Monday, December 17, 2007

The Play's the Thing for 2007

by Eric Grode

This year was a bleak one for musicals. The only really exciting "new" show has been kicking around off-off-Broadway for several years. But 2007 was wonderful in many other ways. Tough-minded political theater, Shakespeare productions, and (best of all) serious Broadway dramas all made heartening resurgences this year. Note: I left "Voyage," the stirring first third of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," off my 2006 list on the assumption that the rest of Tom Stoppard's Russian epic would live up to it; while that assumption proved mistaken, "Voyage" in and of itself does warrant mention as among Mr. Stoppard's very finest work.

1. "Black Watch": The closest Broadway came to addressing the dislocating horrors of modern-day war came via a play that's almost 80 years old (see No. 4). St. Ann's Warehouse, however, was happy to step into the bloody breach and address the Iraq war. Author Gregory Burke, director John Tiffany, and a staggeringly versatile company from the National Theatre of Scotland used a blend of you-are-there intensity and you-could-be-anywhere surrealism to create a profane, hypnotic, scorching tribute to Scotland's Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment. Wars have taken so much from so many, but they have also given us Wilfred Owen and "Paths of Glory," Britten's "War Requiem" and Dylan's "Masters of War." The 21st century may have its first worthy addition to that list.

2. "August: Osage County": Foreign wars may have been all but AWOL on Broadway, but the take-no-prisoners intra-familial combat waged by the Westons of Pawhuska, Okla., fueled either the saddest comedy or the funniest tragedy on display in a good long while. Noted genre screw-twister Tracy Letts ("Bug," "Killer Joe") made a quantum leap with this massive — and massively entertaining — conflation of Albee, Shepard, O'Neill, Faulkner, and just about any other author you'd like to see a wonderfully talented playwright conflate. Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton led a flawless ensemble from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre — yet another implicit rebuke to New York's woeful lack of a repertory company.

3. "The Taming of the Shrew": Edward Hall's all-male Propeller troupe brought a Shakespeare double bill to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March, and while its "Twelfth Night" was elegant and persuasive, "Taming" was a ground-breaking. Unsparing in his examination of the play's brutal sexual dynamics, Mr. Hall nonetheless found a way into the humor that was so instrumental in cementing Shakespeare's greatness but that remains out of reach for nearly all modern-day companies.

4. "Journey's End": The year's most unforgettable image of wartime carnage came not in the mortars-and-porn bedlam of "Black Watch" but at the finale of David Grindley's murky, muted, gorgeously acted revival of R.C. Sherriff's 1929 World War I chestnut — and without a drop of blood. The entire cast (playing a British infantry company in the trenches of St. Quentin, France) stood at attention in front of a devastatingly long list of names — actual British soldiers missing in action during the War to End All Wars. Except for the World War II years, the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, has saluted one of these names every evening since 1929. The last one will be honored in 2083.

5. "Gone Missing": This entry is a mild cheat, as several of my colleagues have been singing this musical's praises since 2003. But the "investigative theater" troupe the Civilians finally touched down with a commercial run of this smart, sad, and effortlessly tuneful piece, created through a wide-ranging series of interviews about things people have lost — necklaces, dogs, a beloved sock doll, innocence.

6. "Hokaibo": World theater is often good for the brain (teasing out how and why we Americans do theater the way we do it) and the muscles (stretching our notions of narrative, stagecraft, etc.). But sometimes it does all those things and, as a bonus, can be riotously, almost illicitly entertaining. Such was the case with Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII and his revered Kabuki company at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer. First came the dance-theater spectacle "Renjishi," followed by this pell-mell sex farce, complete with dancing severed limbs, English-language jokes about James Bond and metrosexuals, and the cross-eyed freeze frames known as mie. I left "Hokaibo" feeling depleted, disoriented, and delighted.

7. "The Merchant of Venice": The second Shakespeare to make the list, with Daniel Sullivan's shimmering Central Park "Midsummer Night's Dream" very nearly making the list, too. Theatre for a New Audience examined Elizabethan anti-Semitism by pairing Shakespeare's revenge drama with the Christopher Marlowe melodrama "The Jew of Malta." And while the latter production fizzled, director Darko Tresnjak created a crisply modern, achingly timeless telling of "Merchant." The King Lears of Kevin Kline and Ian McKellen got the headlines, but Mr. Abraham delivered the year's most memorable Shakespeare performance as a cautious, fatalistic Shylock.

8. "Rock 'n' Roll": Now that "Utopia," the Tony-winningest play of all time, has receded into the horizon, has Tom Stoppard fatigue set in? If so, audiences are passing on a much better play — one of those alchemical blends of intellect and emotion that periodically spur people to proclaim that modern theater's greatest mind has finally located his heart. He's done it before, and he'll do it again, but "Rock 'n' Roll" is indeed a rich exploration of music, Marxism, and mortality, with Brian Cox and the splendid Rufus Sewell serving as tour guides. It's got a great beat, and you can think to it.

9. "Dividing the Estate": The authors of "Bug" and "The Trip to Bountiful" are unlikely bedfellows, but Tracy Letts and the imperishable nonagenarian Horton Foote each displayed flinty wit and a palpable compassion for the inevitable failings and frictions of an extended Southern family. Mr. Foote may be painting with a wider brush than usual, but his hard-won detail and capacious wisdom remain a bracing example for any and all writers dipping into these familiar waters.

10. "Gypsy": If reports are to be believed, "Dividing the Estate" will make its way to Broadway in 2008, as will this pairing of Patti LuPone with the role she was born to play in perhaps the ultimate Broadway musical. Her Mama Rose was talkin' loud and lettin' loose at City Center this summer, and she most certainly had the stuff. Note to director Arthur Laurents: Don't forget to bring Boyd Gaines, as Rose's memorably beleaguered suitor, along for what deserves to be a long run.

Honorable mentions: "Blackbird," "The Brig," "The Brothers Size," "The Fever," "Marat/Sade," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Central Park, "Naked in a Fishbowl" at the Fringe Festival, "Oliver Twist," "The Seafarer," and "Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell."