Best of theater 2015: My top 10, plus a few more

broadway, comedy, discount theater tickets, drama, entertainment, new york city theater, best of theater 2015, off-broadway, opinion and commentary, reviews, top 10 plays 2015, tragedy, what’s happening in New York, The Christians, The Flick, Ghosts, Guards at the Taj, Hand to God, The Humans, King Charles III, On The Town, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, A View From the Bridge

I confess – when I go to the theater – I want to be wowed, transported. I forget the falseness of the sets and the costumes, and buy in. Take me on a journey – let me be enveloped by the storytelling.

That’s a tall task.

With many of this year’s theater offerings, I am happy to report, I was wowed, challenged, perplexed and rewarded more often than I could have imagined. Isn’t that what theater should do?

Of the productions that I saw, my 10-best list exceeded its limit. That doesn’t happen very often.

So without further ado, in alphabetical order, curtain up.

1 > The Christians by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters

Hnath’s play about a doctrinal schism in one megachurch conjures many questions and polarizing emotions. When the pastor of this newly-in-the-black congregation reveals his doubts about the existence of hell, he splinters church leadership and completely shatters the lives of the believers. Was his change of heart pure, or driven by financial freedom? With the set and staging in this production, the audience is very much a part of the flock and bears close witness to this stylized exploration of faith and belief. The cast was uniformly terrific in creating an unsettling night at the theater.

2 > The Flick by Annie Baker, directed by Sam Gold

Baker turns her sharp insight into human behavior on three employees in a rundown, old movie house. As the misfit trio discuss films, life, love and family each night at work, the minutiae of daily life is interrupted by the fantasy of movie moments. They want to connect, but form alliances as they manipulate each other to get what they think they want. With no will or desire to correct the messy situations that they create, we see the funny, awkward and sometimes devastating effects of their behavior. At three hours in length, I wasn’t sure if I would make it in the old seats at the Barrow. But the script is so exquisite and nuanced, and the performances so strong that I was completely engrossed in the not-so-ordinary moments that Baker created. Catch it before 10 january.

3 > Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre

In this beautiful adaptation, Eyre has streamlined this once controversial play with pinpoint accuracy, losing none of its devastating power on issues covering euthanasia, incest and venereal disease. Lesley Manville as Helene, one of the great female stage roles, is the centerpiece of a strong ensemble. She gives a mournful performance as a woman, through conforming, has withstood tremendous loss and must face the ghosts of her past as she sees the past repeating itself. Gorgeous, transparent set design supports the theme and vivid lighting baths the players in haunting color. Showing now on Digital Theatre.

4 > Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Amy Morton

Two longtime friends are chosen to guard the Taj Mahal: One is a dreamer and the other, a pragmatist. Babur dreams of what the future may look like, while Humayan is more comfortable with tradition and duty in the present. As the Taj nears its completion, circumstances push their opposing philosophies to the brink. While set in the 17th century, the play is timeless as the duo ponder the human condition. The terrific performances and strong direction in this two-hander allow a beautiful, funny and finally, tragic story to unfold. I love this play – and luckily got to experience it twice.

5 > Hand to God by Robert Askins, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel

Can a play about a sock puppet really be that funny? Yes, yes it can – wickedly so. Jason is a wimpy teenager who is mourning the death of his father. His frazzled mother copes by running a puppetry workshop in the basement of the church. Jason’s coping mechanism is Tyrone (both played by a brilliant Steven Boyer), a red-haired sock puppet. As Jason’s anxieties increase, Tyrone’s voice becomes, shall we say, stronger. It’s rude, it’s vulgar, it might be Satan. Well-played by a strong cast and inventive staging. The play closes in a few weeks – go – it’s funny as hell.

6 > The Humans by Stephen Karam, directed by Joe Mantello

There’s everything and nothing familiar about Karam’s telling of the profound sadness this family is experiencing. They travel up from Scranton for Thanksgiving to the new NYC digs of their artist daughter. True to a family gathering – there’s fun and fights – stories overlap, begin and end abruptly, and hidden feelings and secrets are revealed. The bi-level apartment set allows multiple stories to be told simultaneously. The cast is superb. Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell as the parents anchor the group and give beautiful, funny, heart-wrenching performances. There’s an eerie undercurrent suggesting to me that the events witnessed are not specific, but the very definition of being human. Broadway bound in 2016, see it!

7 > King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold

As a fan of Bartlett’s other works, Cock and Bull, I was thrilled when this production announced a Broadway transfer. The play, billed as a future history play, supposes that the Queen has died and Charles ascends. Tim Pigott-Smith is riveting as the new king making an unprecedented decision that throws both the monarchy and Parliament into chaos. Written in blank verse, the play feels Shakespearean with more than a few characters and themes inhabiting the subtext. The cast is excellent and the production is stunning, surprising, amusing and ultimately heartbreaking. Royally blown away.

8 > On The Town music by Leonard Bernstein, book/lyrics by Betty Comden + Adolph Green, directed by John Rando

This big, old-fashioned musical was given a grand, fresh production by John Rando. I’m not a huge musical fan (although I appreciate the work and talent), but this one was a pleasure to watch. The tale of three sailors seeing the sights and looking for romance on a 24-hour shore leave in New York, New York was performed by a huge, multi-talented cast of singers and dancers. The addition of a 28-piece orchestra provided lush accompaniment to Bernstein’s score. The vibrant color and lighting planted the production firmly in the present while still evoking the height of the nostalgic, MGM musical era. When I left the theater, I felt like dancing all the way home.

9 > Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, directed by Blanka Ziska

Down in Philly, the Wilma created a hugely entertaining and physically inventive (a lot of crawling around) production of Stoppard’s absurdist classic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or is that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?) places these two minor characters from Hamlet in the forefront. Stoppard gives these  clueless characters lives, but they are unsure of what to do with them. Confusion, coin games, mistaken identities and pirates are merely a part of their journey to a fate that’s already been sealed. Wordplay, philosophical ruminations about life, its meaning, and death – the Stoppard stamp.

10 > A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller, directed by Ivo van Hove

Ivo van Hove’s spare production is spectacular, and may be my favorite of the year. I’ve seen three productions of this play, and nothing came close to this stark and primal experience (I had even seen the NTLive version prior to the play’s Broadway transfer). The brilliant cast led by Mark Strong, giving a raw performance as Eddie, are enclosed in a square space with no scenery or props, armed only with Miller’s searing dialogue and the ominous atmosphere of the tragedy to come. A stage seat guarantees full immersion, so be forewarned – the knot in my stomach tightened five minutes in. Prepare yourself and go!

+ more: Shoutouts to Brits Off Broadway’s vampire shocker Cuddles by Joseph Wilde; TFANA / Fiasco Theater’s inventive production of Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare; and the very enjoyable Lives of the Saints, wordsmith David Ives’ new collection of short plays.

Go out for a night at the theater in 2016. You may find just the right production that wows you too.

 Design + animation: © 2015 Janet Giampietro

2 Responses to “Best of theater 2015: My top 10, plus a few more”

  1. Mary Costello Says:

    As a fellow theater lover and NYC-area native, your list is vey intriguing. I wasn’t going to see King Charles III, but you’ve persuaded me and I’m going to TDF before it closes.

    I’m surprised Wolf Hall isn’t on your list. What happened there?

    Thanks–Mary

  2. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Hello Mary:

    Thanks for the comment. Happy to see there are still theater fans out there. Simple answer – I didn’t see it – I hear it was fantastic.

    Cheers,
    janet g

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