ModFabulous 2006: Best Theatre of the Year
The ones we loved, the ones we didn't. Enjoy:
HONORABLE MENTION: Christine Jorgensen Reveals (New World Stages)
There was an undeniable allure Bradford Louryk's tour-de-force recreation of Christine Jorgensen, the world's first internationally famous transgendered woman. Lip-synching flawlessly to a scratchy radio recording of Jorgensen's only extant interview in the 1950's, Louryk synthesized performer and character into an odd middle ground, a hypnotizing, enthralling, and disconcertingly self-aware event. Jorgensen's conservative moral manners and highly evolved intellect only serve to increase the fascination that this odd piece (a theatrical documentary? A drag show without drag?) engenders.
10. The Internationalist (Vineyard Theatre)
If industry and economics were the major themes of the 20th century, then communication will be the driving force of the 21st: new technology, a globalized community, and space exploration will all demand that human beings find new ways to understand (and be understood by) each other. Anne Washburn's witty exploration of the subject, The Internationalist, followed a clueless businessman to an unnamed foreign country...and when the locals spoke in their own (nonsensical) language, we -- like the businessman -- were left to struggle for meaning and comprehension. Brilliantly sharp and timely work.
9. Madama Butterfly (Metropolitan Opera)
When Peter Gelb set out to transform the stodgy image of the Met, he reached deep into the talent pools of Broadway and Hollywood. So far, it seems like a genius strategy: director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) split open Puccini's masterwork Madama Butterfly and reinterpreted its Asian aesthetics, complete with mahogany minimalism, Bunraku puppets and Shoji screens. The performances by Cristina Gallardo-Domâs and Marcello Giordani were adequate, but paled next to Mingella's exquisitely unusual choices, Han Feng’s vibrant costuming, and Carolyn Choa’s unnerving choreography. This is opera for the new century...and an opera everyone, even non-devotees, can enjoy.
8. The History Boys (Broadhurst Theatre)
No play had a better year than Alan Bennett's treatise on education and cultural obfuscation: a world tour, a Tony-winning triumph on Broadway, and an adaptation into a well-regarded film. But it's adulation may occlude it's superb writing, Nicholas Hytner's crisp stage direction (replete with black-and-white video overhanging the stage), and some stunning performances, notably by Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett. In 2007, let's hope its success continues with a flurry of good regional productions spread far and wide.
7. The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Atlantic Theatre Company/Lyceum Theatre)
The greatest trick pulled on audiences this season was by the playwright prankster Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman), who bathed the stage in a bloody, savage tale of Irish revolutionaries, savage assassins, and gory dismemberments...and then made it into a hilariously witty comedy about a lost cat. Audiences that might otherwise recoil in horror at such brutal violence were instead to be found laughing in the aisle for the Off-Broadway hit (turned Broadway Tony contender). It will be many years before we forget this brilliant, caustic twist on genres and mores.
6. Based on a Totally True Story (Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II)
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is the greatest American playwright you've yet to hear of; he is equally adept at drama (evidenced by his current Off-Broadway hit, Dark Matters starring Elizabeth Marvel) and comedy...all of which reeks of personal investment and powerful storytelling. The semi-autobiographical memoir Based on a Totally True Story chronicled the young author's dalliance with Hollywood and the destruction of his relationship, all with a knowing poignancy and searing wit well beyond his years. The play also featured the greatest performance you'll never see, Kristine Neilsen, as an addled but determined Hollywood agent.
5. The Little Dog Laughed (Second Stage/Cort Theatre)
Once upon a time, Broadway was the preeminent home in the universe for urbane, sophisticated comedy. Then Neil Simon came along and shot that to hell. (Popular, yes. Talented? Your call. Sophisticated? Never.) Wendy Wasserstein and others tried to get the legacy back, but to no avail...at least, not until Douglas Carter Beane unleashed all kinds of comic hell in The Little Dog Laughed. Julie White is the reason to see the play (in a role, we hear, originally written for Cynthia Nixon), but Beane's whipsmart one-liners exposing Hollywood hypocrisy are the icy frosting on the most delicious cake in town.
4. The Drowsy Chaperone (Marquis Theatre)
From its roots at a birthday party game to the Toronto Fringe Festival to Los Angeles to winning Tonys on Broadway, this subversively anachronistic musical has charmed the pants of audiences wherever it went. For there was no piece in 2006 more in love with the power of theatricality: sweet without being condescending or sugary, its show-within-a-show conceit gave its performers enormous freedom to pull out all the stops. And when you've got talent like Sutton Foster, Beth Leavel, Danny Burstein, Edward Hibbert and (especially) Bob Martin, you're headed for uncharted glory.
3. Spring Awakening (Atlantic Theatre Company/Eugene O'Neill Theatre)
Arguably, the theatrical event of the year. Not since Hair has a musical transformed the landscape of musical theatre so intensely, jettisoning structural conceits held since the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Audiences probably won't notice, however, since they'll be too busy enjoying the magnificent performances (especially those of Jonathan Groff and surefire Tony nominee John Gallagher Jr.), daring direction and sublime music. It's not just the best musical on Broadway this year. It's a piece of theatrical invention that deserves to be recognized, alongside Hair and Rent, as one of the important building blocks for the art form's future.
2. Stuff Happens (Public Theater)
It may be hard to remember now (with the Bush Administration in shambles), but even as recently as last spring, it was daring to speak openly and honestly about the post-9/11 political disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq...the threat of being called a traitor (or "cut and run", or a million other Republican slights) was too real in the public discourse. Which makes David Hare's docudrama all the more resonant. In a room that included the best acting ensemble seen in this or many other years, the private drama of Bush, Condoleeza, Rummy, Wolfowitz, Blair, and others was replayed before our eyes, with the intensity, focus, and grandeur of Greek tragedy. A stunned audience sat after the curtain call, waiting for...something. Finally, someone yelled out, "Please tell me this isn't true!" Sadly, it was. But thanks to Hare, a corner had been turned, and good men of conscience were no longer going to sit idly by. Traitors no more.
1. [title of show] (Vineyard Theatre)
There's no joy like discovering new talent, and in 2006, there was no greater talent than Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, the self-aware smartasses who wrote a musical for a competition in two weeks...about a musical being written for a competition in two weeks. But that oversimplifies its charm, wit, and unrelenting positivity: [title of show] is a love letter to the theatre, written by two of its most adoring acolytes. Admittedly, it may be too inside for most audiences -- you'd have to know why the Triton Gallery is important, or why a minor actress like Dinah Manoff would be a goddess to a certain brand of show queen. But then again, maybe not; anyone can understand the passion to make more of oneself, to be a creative being and have that creativity respected and cherished. This is a musical for the new century, a Pirandellian spin on ridiculous reviews like this one. I, for one, can't wait to see what they get up to next.
Disappointments: A Chorus Line, The Vertical Hour, Floyd and Clea in the Western Sky, Emergence-See, The Threepenny Opera, The Apple Tree, Lestat
Overrated: Butley, Company, The Coast of Utopia (So Far)
Previously: Best Theatre of 2005
Tomorrow: Best Blogs