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton (the playwright and star of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County) as George and Martha. Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks play Honey and Nick, a young couple who find themselves in way over their heads as they are drawn into George and Martha’s boozy, dysfunctional household. The play is as funny as it is sad, as intriguing as it is deeply unsettling. Honey and Nick are really stand-ins for us, the audience, who like unwitting spectators at a horrible traffic accident, can’t turn away, can’t help being fascinated by George and Martha’s every move. It’s ultimately thrilling and exhausting. Tonys won: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play (Letts), Best Direction of a Play (Pam MacKinnon).

The Winslow Boy: This excellent Old Vic/Roundabout production is a revival of a Terence Rattigan play that originally premiered on Broadway in 1947. It is based on a true story about a young boy who is expelled from his British military school for allegedly stealing a small sum of money from a classmate. He swears his innocence—and his father risks both his health and his family’s future to pursue a court case in his son’s defense. Is the father foolishly obsessed with a futile battle? Is the boy innocent or guilty? How far should one go in pursuit of justice? The play doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but it is never less than riveting throughout its 2 hour and 40 minute run time.

In less capable hands, the play could easily become trivial or tiresome, but this cast, especially Michael Cumpsty (Desmond Curry), Roger Rees (Arthur Winslow), and Alessandro Nivola (Sir Robert Morton) convey every nuance of the text through subtle facial expressions and vocal expertise.

The Trip to Bountiful: Horton Foote’s beautiful, touching play, in a near-perfect production led by the amazing Miss Cicely Tyson in a performance that I will always remember. In a previous post, I wrote about a special “theatrical moment” that occurs during the play: It happens in the second act. Cicely Tyson (as Carrie Watts) has momentarily escaped the suffocating disdain of her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams, gorgeous, but perhaps a bit older than the character). Late at night in a nearly deserted bus station, Carrie raises her arms and rapturously sings an old hymn, “Blessed Assurance.” Spontaneously, the many church ladies (black and white) in the audience began to sing along. The feeling shared by all of us with a character up on the stage was so true and so powerful. It was a moment.

Macbeth: Starring Alan Cumming as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Malcolm, Macduff, etc. (You get the idea). Technically, this is not a one-man show, as the always excellent Mr. Cumming is joined by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley as (well, what are they exactly?) medical attendants of some sort in what appears to be a high security facility for the insane). They come and go as Cumming performs Shakespeare’s play. My favorite scene was when, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, he made love to himself—no easy feat. I thought it was a compelling, engaging evening of theatre. But if you haven’t read the Scottish play since junior high, you would be advised to dip into the Sparks notes to remind yourself of what’s what and who’s who. Because all of the characters look like Alan Cumming.

Special shout outs for stunning performances:

Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary. No surprise: Broadway audiences didn’t want to see a one-woman play about the Virgin Mary lamenting the death of her son. If this play had been produced by one of New York’s many excellent off-Broadway membership companies, I think it would have been better received and more successful. As for me, I was there opening night and I’m fortunate to have been able to see the estimable Ms. Shaw in a very moving performance.

Tom Sturridge in Orphans. As the feline, feral, and surprisingly intelligent Phillip living in dysfunctional squalor with his controlling brother Treat, Tom Sturridge leaps around the stage like a paranoid tomcat with ADD. The physicality of his performance is electrifying, as he jumps effortlessly from staircase to couch to table. I was gratified that he was nominated for a Tony (losing to Tracy Letts; no shame in that), but I felt that the production didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

Special Shari on the Aisle Stinko Award for Worst Play of the Year: The Anarchist. Although this show actually opened (and closed) in December, 2012, it was so dreadful and disappointing, especially given the talents involved (Patti LuPone, Debra Winger, and David Mamet), that attention must be paid.

Next Time: Off Broadway Favorites

5 Reasons I Love Working in Times Square

  1. Shari Times Sq. ballThere’s No Business Like Show Business. You’ve gotta love a place where the Catholic Church is called “The Actors’ Chapel.” That’s St. Malachy’s on West 49th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue—right across the street from “The Book of Mormon.” But wait—that’s not even the best part. Every Wednesday at 1:45 p.m., just before matinee curtains rise throughout the neighborhood, St. Malachy’s church bells chime Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (With a reprise at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays). It brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.

