Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top 10 for 2011: Mildly Bitter Comes Back to Theater

I have lived in New York for 17 years.  Typically I would see about 15 shows a year when my schedule allowed it.  But 2011 was the year I really came home and committed to seeing everything I wanted to see on stage.  I blame Tom Riley and Arcadia.  Revisiting Arcadia after 16 years and stumbling upon a great performance by Tom Riley led me to his twitter feed (he's funny you should follow him).  From there I discovered a community of theater lovers on twitter and joined into the conversation. This spring was a great time to return to New York theater.  I have always been more of a straight play gal and the spring offered so many options.  I enjoy musicals (well I enjoy Sondheim--that's not the same thing as musicals) but not usually as much as straight plays.

In the end, I managed to see 67 shows in New York and the UK (I even ventured beyond London to see 2 shows).  Not a lot compared to most of you.  Next year I will try harder.  I missed a bunch of shows I would have liked to have seen for completeness sake (Venus in Furs, Other Desert Cities, Mike Daisey).  But as you may recall I was abducted to Europe for about 2 1/2 months so it cut into my theater time a bit and despite having tickets to many of these shows I was not able to attend.

I am also kind of picky (ok, a lot picky) and won't just see everything.  I intentionally skipped a bunch of shows that I figured I would not like (The Mountaintop, Stickfly, Master Class, On a Clear Day).  And then there were the ones I wished I skipped (King Lear--The Public, Terrible Advice, Angels in America).

However, there were some shows that I went to begrudgingly and left really liking (Catch Me if You Can, Bonnie & Clyde, Ghost--I see a musical theme here).  And then there were the ones that I had to visit a couple of times (Arcadia, Jerusalem, Follies, It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, Hair).

Although I had the opportunity to go to the UK a couple of times to see theater, I thought it would be more appropriate to do a my top 10 based on shows I saw in the NY area only.  Here are my top 10 based on what I saw in the US:

1)  The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church:  Well was there any question in your mind that I would not put my first Daniel Kitson show on the list?  I had no idea what to expect from this performer and I left the show becoming his biggest cheerleader. The show was funny, sweet, poetic, and beautiful.  It left me wanting more.  It is the rare show that gives you the chance to just revel in our collective humanity.  I've had the amazing opportunity in my life to travel and in those travels have met some people who have gone on to tell me their life story and it changed me.  It changed my view of history, cultures and made me wonder what I would have done in their situations.  A Daniel Kitson show reminds me of these experiences because he tells you stories that make you think about your place in the world and how you experience life.   I can't think of a more perfect way to spend an evening.

2)  Jerusalem:  A longtime fan of Mark Rylance I was unprepared for his epic performance in the rich play that Jez Butterworth wrote.  The play was funny, sad, compelling and monumental.  I can't think of the last new play (not written by Stoppard) that worked on so many levels and would be worth reading and studying for years to come.  In addition to the power of the play, it was often hilarious.  A terrific supporting cast brought these characters and place to life.  For me, it was a delightful and tragic place to visit on multiple occasions. 

2)  Misterman:  Slipping in as the year was about to end, this show written and directed by Enda Walsh will stay with me for a long time.  The success of the work is the fact that while watching I was engaged but did not realize until the end how emotionally invested I had become in the character and the play.  It is the rare treat when a play can be so stealthy in its effect on the audience.  Cillian Murphy achieved a performance unlike any other channeling voices of several characters as well as creating a disturbed protagonist who I could not take my eyes off of.  I've never been to a play that left me speechless and breathless in the end. 

The performances in Jerusalem and Misterman are basically neck and neck now in my mind and I could not choose which of the two was slightly better so they are tied at #2 for me.  Deal with it. 

