The Best New York Theater of the Decade

6:00 AM 12/4/2019

by David Rooney

The Hollywood Reporter’s chief theater critic looks back over the past 10 years on Broadway and off, rounding up the most memorable musicals and dramas along with the arrival of an exciting new generation of American playwrights.

From left: 'Hamilton, 'Fun Home,' The Humans,' 'The Wolves'
From left: 'Hamilton, 'Fun Home,' The Humans,' 'The Wolves'
Courtesy of Productions

Two Broadway musicals penetrated mainstream culture in the 2010s on a level seldom seen in recent decades. One was the $75 million debacle of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with its Icarus-like backstory of artistic hubris culminating in the brutal dismissal of director and co-creator Julie Taymor. The other was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, an instant sensation that altered perceptions about the kind of stories musicals could tell and the language and form they could adopt to tell them.

That show saw critical and commercial success collide to a rare degree, raking in $610 million in its first four years on Broadway alone, not factoring in touring and international productions.

The past 10 years also have been distinguished by the emergence of a bold new generation of distinctive American playwrights.

Along with Annie Baker, Stephen Karam and Sarah DeLappe, represented in the top 10 list below, those include Amy Herzog with 4000 Miles and Mary Jane; Kristoffer Diaz with The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity; Ayad Akhtar with Disgraced; Bess Wohl with Small Mouth Sounds; Aleshea Harris with Is God Is; Samuel D. Hunter with The Whale and Lewiston/Clarkston; Lucas Hnath with Red Speedo and A Doll’s House, Part 2; and Jackie Sibblies Drury with Fairview.

Established playwrights who fortified their reputations include Stephen Adly Guirgis with his crafty urban tragicomedy about real estate and race, Between Riverside and Crazy, while Richard Nelson can lay claim to being the American Chekhov with his Rhinebeck Panorama, an ongoing series so far containing eight dramas that weigh the political and personal questions of the age through the kitchen confidentials of a handful of left-leaning families in upstate New York.

Gifted new directors also made their mark. In addition to Sam Gold and Lila Neugebauer, who figure in the top 10, that includes David Cromer, who made good on the earlier success of his definitive rendering of Our Town with stage work of startling intimacy, from dramas like Tribes and The Sound Inside to the hypnotic musical The Band’s Visit. And Brit director Marianne Elliott showed her mastery at blending kinetic spectacle with emotional acuity in shows like War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and her superlative revival of Angels in America.

Over and over again this past decade, fearless directors and brilliant casts gave canonical works the vitality of eye-opening newness, led by Ivo van Hove’s blistering back-to-back reappraisals of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible. 

Pam MacKinnon’s Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deftly recalibrated the balance between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s masterwork of marital combat, aided by scorching performances from Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. Bartlett Sher found thrumming humanity in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy and delicacy in the uncomfortable racial optics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. 

In one of his final Broadway productions, Mike Nichols highlighted the eternal relevance of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with its corrosive take on the hollowness of the American Dream, in a revival led with lacerating sorrow by another since-departed giant, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Critics were mixed on Porgy and Bess in the rethink from director Diane Paulus and libretto adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, but hearing Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis sing the 1935 Gershwin folk opera was simply glorious. And Macbeth has perhaps rarely packed the visceral charge or the muscular spectacle brought to it by co-directors Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford in an exciting traverse staging at the Park Avenue Armory that starred Branagh in the title role.

Finally, way back in 2010, director Michael Wilson paid elegiac tribute to the great Horton Foote a year after the Texan dramatist’s death with The Orphans’ Home Cycle, an epic three-part synthesis of nine plays full of novelistic detail and capacious emotional depth.

In alphabetical order, here are the 10 best shows I saw on New York stages over the decade.

  • Clybourne Park

    2010

    Nathan Johnson

    Jumping off from A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 drama of an African American family seeking upward mobility in a society stacked against them, playwright Bruce Norris uses the restless tides of gentrification and a half-century of shifting social dynamics to expose the deep discomfort still ingrained in the American psyche when it comes to talking about race.

