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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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