4)  Arcadia:  Arcadia is my favorite play of all time.  It is on my bedside table and I read it at least once a year.  It's smart, funny, complex and romantic.  I saw it in 1995 and no production could really ever compete with that production.  It was perfection--Billy Crudup's Broadway debut, Victor Garber, Blair Brown, Robert Sean Leonard, and Paul Giamatti.  Trevor Nunn's direction.  The great staging on the thrust stage at Lincoln Center.   I still will never get over the first time I put the story together in my mind--when he hands her the candle--gasps, tears, enlightenment.  When I heard it was coming to Broadway again I was really excited.

The 2011 David Leveaux production had some delicious discoveries (Tom Riley as Septimus, Lia Williams as Hannah, David Turner as Chater) and some struggles (Bel Powley whining, Billy Crudup gesticulating).  But the cast found the beauty in Stoppard's words and recreated a lot of the magic from the 1995 production for me.  It was also a bit of a personal time machine, taking me back to my college days and the thrill of the discovery of Broadway shows then. 

Tom Riley had some big shoes to fill and did so admirably.  He made Septimus sexy, charming & sweet.  There was something more delicate in his performance than Crudup's but no less powerful.  He then went on to blow my mind completely several months later when I traveled to London to see him in My City.  Hoping he comes back to any stage anywhere because I'll get on a plane and go (keep up to date with his work on his unofficial webpage).  You should too!

In the final analysis, this Arcadia was a pleasure.  I could not really let it go and visited it 7 times because I wanted to stock up on the magic and wonder because I expect it will be another 15 years or so until it is revived again.  I'm already looking forward to that.

5)  The Normal Heart:  I never expected this to be as moving and powerful as it was.  I was anticipating Larry Kramer polemics or something that felt dated.  Instead, it felt like a piece of American history had come alive--not the history of AIDS, not gay history, but American history--a relevant chapter of history we still need to hear today.  It was great to see Joe Mantello on stage again after seeing him in Angels in America.  He found a way to make a difficult character lovable (again).  He found so many layers to his character's rage and anger and never once did his performance feel shrill.   I admit I could have done without Ellen Barkin's monologue.  But the story about the brothers, John Benjamin Hickey, everything else...amazing.  Sobbing.  Tears.  Wonderful.

6)  Good People:  I am always looking for films and plays that actually deal with class issues in America and I was delighted to see Good People tackle these issues with humor, wit and skill.  Though not a perfect production, I loved the underlying work.  Frances McDormand was great (even if her Boston accent was not.  A special shout out to Patrick Carroll who's small supporting role was fantastic and his accent was spot on).  A solid piece of writing about America, Boston, and the choices we have and don't have in life.  These were not characters.  These were real people.  A massive achievement in playwriting.

7)  Follies:  A musical!   I have a warm spot in my heart for the darkness of Sondheim.  Follies goes to a dark emotional place with barely a candle lit to guide your way.  It is chock full of amazing songs, performed here by some great interpreters.  Jan Maxwell is killer whether she's dancing or spitting vitriolic lyrics in Could I Leave You.  Bernadette Peters offers up a girl-child emotional breakdown like no other and as the production has progressed her voice has strengthened.  Ron Raines voice was a discovery for me and his Too Many Mornings makes me cry every time.   Jayne Houdyshell and Elaine Paige make fully drawn characters from small roles.  A lush production that was moving and beautiful.  It might not be everyone's cup of tea but I love the idea of spending the evening thinking about past loves, loss and regret.

8)  King Lear:  This was never one of my favorite Shakespearean plays but Derek Jacobi's performance and Michael Grandage's direction made this one of the greatest Shakespearean interpretations I have ever seen.  The story moved along at a frenzied clip.  Lear's fall from grace for once made sense to me and I was even sympathetic to it.  The supporting cast was largely fantastic--Ron Cook as the Fool, Paul Jesson as Gloucester, Gwilym Lee as Edgar, Gina McKee as Goneril, Justine Mitchell as Regan.  I am happy to say this is probably the definitive production of King Lear and I will never need to see another as all others will pale in comparison (If only I had made this pledge before seeing the awful production at The Public later in the year).

