The best plays on New York stages this year took full advantage of sharing the air with audiences at their wits’ end. Whether we went to the theatre looking for escape from trying times or to make better sense of them, many of the best productions achieved both in the same breath.
Dramas, comedies, and gay fantasias wrestled with our country’s ills in ways that made us cry, laugh, and ask ourselves who we are, right now.
Most exciting of all, it was a banner year for groundbreaking new plays from an array of voices looking to spark conversation. Let’s do them a favor and keep talking. Here are Towleroad’s top 10 shows of 2018.
10. The Prom
An original musical that speaks to our present moment — with comedy, no less — stood out in a year crowded with revivals and movie adaptations that willfully ignored what year it is (perhaps one reason The Prom is the only musical on this list). Theatre favorites including Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw team up with a thrilling young cast to tell a story about overcoming difference without compromising who you are. Bonus points for causing controversy with a lesbian kiss on national TV. (Currently running.)
This vivid drama by Pulitzer-winning playwright Martyna Majok presented a kaleidoscopic portrait of immigrant experience from women’s point of view. Packed into a low-ceilinged basement in Queens, New York, they saw their wild dreams boil down to reasoned expectations as they formed near-primal bonds with relative strangers. Director Danya Taymor’s beautifully imagined production for Lincoln Center Theatre’s LCT3 was taut with feeling that traversed oceans.
8. Pass Over
Antoinette Nwandu’s riff on Waiting for Godot found two young Black men shooting the shit on a street corner, unable to begin anew (or “pass over”) nor escape the forces that would keep them in place. A poetic interrogation of race as a kind of social entrapment, Nwandu’s tight drama led to a startling conclusion without comforting or congratulating the audience. Another intimate LCT3 production directed by Danya Taymor, Pass Over demanded a recognition of Black experience too often missing on larger stages.
7. The Ferryman
Nearly two dozen fine actors, an infant, a bunny, and a goose star in Jez Butterworth’s sweeping drama about family, justice, and the soul of a nation. Butterworth excels at working on a large canvas, unfurling this three-hour drama about a Northern Irish family with IRA ties during the peak of nationalist unrest. Murder, adultery, passion, Irish dance — it’s all here and truly a sight to behold under Sam Mendes’ majestic direction. (Really, it’s all about that goose, though.) (Currently running through July 7, 2019.)
Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf gave two of the year’s finest performances playing the same character at different ages in Edward Albee’s 1991 play. Jackson’s return to the stage after a decades-long hiatus serving in British Parliament was well worth the wait. As a woman on the precipice of death, she was shrewd, venomous, and vulnerable, often in the same moment. Both women will be back on Broadway this spring: Jackson is playing King Lear, and Metcalf Hillary Clinton. Start girding your loins now.
The 25th-anniversary return of Tony Kushner’s ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ felt as urgent as if it were written in 2018. Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and Lee Pace led the cast of this electrifying two-part production that originated at London’s National Theatre. Director Marianne Elliott’s stripped-down aesthetic lent Kushner’s wrestling match with moral and cosmic themes a timeless quality. The plays speak directly to a country on the brink, and America has never felt closer to the edge.
4. Slave Play
Playwright Jeremy O. Harris made a brilliant and startlingly provocative debut at New York Theatre Workshop with what is billed as “an antebellum fever dream.” (It’s his first of two this season; watch for Alan Cumming in Harris’ equally daring “Daddy” off-Broadway this spring.) Harris’ interrogation of sexual politics between Black and white partners offers a raw excavation of Black identity and an incisive indictment of white complicity. Slave Play challenges audiences to turn their gaze inward and reckon with themselves, even if they may not like what they find. (Currently running through January 13, 2019.)
A gut-punch performance from Billie Piper and stunning stagecraft from writer-director Simon Stone made Yerma the sensory experience of the year. Behind two panes of glass with audiences watching on either side, a woman unraveled one thread at a time between blackouts that felt like tears in the universe. Adapted after Federico García Lorca’s poetic drama, Yerma turned one woman’s primal desire to make life into a viscerally captivating and unforgettable theatrical experience.
How does it feel to live under someone else’s unwavering gaze? To have a microscope or measuring stick sizing up your every move from an arm’s length of misunderstanding or disgust? Jackie Sibblies Drury dramatized Black experience underneath a shadow of whiteness that can’t be outrun. Fairview shifted under the audience’s grasp like an animal writhing free from a trap — until it finally broke out. Sarah Benson’s Soho Rep production left no one in the dark as to where they stood when the play was over.
One woman’s relationship to the country’s founding document becomes both an intimate window into her life and a sweeping, clear-eyed diagnosis of the cracks in America’s foundation. Playwright and performer Heidi Schreck recalls her teenage years spent crafting speeches about the Constitution, snagging prize money that put her through college. The result is unexpectedly heart-wrenching, yet deeply funny and inspiring. Consider it a seance for hope during a particularly harrowing year for the integrity of women’s voices on the national stage. (Currently running through December 30, 2018.)
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
(photos: deen van meer, erin baiano, jeremy daniel, stephanie berger, brigitte lacombe, joan marcus, helen maybanks, julieta cervantes)