David Rooney's Best New York Theater of 2015

5:55 AM 12/17/2015

by David Rooney

THR's lead theater critic rounds up the standouts from Broadway and beyond in a year dominated by the dazzling achievement of 'Hamilton.'

'Hamilton', 'A View From the Bridge' and 'The King and I'
Courtesy of Joan Marcus; Jan Versweyveld; Paul Kolnik

The sheer range of New York theater invariably makes compiling an annual best-of list a difficult task. That applies whether it's been a year of meager rewards, in which it's a struggle to reach the required number, or 12 months punctuated by the kind of audacious stagecraft that sets the heart pounding, erasing the grind of all those other nights when the curtain can't come down fast enough.

Any year that yielded Hamilton, a work of staggering confidence that redraws the boundaries of musical-theater storytelling, has to be rated an exceptional one. And the only simple choice in approaching this roundup is that Lin-Manuel Miranda's bio-musical juggernaut seizes the top spot with no contest. With its multicultural cast, the show also set the tone for a Broadway lineup with wider non-white representation than any season in memory.

But looking down the list, how do you even compare, let alone rank, the ravishing spectacle of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic lushly revisited with a full-size orchestra and a cast of 50, alongside a brainy string-theory romance, in which two characters play out endless variables within the same scenario? Or a thoughtful snapshot of the creeping fears and anxious comforts of the American middle-class family next to a searing distillation of a naturalistic modern drama rebuilt from its roots in Greek tragedy?

This was a year with its share of duds like any other, perhaps none more squirm-inducing than David Mamet's China Doll, which provided the dispiriting spectacle of a great stage actor, Al Pacino, scrambling to get a grip on a slippery text with no substance. And the bombastic treacle of Finding Neverland made me want to travel back through time and Pan-fry J.M. Barrie, though both those productions have done decent business.

But 2015 was also a year of theatrical riches, which left me with a shortlist of memorable shows too numerous to be contained in just ten spots.

Some favorites get bumped from the list because they are transfers or return engagements from earlier years. Hence the absence of two Pulitzer winners: Annie Baker's The Flick, a clear-eyed contemplation of failure and missed opportunity in a culture with little time for its also-rans; and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy, a sly urban tragicomedy about real estate, race and corrosive self-interest. Also missing is Robert Askins' Hand to God, a riotously funny dig at the usefulness and limitations of faith that made an unlikely Broadway star (after two acclaimed off-Broadway runs) of a Satanic sock puppet named Tyrone.

What was most gratifying this year was the robust pack of adventurous young playwrights putting original slants on such potentially tired themes as dysfunctional families, romantic yearning, relationship fatigue or existential unease; and touching on big issues like mass killings or racial stereotyping in provocative new ways.

Most years tend to crawl to a halt, with producers often choosing to save their quality works for the spring to be closer to awards season. But 2015 is ending on an upbeat note, with a number of strong late entries that filled out my Top 20.

And there's still a major Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof to come this week, which combines top stage talent with enduring material that, sadly, remains thematically relevant in a world once again gripped by immigration crises.

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    Hamilton

    Joan Marcus

    Leave aside everything you think you know about musical theater and let Lin-Manuel Miranda's sweeping hip-hop history of America's founding fathers infect you with its surging spirit, its indelibly etched characters and its thrilling collision of past and present. Not to mention some of the most dynamic contemporary music ever heard on a Broadway stage. The central question of "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story" is asked and definitively answered in a show that amply earns its place as an instant theatrical landmark. The hype is justified.

    Read the review.

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    A View From the Bridge

    Jan Versweyveld

    Belgian avant-garde theatermaker Ivo van Hove strips Arthur Miller's 1956 drama down to its bloody bones in this muscular staging — all sweat and sinew and emotional nakedness so harrowing that you barely draw breath through the final crescendo of tragic events. Mark Strong plays Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone with ferocious gladiatorial intensity, and he's matched at every step by a fine ensemble that draws an electric charge from his dangerous energy. The production stokes expectations for van Hove's starry revival of Miller's The Crucible, due in the spring.

