David Rooney: The Best New York Theater of 2017

6:30 AM 12/13/2017

by THR Staff

The Hollywood Reporter's chief theater critic glances back over a year of stage highlights including bold new American plays, stellar productions of vintage musicals, and Bruce Springsteen, up close and personal.

NY Theater- David Rooney  Annual Picks - split - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy Photos

Once I began narrowing down my favorite stage experiences from 2017, I realized with some concern that the No. 1 spot would go to an uncommonly satisfying revival of a play from 1979, while three other positions in my Top 10 were occupied by Stephen Sondheim musicals, the most recent of them from 1984. But that retro focus should not be misinterpreted as a sign of creative fatigue in New York theater.

The most outstanding new Broadway musical of the year, The Band's Visit, is absent here simply because it was high on my 2016 list in its off-Broadway premiere. Written by Itamar Moses, with a seductive Middle Eastern-flavored score by David Yazbek, this intoxicating desert kiss of a show has only grown more striking in its uptown transfer; it looks sure to be a major player in the Tony Awards next June.

I first saw my top play choice, Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, at the end of 2016, too late to make that year's list. But this visceral plunge into female adolescence is another work that has ripened extraordinarily in its return engagement at Lincoln Center.

It was one of a handful of terrific new American plays by women, including Amy Herzog's quietly searing Mary Jane; Martyna Majok's needling drama about people with disabilities and their caregivers, Cost of Living; Dominique Morisseau's very personal contemplation of the odds stacked against young black men in America, Pipeline; and actress Jocelyn Bioh's auspicious writing debut, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, which brings vitality, humor and compassion to the teenage struggle for self-worth in a Ghanaian boarding school.

The standout among new work by male American playwrights — and paradoxically the liveliest feminist provocation — was Lucas Hnath's brilliant response to Ibsen, A Doll's House, Part 2. But I also greatly admired Steven Levenson's probing family play about Jewish identity and the long reach of history, If I Forget, which showed that the book writer of Dear Evan Hansen has genuine range.

There were several notable Broadway productions that didn't quite crack my top 10. The sparks generated by Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh brought electrifying life to minor Chekhov in The Present; director Daniel Sullivan and a deluxe cast headed by alternating leads Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon made Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes a surprisingly prescient insight into Trump's America; and Arthur Miller's claim to enduring social relevance was reconfirmed in The Price, with Terry Kinney directing a first-rate cast that included Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, Jessica Hecht and Danny DeVito.

The latter two revivals had more to say about the dispiriting state of the nation under billionaire rule than more overt attempts to tap into the political zeitgeist, like the sledgehammer adaptation of 1984, or Beau Willimon's name-dropping dish of Beltway intrigue, The Parisian Woman, with an out-of-her-depth Uma Thurman.

Perhaps the most surprising play this year in terms of its contemporary relevance was Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. While the 1922 expressionist drama now seems dated and didactic, director Richard Jones, designer Stewart Laing and knockout lead actor Bobby Cannavale brought vigorous trenchancy and power to its depiction of wealth and class inequality, making eye-popping use of the Park Avenue Armory's massive playing space.

Among new musicals I enjoyed, Groundhog Day was a wildly inventive reworking of the beloved Bill Murray screen comedy that failed to build an audience despite the stellar lead performance of Andy Karl; War Paint delivered the luxurious reward of watching Broadway royalty Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone match wits and contrasting styles, singing a criminally underrated score; and director Tina Landau, writer Kyle Jarrow, virtuoso designer David Zinn and an exuberant cast made the delirious escapism of SpongeBob SquarePants the most guilt-free of guilty pleasures.

Rather than waste undue ink on the low points of the year in theater (Amelie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I'm looking at you), I'll just revisit the most egregious faux-controversy, which prompted the premature closing of Dave Malloy's groundbreaking musical romp through classic Russian literature, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which was No. 1 on my 2016 list.

When it was announced that Mandy Patinkin was stepping in as Pierre, cutting short the run of Hamilton recruit Okieriete Onaodowan, Twitter exploded with an outcry about another African-American performer being shafted for a white replacement. Never mind that Onaodowan had agreed to step aside after demonstrating the limits of the Hamilton effect at the box office and by all accounts making a soft impression in the role.

Sure, the announcement was handled poorly, but this was really just a case of producers doing what producers do when a show is in financial trouble. (The grosses of Great Comet had plummeted after original lead Josh Groban finished his run.)

All it really proved in the end was that the Twittersphere is a viral breeding ground for hysterical noise and displaced anger without context — news to nobody at this point. How long Patinkin's appearance would have prolonged the costly show's life remains debatable. But the disproportionate fuss certainly hastened the unemployment of one of the most racially inclusive and extravagantly talented ensembles in recent Broadway history.

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    Every major production of an August Wilson work is a stinging reminder of the loss of one of American drama's most uniquely resonant voices. But this belated Broadway debut of the play that launched his magnificent 10-part chronicle of African-American experience in the 20th century — directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson with penetrating emotional depth and irrepressible humor — was something extraordinary. Gritty and lyrical, joyful and sorrowful, the play examines black struggle through the prism of a Pittsburgh gypsy-cab company in 1977, its denizens portrayed here by a peerless ensemble that found music in every note.

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    The Wolves

    Vibrant ensemble work also is key in Sarah DeLappe's subtly crafted study of young women navigating the tricky precipice of adulthood. Lila Neugebauer directs the nine fearless performers playing members of a girls soccer team with a palpable connection to their deeply felt experiences — good and bad — providing unfiltered access to the raw volatility and fear of adolescence. Deceptively loose in structure and yet skillfully shaped, the play's observations shift with uncommon grace from funny to heartbreaking, forming both a group portrait and a highly individualized series of revealing snapshots.

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    Springsteen on Broadway

    The solo stage memoir is perhaps the most over-trafficked subgenre in the contemporary theatrical landscape — far too often by writer-performers whose stories fail to justify the self-scrutiny. But with his unerring instinct for illuminating detail and ability to reframe his superstar experience as that of an everyday, working-man American, Bruce Springsteen combines spoken excerpts adapted from his autobiography, Born to Run, with corresponding song selections in a narratively robust concert-confessional notable both for its thrilling intimacy and its sense of communal celebration.

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    Sunday in the Park With George

    No musical delves deeper into the painful difficulties of the creative process than this 1984 dramatic diptych by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which leaps from the clubby art world of 1880s Paris to the corresponding scene in America a century later to explore the transcendent birth of harmony out of chaos. Expanding on their work in an earlier concert staging, Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford led a superlative cast, bringing startling emotional candor to Sarna Lapine's exquisitely sung production.

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    A Doll's House, Part 2

    What could have been merely a deconstructionist gimmick turned out instead to be a wickedly spiky consideration of marriage and gender roles across the centuries in Lucas Hnath's playful "sequel" to the classic Ibsen drama. In Sam Gold's bracingly lithe production, from the moment the incomparable Laurie Metcalf walked through the door that Nora Helmer had slammed shut behind her, this was timeless sociocultural debate elevated to the championship theatrical leagues. Quite unexpectedly, it was also one of the funniest plays of the year.

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    Sweeney Todd

    How do you extract fresh chills from a musical masterwork that has been produced in seemingly every possible size and shape from Industrial Age epic to stripped-down spookhouse chamber piece? Originally staged in a traditional South London pie shop, faithfully recreated off-Broadway, this immersive production of the obsessive revenge tale by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler stuck us smack in the middle of the throat-slashing action with a Grand Guignol glee that made us feel the cold steel of the razor and smell the blood.

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    Mary Jane

    Carrie Coon followed her breakout TV work on The Leftovers and Fargo with a riveting return to the stage in this infinitely moving yet rigorously unsentimental portrait by Amy Herzog of a mother caring for a chronically ill child while struggling to remain a vital individual beyond that all-consuming role. Anne Kauffman's lucid, unfussy production gracefully sidestepped the conventions of the medical drama to explore questions of life, death and sacrifice with rare humanism and gentle spirituality.

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    Hello, Dolly!

    Who would have guessed that the old girl still had so much life in her? I'm talking about the 1964 musical warhorse, adapted by composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and writer Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. As a triumphant vehicle for Bette Midler's return to the musical-theater stage after a half-century's absence, this was sheer perfection, flanking the indomitable star with a top-drawer cast that includes a never-funnier David Hyde Pierce. Jerry Zaks' lovingly revitalized restoration was no less delightful with Midler's divine alternate, Donna Murphy. The show rejoices in the uplifting values of popular Golden-Age Broadway entertainment, and will no doubt continue to do so in January, when Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber step into the lead roles.

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    Once on This Island

    In his second Broadway production, actor-turned-director Michael Arden works magic with his environmental staging of the 1990 musical fairy tale by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Enhanced by visual suggestions of real-world natural disasters from Haiti to Puerto Rico, this rousing hymn to community and resilience is performed by a superb cast of 20, all equally invested in the transformative power of storytelling and the healing energy of song. It also announces an instant star in enchanting discovery Hailey Kilgore.

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    Pacific Overtures

    Perhaps the most adventurous work in the Sondheim canon, this 1976 musical about the Westernization of Japan, written with John Weidman, unfolded with haunting narrative simplicity in John Doyle's elegantly streamlined, modern-dress production, featuring a statesmanlike George Takei as the narrator figure known as The Reciter. The staging's calligraphic delicacy revealed new emotional shades in one of the composer's most idiosyncratic scores, drawing out both ongoing relevance and understated poignancy in themes of globalization, cultural isolationism and bullying foreign policy.