  • The Flick

    2013

    Joan Marcus

    One of the most distinctive and influential new voices to emerge in American playwriting in the 2000s, Annie Baker achieved maximum thematic cohesion from deceptively minimalist means with this ultra-naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall observation of the interactions among staff at a Massachusetts movie house — a gasping analog holdout in a digital world. The contemplation of the untidy spaces in messed-up lives ranged from droll to heart-wrenching, its profundity creeping up on you like a thief over three riveting hours.

     

  • Fun Home

    2015

    Joan Marcus

    Composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron dug deep into cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s "family tragicomic" to reframe queer self-discovery in funny, tender, achingly poignant terms. Staged in the round for maximum intimacy on Broadway by director Sam Gold, the show tracked the lesbian author’s joyful coming out alongside the tragic cost of repression and denial for her closeted gay father. Rarely has music and drama been so inextricably integrated, to the point where, despite the material’s origins as a graphic novel, you can’t imagine the story being told any other way.

  • Hamilton

    2015

    Joan Marcus

    What further commentary is needed at this point on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary musical about nationhood, which retrieves American history from the dusty vaults and reshapes it as a narrative of enterprising immigrant outsiders? Many shows have attempted to harness the rhythmic kick of hip-hop but none has made such a successful case for rap as a natural vernacular for musical-theater storytelling. Folding together formal invention with tradition, this is thrilling entertainment driven by emotional power and a peerless score without a single weak number.

  • Here Lies Love

    2013

    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

    A dance-club bio-musical that humanized the complex figure of Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos and rescued her from the punchline of her outsize shoe collection, this propulsive collaboration of art-rock guru David Byrne, big-beat funkster Fatboy Slim, director Alex Timbers and choreographer Annie-B Parson was the exhilarating high point of the immersive theater explosion. And Byrne capped off the decade by redefining the concert experience on Broadway with his uplifting tonic for harsh times, American Utopia.

  • The Humans

    2015

    Brigitte Lacombe

    Playwright Stephen Karam took an uneasy Thanksgiving family gathering and slyly widened his lens to conduct an unsettling investigation into the troubled hearts and minds of post-9/11 America. The subtle humor, unflinching honesty and searing compassion of the writer’s voice, coupled with the impeccable direction of Joe Mantello and the incisive performances of a first-rate ensemble, made this a uniquely moving study of the frayed bonds and enduring connections of people torn between optimism and sorrow, hope and dread, solace and desolation.

  • Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

    2016

    Courtesy of Chad Batka

    Writer-composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin pushed the boundaries of theatrical storytelling with this rollicking electro-pop retelling of a small slice of Tolstoy. First seen in 2012, the show benefited from years of development in multiple iterations — much like the more recent Hadestown — to transform its literary roots into a rip-roaring spectacle that matched dazzling visuals with nonstop wit and a genre-hopping score to stir the senses.

  • The Piano Lesson

    2012

    Joan Marcus

    The haunted characters of August Wilson were vividly alive in all their pain and uncertainty in this symphonic revival of the 1930s chapter of the late playwright’s 20th Century Cycle. Actor-turned-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has become the foremost interpreter of Wilson’s work (his 2017 production of Jitney was equally memorable); he coaxed illuminating insights here from an estimable ensemble playing figures struggling in different ways to participate physically and psychologically in the Great Migration of black America.

  • The Scottsboro Boys

    2010

    Paul Kolnik

    In one of their final collaborations, the celebrated musical-theater team of John Kander and Fred Ebb reworked the minstrel show — one of the most inherently racist forms in the history of American popular entertainment — as a chilling burlesque to explore a shocking real-life episode from the Jim Crow South. Overshadowed in its Broadway premiere by the arrival of the splashier Book of Mormon, this is a show whose audaciousness and artistry seem destined to find greater appreciation in a future revival.

  • The Wolves

    2017

    Julieta Cervantes

    Sarah DeLappe’s debut play about a girls’ indoor soccer team is deceptively unstructured in its series of warm-up and practice sessions, fueled by an Altmanesque babble of overlapping dialogue. But out of all that noise and hormonal turbulence, a heart-rending snapshot emerges of the treacherous gulf separating female adolescence from maturity, undiluted by the distorting filters of the male gaze. This was the production that also cemented the arrival of Lila Neugebauer as an important new director.