    Read the review.

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    The King and I

    Paul Kolnik

    Seven years after making magic together on South Pacific, director Bartlett Sher, his masterful design team and luminous leading lady Kelli O'Hara return to the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, bringing comparable emotional depth, dramatic texture and commanding visuals to this stirring story of the East-West cultural divide. The sumptuous Golden Age production values are of a kind seldom seen on Broadway in these more cost-conscious times, and the music is simply glorious.

    Read the review.

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    The Humans

    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

    A fraying family reassembling for Thanksgiving might sound like the basis for familiar domestic drama, but Stephen Karam’s writing is endowed with exceptional compassion, humor and a questioning intelligence that are entirely his own. In the nurturing hands of director Joe Mantello and an unimpeachable cast of New York stage pros, this is a moving play that leaves behind a lingering spell of encroaching sadness, but also the reassuring solace of unbreakable bonds. It transfers to Broadway in January.

    Read the review.

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    Fun Home

    Joan Marcus

    This haunting musical memory play based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir about coming out and coming to terms with her closeted gay father's suicide was first seen at the Public Theater in 2013. But I'm including it this year for the simple reason that the show evolved into a far richer experience in its Broadway transfer. Director Sam Gold reconfigured the production to play in the round, heightening the intimacy of its portrait of a shattered family. It's rare to find music and drama so inextricably integrated, to the point where it's impossible to imagine one without the other.

    Read the review.

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    The Color Purple

    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

    Is this really the same bloated, hard-sell show that premiered on Broadway a decade ago? With a surgeon's precision, director John Doyle has refined its dramatic contours and strengthened its emotional through line to deliver a transporting musical that speaks directly to the heart. Powered by a knockout performance from British newcomer Cynthia Erivo, given sterling support by Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, this was hands-down the year's biggest surprise.

    Read the review.

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    Constellations

    Joan Marcus

    On paper, this string-theory love story had the look of one of those cerebral dramas that the Brits adore and American audiences can tend to find somewhat arid. But Nick Payne's reflection on the infinite parallel paths of a couple's union was as emotionally expansive as it was structurally compact. Directed with unflagging vitality by Michael Longhurst, the play paired a superbly matched Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. Alone on an almost bare stage, they brought to life with piercing humanity a whole tender history of possibilities both realized and lost.

    Read the review.

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    John

    Matthew Murphy

    The fruitful collaboration of playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold continued with this mesmerizing study of solitude within a dissolving relationship, which married the writer's customary unadorned naturalism with arresting meta-theatrical flourishes and even an understated suggestion of the supernatural. While similarly unhurried, the play didn't quite achieve the thematic cohesion of The Flick. But this was multilayered, rewardingly complex drama, elevated by soulful performances from Christopher Abbott, Lois Smith and bona fide national treasure Georgia Engel.

    Read the review.

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    King Charles III

    Joan Marcus

    A London import that lives up to its hometown acclaim, Mike Bartlett's ingenious "future history play" imagines a handover of the monarchy in mock-Shakespearean blank verse, tracing a suspenseful spiral from irreverent humor to gut-wrenching pathos. Rupert Goold's majestic yet fleet production is packed with incisive characterizations, none more nuanced or affecting than the wonderful Tim Pigott-Smith's in the title role.

    Read the review.

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    An American in Paris

    Matthew Murphy

    New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild makes his first jete into musical theater as a fully formed triple threat, stepping into Gene Kelly's elegant shoes with supreme assurance in this enchanting reinvention of the MGM classic. Likewise another ballet luminary, Christopher Wheeldon, whose work as director-choreographer on this evocatively designed production is a master class in soaring romantic storytelling through dance.

    Read the review.

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    Eclipsed

    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

    Too few American playwrights look to other cultures for inspiration, which is just one thing that made Danai Gurira's vivid plunge into the lives of a group of women taken captive by rebel soldiers during the Liberian Civil War so transfixing. Shot through with as much humor and compassion as brutality, the play transfers to Broadway in February, with a stellar five-person ensemble that includes the radiant Lupita Nyong'o.

