The stupefying boredom of forgotten hamlet in the Israeli desert, where the residents are jolted out of their trance-like existence by a visiting band of Egyptian musicians. The inhabitants of a remote rocky island off the coast of Canada warmly embrace the passengers of 38 jets stranded there in the wake of 9/11. A working class bar in a failing factory town is the backdrop for a shocking act of violence and an equally dramatic reconciliation. In this most polarized of years, a number of the best productions celebrate man’s shared humanity and the possibility of even the most entrenched enemies finding common ground and a path forward.
10. Hello, Dolly
Did the world need another revival of Hello, Dolly? Apparently, yes. Bette Midler won a Tony for her giddy performance. The Divine Miss M’s connection with her fierce tribe of followers is both extreme and two-way; the frenzied fans bestow highly vocal love on her and the star feeds off the their worship and beams it right back. Her chemistry with co-star David Hyde Pierce is also excellent. The night I saw it, Pierce broke character and burst out laughing when Midler doused his face with salt in a seemingly improvised move. (Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber take over in January.) The show also won a Tony for Santo Loquasto’s Technicolor costumes, and for scenic design geeks, the painted backdrops of turn-of-the century New York are practically worth the steep price of admission.
8 and 9. Sunday in the Park With George and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Jake Gyllenhaal can sing! It was bumper year for Sondheim revivals in New York. Gylllenhaal was intense and tuneful in Sunday in the Park With George, opposite the wondrous Annaleigh Ashford. Also first-rate was the Barrow Street Theater’s off-Broadway rendition of Sweeney Todd. Barrow Street gets bonus point for transforming itself into a pie shop and serving meat pies before the performance.
Oscar Isaac is one of the most intelligent, charismatic actors of his generation, a Pacino for our time. But unlike Pacino, who can get a bit hammy when doing Shakespeare, Isaac’s Hamlet in director Sam Gold’s production at the Public Theater was a subtle, probing performance that mesmerized audiences with his pristine delivery of some of Shakespeare’s most stirring soliloquies.
J.T. Rogers’s gripping new play Oslo ran the awards table, winning the Tony and most of the New York theater world’s other prizes for best play. A remarkable accomplishment given that the it’s subject is the seemingly dry secret, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that led to the 1993 peace accords between Israel and the PLO. Yet it’s a highly dramatic, big, ambitious play, nearly three hours in length. Audiences responded strongly to the notion of shared humanity and common ground sought between antagonists. (For those that missed it in New York, it moved to London this fall.)
5. Doll’s House, Part 2
“From below, is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.” That most famous bit of stage direction, of a door being slammed shut, ends Ibsen’s Doll’s House, a blistering meditation on marriage and the high cost of personal fulfillment. The audacious sequel by Lucas Hnath’s begins with a knock on the same door and proceeds to explore those same questions, which unsurprisingly, persist, with verve, a stellar cast and a surprising degree of humor.
4. Come From Away
In the history of musical theater, air traffic control post-9/11 has to be one of the most unlikely topics for a feel-good hit show. Yet ripped from history’s footnotes, Come From Away is set in Gander, Newfoundland, immediately following the 9/11 attacks, when 38 jets were grounded on this remote island. The local town folk were initially overwhelmed by the diverse, visiting hordes, but then rally and show remarkable compassion in caring for their stranded, anxious guests. It’s a deeply moving, optimistic show about helping each other that arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment.
Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a profoundly moving exploration of intolerance, the power of art, love and sex, and the cruel march of history. Based on a true story, the complex play within a play, follows the fate of a controversial Yiddish play involving prostitution and a passionate lesbian love affair. It was brilliantly staged, with a large splendid cast which fluidly played mutiple roles. A filmed version of the Tony-nominated production recently aired on PBS’s Great Performances series.
2. The Band’s Visit
The Band’s Visit was a film, an off-Broadway show and now a full-fledged Broadway delight. Starring Tony Shalhoub and one of New York’s most exciting new(ish) actors, Katrina Lenk (she was also excellent in Indecent), it’s an enchanting musical about an Egyptian band getting stranding in a remote Israeli town. The presence of the outside artists stir and awakens both the deeply bored residents and the traveling musicians. Showing how art wells up when it’s needed, it was yet another of this year’s best shows that rejoices in the shared humanity of strangers and even foes.
In awarding Lynn Nottage the Pulitzer prize this year, the board called Sweat, “a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream.” Set in a bar, the gritty story was deeply informed by Nottage’s research in Reading, Pa., and was widely hailed for its sympathetic portrayal of the working class. Where a lesser writer might have gotten preachy, instead Nottage presciently explored of the forces that led to the election of the 45th president in a welcome demonstration of the power of art to elucidate sesmic historical shifts as they unfold in real-time.