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Monday, January 01, 2007

2006 at the (New York) Theater

I saw 71 shows in 2006—24 on Broadway, 36 other shows in New York, 10 shows in London, and one in Manchester, England. 59 were plays, 11 musicals, and one could probably best be described as a play with music (the wonderful Nights at the Circus, which I saw at the Lyric, Hammersmith). Looking back on the letter grade I assigned to the shows when I got home from seeing them (I’ve made only slight tweaks to the original grades on the list I posted), a lot of them seem off. Partly it’s a comparison thing—I said Bridge & Tunnel was better than Awake and Sing!?—and partly I notice that I’m stingier with ratings when I’m seeing a lot of shows in a short period; but theater being a fleeting medium, perhaps the shows and performances that linger are the “best.”

Rather than a Top 10 list, this is more of a list of the shows that I saw in the 2006 calendar year that stuck with me most. For the moment, I’ll stick to New York shows.

TWELFTH NIGHT (Chekhov International Theatre Festival at BAM, dir. Declan Donnellan). This Russian troupe gave a master class in acting technique.

THE BOGUS WOMAN (by Kay Adshead, seen at 59E59 in the Brits Off-Broadway series). Some critics found this play over-the-top and unbelievable; I found it all too credible. In a year of outstanding one-woman performances, Sarah Niles’ tour-de-force was shiver-inducing.

DRUID/SYNGE (Lincoln Center Festival). The marathon aspect didn’t bother me one bit; in fact, I’m sure I got a lot more out of the plays by seeing them in succession. The outstanding elements were Riders to the Sea and, especially, The Playboy of the Western World. (Yes, of course I'm seeing The Coast of Utopia in a marathon—I'm a Wagenerian!)

IN THE CONTINUUM (Danai Gurira & Nikkole Salter, seen at the Perry Street Theater, RIP). Beautifully subtle acting and writing from two young artists on a subject that tends to repel subtlety.

SATELLITES (by Diana Son at the Public Theater). Yes, this play took on a LOT of topics—gentrification, “mixed” marriages, the difficulty of finding a nanny (recently the subject of a smart story in the NYT), how children affect marriages and work dynamics, just to name a few—many more than it could satisfactorily resolve, but I regularly find myself thinking back to moments in the play. A ton of smart ideas and difficult dilemmas in a short work.

WELL (by Lisa Kron, seen at the Longacre). It depresses me no end that Broadway wasn’t the right spot for this play.

HISTORY BOYS (Alan Bennett, Broadhurst). I’d’ve trimmed a little at the top and the tail, but there were moments of such transcendence that I almost forgot my reservations.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (for simplicity's sake, let's say the folks behind Slings and Arrows, at the Marquis)—Obviously, I’m more drawn to plays than to musicals, but I loved this goofy story. Great music, clever script, talented cast … I found it wonderfully entertaining.

CHRISTINE JORGENSON REVEALS (performed by Bradford Louryk, seen at what was then Dodger Stages). Who knew lip-synching could be so entertaining and thought-provoking?

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE—I don’t think I want to see that much blood on a stage ever again, but shock value can be very refreshing. And, of course, it wasn’t just shock value. Up there with the blood and gore were some serious discussions of the often skimpy motivations for acts of hideous violence.

Special Mentions:

I can’t quite bring myself to put them on the main list, but I loved both KIKI & HERB ON BROADWAY and JAY JOHNSON: MY TWO AND ONLY. Kiki & Herb’s Broadway show would’ve been on my list, but then I went to their Christmas show at the Bowery Ballroom—one-fifth the price and nearly twice as long (which was kind of annoying, quite honestly; don’t folks who go to downtown clubs have jobs to go to the next mornings?), and suddenly those “This show doesn’t belong on Broadway” complaints took on a new light—it’s not that Broadway’s too good for them, it’s that seeing them there costs way too much. I think My Two and Only was the only Broadway show I saw this year that made me cry!

Outstanding Performances Not Mentioned Above:

Logan Marshall-Green in Dog Sees God and Pig Farm
Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens (No, really, how do you sing so beautifully with tears and snot streaming down your face?)
Lee Pace in Guardians
Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler (she overpowered the other players, but …)
Megan Dodds in My Name Is Rachel Corrie
Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer (Cherry Jones got a bum rap, but it’s hard to win plaudits for underplaying a character; McDiarmid chewed the scenery, but entertainingly)
Zoe Wanamaker in Awake and Sing!
Sandra Oh in Satellites
Liev Schreiber in Macbeth
The cast of High Fidelity once the closing notice was up—irrepressible high-energy enthusiasm. I liked the show!

Least Liked:
STUFF HAPPENS (I like David Hare, but I’d already seen that show on the news and in the newspapers, thanks)

FESTEN—Great reviews from the London version, so I don’t know what happened over the Atlantic, but the New York production was dreadful.

CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL—Inert and utterly lifeless even though the actors were apparently told to EMOTE!! at all times. I’ve seen better high-school shows.

BURLEIGH GRIME$ (more like Burleigh Grimezzzz)—When people talk about cynical shows, this should be the prime example.

LOSING LOUIE—Just after seeing this, I wrote somewhere that this mess “wasn’t as bad as people are saying.” That thought has changed with time. It was awful, and MTC was crazy to put it on their schedule.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’—A lot of critics gave Twyla Tharp all kinds of credit for being a “serious artist.” She undoubtedly is, but this show was misconceived and misplayed from start to finish. I rate it worse that the bad-in-almost-exactly-the-same-way Ring of Fire, because it attempted to tart things up with MEANING. Tharp’s biggest mistake was taking Dylan at his word.

Final Whine:
I’ve ranted before about how the appalling British accents in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Abigail’s Party ruined the shows for me. Well, I must add a couple of other horrors to dialect coach Stephen Gabis’ record: I realized that he was also responsible for Stuff Happens (where working-class Jack Straw sounded totally plummy and, for some inexplicable reason Scot Robin Cook sounded like an Ulsterman—and yes it does matter in a show that is trumpeting its verisimilitude) and Butley, where Nathan Lane’s normal accent was fine, but his impersonations of Northern Britons were laughable. (OK, not to harp on this too much, but … I know the role probably called for an imperfect impression, but when a Northern accent is written as “goin’ to’t’ dogs” you don’t pronounce it “going to T dogs.” It’s “goin tuht dogs.” I don’t know why the English actor in the cast didn’t say something about this.)

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