    Read the review.

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    Gloria

    Carol Rosegg

    In his shockingly humorous drama, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins trained a pitiless satirical gaze on the awfulness of office life at a New Yorker-type magazine in a first act that climaxed in carnage. He then pulled off a neat pivot in Act 2, examining not how our culture grieves but how it feeds off tragedy. A savage little play full of needling ideas that follow you home.

    Read the review.

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    Small Mouth Sounds

    Courtesy of Ben Arons

    Bess Wohl's minimalist jewel packed six people off to a spiritual retreat in the woods to seek answers, or at least relief from what ails them, imposing silence as a condition of their time there. With only birdsong and the occasional self-important intonations of an unseen guru to break the quiet, Wohl, director Rachel Chavkin and a flawless cast orchestrated a shift from comedy to pervasive sorrow so supple that the play's poignancy crept up on you like a thief in the night.

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    Skylight

    John Haynes

    Stephen Daldry's crystalline revival of the 1995 David Hare drama had Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy batting their characters' conflicting views on class and social responsibility back and forth as they tiptoed around the rubble of their long-defunct relationship, acknowledging the memories of past intimacy with unspoken regret. Mulligan even managed it all while throwing together a spaghetti dinner.

    Read the review.

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    Barbecue

    Joan Marcus

    A wicked addiction intervention comedy that never met a rule it couldn’t trample, Robert O'Hara's play periodically shuffled black and white actors in the same roles during a trashy family cookout, before pulling the rug out from under the audience in a second act that blew crack fumes through the sketchy concept of "reality" in entertainment. Raucous, wild and fearless.

    Read the review.

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    Significant Other

    Joan Marcus

    More than one playwright attempted without much distinction this year to find an insightful perspective on post-equality gay domesticity. But in his sweetly old-fashioned serio-comedy about a reluctant singleton left behind as his female friends marry off, Joshua Harmon traced affecting lines of loneliness and longing that remain relatable even in the most gay-friendly environments.

    Read the review.

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    School of Rock

    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

    Returning to the Winter Garden Theatre, where his 1980s monster hit Cats meowed for 18 years, Andrew Lloyd Webber showed that his commercial savvy hasn't abandoned him with this unexpectedly captivating musical retake on Richard Linklater's 2003 screen hit. The crowdpleaser features 13 insanely talented preteens, their characters' home lives helpfully expanded by writer Julian Fellowes. It also unleashes a hurricane-force pied piper in Alex Brightman, stepping into the Jack Black role and taking ownership.

    Read the review.

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    Lazarus

    Courtesy of Jan Versweyveld

    Then there's this defiant anti-crowdpleaser. David Bowie teamed with idiosyncratic Irish playwright Enda Walsh and maverick director Ivo van Hove to create a bizarrely fascinating alienation alt-musical sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, with Michael C. Hall as the alcoholic extraterrestrial, Thomas Jerome Newton. Its esoteric aloofness drove some critics crazy, but the sounds and visuals were intoxicating, and if this is the closest we’ll ever get to a Bowie musical, I'll take it.

    Read the review.

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    Guards at the Taj

    Doug Hamilton

    Rajiv Joseph's oddball new play didn't match the stinging focus of his earlier breakthrough, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. But the playwright's artful balance of mordant humor and lyricism nonetheless made for a bracing mix in this evocative production, which spilled more blood onstage than any show this year. And given the overload of airless living-room plays in contemporary American theater, any writer who can transport us to 17th century India to reflect on loyalty, betrayal and barbarism deserves respect.

    Read the review.

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    Little Shop of Horrors

    Joan Marcus

    Sure, it played for just a handful of performances, and showed the signs of limited rehearsal time. But I wouldn't for anything have traded the joy of watching the ageless Ellen Greene revisit her signature role of battered Skid Row florist Audrey, opposite a game and comedically gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as the lovelorn nebbish Seymour. A cartoonish 2003 Broadway revival did the material few favors, but this rougher-edged concert staging demonstrated that the 1982 cult sci-fi musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken has lost none of its freshness or heart.

    Read the review.

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