9)  Sons of the Prophet:  I was happy to stumble up on this Stephen Karam play recommended by @TwoShowDays.  The story and performances came across as powerful but realistic.  I felt as if I knew who these people were and their struggles were both specific and yet universal.  Santino Fontana, Chris Perfetti and Yusef Bulos form a convincing family on stage that doesn't always get along but loves each other deep down.  It was funny and touching.  Despite setbacks, personal struggles and the challenges that life throws at people, there was a hopeful spirit here and a lightness and humor that made the material even richer.  Balancing lightness and darkness is a difficult task but here it worked.  It was also a happy marriage of great acting and a fantastic script. 

10)  Company (Concert):  Not sure if this counts but it was one of my favorite musicals of the year so I am counting it.  It was the concert staging at the New York Philharmonic.  Company is one of my favorite musicals of all time.  I've had the OBC album on vinyl since I was a kid (yes discuss amongst yourselves how effed up that is...)  I hated the John Doyle version (Stop with the instruments already) despite the presence of Raul Esparza and bringing back the fantastic Marry Me a Little song so I was craving a production that would fulfill the show that exists in my mind.  I found the concert staging was a great format for this show.  I was pleasantly surprised by the cast who were fantastic actors with actually reasonable voices.  Katie Finneran, Martha Plimpton, Patti LuPone and Neil Patrick Harris were the stand-outs for me. I walked out of that performance hall happier than I have been in a long time.

Beyond the top 10 a few other notable shouts outs for shows and performances that I really liked:

Special Mentions (Shows):  Anything Goes, Black Watch, Blood and Gifts, The Blue Flower, Catch Me if You Can, Completeness, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,  One Man, Two Guvnors (UK), Othello (UK).

Special Mentions (Performances): Tom Riley unexpectedly blowing my mind in My City (UK) after his lovely turn in Arcadia, Ben Daniels being creepy and convincing in Haunted Child (UK), Stephen Pasquale being heartbreaking & real in iHo, Dominic West being funny and maniacal in Othello (UK), Carey Mulligan having a total breakdown in Through a Glass Darkly,  Colin Donnell crooning and dancing his way into my heart in Anything Goes, Sutton Foster tapping the hell out of Broadway in Anything Goes, Tobias Menzies delivering a slice of reality in 9/11 play Decade, James Corden and Oliver Chris cracking me and each other up in One Man, Two Guvnors (UK), Andrew Knott embodying John Lennon in Backbeat (UK), Yul Vasquez breaking all stereotypes in the Motherfucker with the Hat, Pedro Pascal being seductive and mysterious in Maple and Vine, Melissa Van Der Schyff delivering zingers and being the vocal reincarnation of a young Dolly Parton in Bonnie & Clyde, Jeremy Jordan showing everyone how a star is born in Bonnie & Clyde,  Patti and Mandy reminding us why they became stars in the first place with their Evita numbers, Hugh Jackman making Soliloquy look natural and easy, and Sam Kelly making me cry in Grief (UK).

Special Mentions (Other): Aaron Rhyne's projections in Bonnie & Clyde, Goose in War Horse for the best performance by a goose in an overrated "show" about horses, Ultz the set designer of Jerusalem, Steven Hoggett's use of movement to deliver the boxing narrative in Beautiful Burnout, best use of a blow job on stage in Backbeat (UK), the Rupert Goold site-specific staging of Decade, and the Follies ghosts who don't trip and fall down in their giant headdresses and costumes though I expect them to every time.

Special Mentions (Blogs):  I would not have started blogging without the encouragement of @touchofgr3y.  So if you are looking for someone to's her!

And I am awed and intimidated by the other bloggers who write so passionately and well about theater: @thecraptacular, @pataphysicalsci, @twoshowdays, 100 Shows a Year.  Y'all keep the bar pretty high!  But I am hoping to improve my writing in 2012.  Looking forward to spending another year with you guys!


  1. Thank you for the shout out! I'm so glad that you have been blogging and love reading :)

  2. I love the use of Playbill photos in this post!