P.S.: Douglas Fairbanks married Joan Crawford at St. Malachy’s. And thousands of fans jammed West 49th Street to pay final tribute to Rudolph Valentino.

P.P.S.: Jews can visit The Actors’ Temple on West 47th Street, “A place where spirituality meets creativity,” according to their Website. Sophie Tucker and the two of the Three Stooges (Moe and Curly; Larry, where were you?) were once members.

2. The Theatuh, Dahling. This one’s obvious. According to The Broadway League, there are currently 40 operating Broadway theatres. That’s a lot to choose from. There are also plenty of terrific off-Broadway options in the area (Signature, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, the New Victory) to name a few. You can save money by visiting the TKTS Booth at 47th/Broadway, where you can purchase tickets to many productions at 20-50% off. You can also take advantage of theatres’ rush, standing room, and lottery policies to save even more money. Join hundreds of theatre lovers at the Book of Mormon or Matilda lotteries where you can put your name in a hat for a chance to buy mega cheap (around $27) front row or partial view seats. Your chances are slim (I once struck out 3 times in one day), but somebody’s got to win. (Learn more about these at Playbill.com).

3. It’s the Crossroads of the World. OK, not everyone would agree, but I challenge anyone to sit at one of the sticky red tables in Duffy Square, surrounded by the flashing neon lights advertising Kinky Boots, Pippin, Phantom, Annie, Wicked, etc., and not feel a thrill. Look Downtown and see the actual tower where the ball drops every New Year’s Eve. Look Uptown and see tourists chilling on the cool new TKTS staircase. Listen and you’ll hear every language of the world. Once, I even saw Santa Claus enjoying some well-deserved R&R near McDonald’s. Who wouldn’t want to be here? And lucky me, I am.

P.S. Duffy Square is named for Father Francis P. Duffy, who served as pastor of Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street until his death in 1932. A statue of him was erected that year and benevolently guards the North end of the Square, close by the TKTS booth.

Duffy Square

4. You Can Expect the Unexpected. A couple of weeks ago I headed up Broadway after work, enroute to City Center to see The Explorers’ Club. I got only a couple of blocks when I saw a scene that actually made me stop and pay attention—and that’s saying a lot. It was a group of naked people—men, women, old, young, fat, and thin—with intricately painted designs covering their bodies, including their most private parts. I had no idea what was going on. The people weren’t doing anything, just milling around. I later found out that they were the work of an artist, Andy Golub. But it was certainly unexpected, even in this neighborhood, where a man walks around with a cat on his head, a peevish Elmo may shove a small child, a Naked Cowboy poses for pictures, and Lena Dunham is shooting the upcoming season of “Girls.”

Santa Times Square

5. You Can Get It if You Want It. Whatever the season, you can buy what you need on the street—fake Pashminas in winter and fall, fake designer sunglasses in spring and summer. And a $5 alien head pattern scarf makes a fashion statement all year round. Hats, gloves, I Love NY sweatshirts, socks. You can put together an entire outfit, with a fake Coach handbag and $3 jewelry to accessorize. No excuse not to look sharp in this neighborhood!

JUST ONE MORE. I know I titled this post “5 Reasons I Love Working in Times Square,” but it’s hard to choose just 5. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t give a shout out to Engine Company 54 on 8th Avenue/48th Street. I love those guys for honoring their theatrical neighborhood every day. Their fire truck proudly boasts their motto: “Never Missed a Performance.” Truly, for everyone in Times Square, the show must go on.

Truck 54

Broadway Babies

Broadway Babies

The life of a child actor on Broadway isn’t all curtain calls, adulation, and lunch at Sardi’s. In this Sunday’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section Robin Pogrebin presents a sensitive, inside look at child actors currently working on Broadway, from the 4 Matildas to Annie, young Michael Jackson in Motown, and the child version of Kinky Boots’ drag queen.

http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/theater/nine-broadway-shows-feature-child-actors.html?ref=arts&_r=0