David Rooney: The Best New York Theater of 2018

7:00 AM 12/16/2018

by David Rooney

Angels and executioners, a pop Shakespeare rom-com and a brooding Bob Dylan tone poem, a Northern Irish pastoral and a deep dive into American foundational law were among the year's stage highlights for The Hollywood Reporter's chief theater critic. Plus the great Glenda Jackson.

Clockwise from top left: 'Angels in America,' 'Girl From the North Country,' 'Three Tall Women,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Carmen Jones,' 'The Ferryman'
Clockwise from top left: 'Angels in America,' 'Girl From the North Country,' 'Three Tall Women,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Carmen Jones,' 'The Ferryman'
Courtesy of Production Company

Grosses for the calendar year on Broadway are on track to top a whopping $1.7 billion, with 13.4 million tickets sold to date. But how about the state of the art on the New York stage?

My highlights of 2018 include a fairly even breakdown of new plays and stellar revivals, though the shortage of original musicals points to a dearth of creativity on that front: too many screen-to-stage adaptations that merely rebrand a familiar property rather than hatching a show with a distinct identity, and too many jukebox assemblies artificially wedging songs into a narrative for which they were never intended.

Still, while I cringed through Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, I got a kick out of the shamelessly glitzy excesses of The Cher Show, one of the year's most luxuriant guilty pleasures, led by a sensational performance from Stephanie J. Block.

There were many other great performances to savor, too, topped by the titanic Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. Also delivering electrifying work were Bryan Cranston in Ivo van Hove's full-throttle multimedia staging of Network; Billie Piper breathing raw feeling into a modern take on the 1934 Lorca classic Yerma; Joshua Henry dredging his soul to sing of the turbulent emotions of impending fatherhood in Carousel; and Michael C. Hall, making the existential rumination of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) feel rivetingly extemporaneous.

Possibly no performances moved me more than those of Edmund Donovan and Noah Robbins as two damaged young gay men connecting in unexpected ways in the shattering second part of Samuel D. Hunter's diptych on orphans of the lost American frontier, Lewiston/Clarkston, staged with piercing intimacy by the playwright's frequent collaborator Davis McCallum.

But let's not forget the magnificent Elaine May, back on Broadway after 50-plus years, with razor-sharp timing and wrenching vulnerability as a vibrant woman whose mind is shutting down ahead of her body in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery. May's return, alongside achingly honest work from Joan Allen in the same intensely personal play, was cause for celebration.

However, I found Lonergan's Lobby Hero, a four-character 2001 play about more or less honest people dealing with thorny moral questions, more satisfying overall in a finely tuned revival starring Chris Evans, Michael Cera, Brian Tyree Henry and Bel Powley.

Also among my favorite performances of the year was the brilliant Russell Harvard's devastating work as the gay, deaf recovering addict at the center of a family plagued by adversity in Craig Lucas' I Was Most Alive With You, a sprawling, messy but emotionally rewarding contemporary spin on the Book of Job. Whenever I've seen Harvard — on screen in There Will Be Blood or the first season of Fargo, or on stage in Nina Raine's Tribes — it's struck me that this guy belongs in the top tier of American actors. His low profile can only be attributed to the fact that deaf actors too rarely factor into the push for greater inclusivity in casting.

In the representation area there has been some improvement, however. Pretty much every major off-Broadway company this past season has produced one or more works by playwrights who are women, queer, people of color or some combination thereof. (One of the more talked-about recent off-Broadway productions, Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play, I plan on catching before the year is out.) While bottom line-driven Broadway is slower to endorse change, the needle at least appears to be moving in the right direction.

It was a great year for seminal gay plays. In addition to the towering revival of Angels in America that tops my list, Mart Crowley's loved and loathed chronicle of a pre-Stonewall party that turns toxic, The Boys in the Band, revealed the battered heart beneath the zingers in Joe Mantello's starry production, led by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. And Harvey Fierstein's milestone seriocomedy about a part-time New York drag queen’s search for love and family, Torch Song, acquired fresh depth and humanity in its Broadway transfer starring Michael Urie, though the production sadly struggled to find an audience.

New plays I greatly admired that didn't quite crack my top 10 include Tracy Letts' poignant collage of the life of a seemingly unremarkable woman, Mary Page Marlowe, directed with exquisite restraint by rising star Lila Neugebauer; and the rollicking inquisition into truth in journalism and beyond, The Lifespan of a Fact. The pithy comedy-drama features a never-better Daniel Radcliffe alongside Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale, pinging off one another with a verve that never lets up in Leigh Silverman's tight production.

I missed one of the most polarizing theater events of the fall, Daniel Fish's stripped-down, darker take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, so it's good news that a spring transfer is in the works for Broadway.

Rather than mention the duds of the year, I'll confine myself to what was for me the biggest disappointment, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to write about it at the time. While most reviewers gave the City Center gala presentation of A Chorus Line a pass, even taking into account the limited rehearsal time I found it a moldy museum piece with sloppy dance combinations and tired characterizations from a tour-grade cast. The lonely exceptions were the always-excellent Tony Yazbeck as exacting director Zach, and Robyn Hurder, keeping a firm grip on the dignity of bruised but not beaten Cassie.

A smart colleague captured the problem succinctly by suggesting it was time for the keepers of the Michael Bennett flame to "unclench their butt cheeks" and let a visionary director attempt to put a fresh stamp on this celebrated musical, rather than just continuing to trot out increasingly pallid facsimiles of the original production.

But enough with the let-downs, on with the best.

  1. 1
    10

    Angels in America

    Courtesy of Helen Maybanks

    The "great work" began for Tony Kushner more than a quarter-century ago, but rarely has a landmark drama so cogently bridged the distance between its original timeframe — the mid-1980s, height of the AIDS crisis — and our own as in Marianne Elliott's thrilling revival, its superlative cast led by Andrew Garfield as reluctant prophet Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as closeted political fixer Roy M. Cohn.

  2. 2
    10

    Girl From the North Country

    Joan Marcus

    In his novelistic tapestry of Depression-era Minnesota, Irish playwright Conor McPherson draws a mythical line connecting the haunted souls of his own work to the lost lovers and dreamers of that state's famous son, Bob Dylan, and beyond, to the Dust Bowl folk balladry of one of Dylan's formative influences, Woody Guthrie. An alt-musical of scorching melancholy beauty.

  3. 3
    10

    Three Tall Women

    Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe

    Glenda Jackson came roaring back to Broadway after a 30-year absence, the perfect precision instrument to execute Edward Albee's tragicomically surgical probe into senescence, self-knowledge and death. That she was flanked by actors of the caliber of Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill made Joe Mantello's biting production blaze with rare intensity.

  4. 4
    10

    The Ferryman

    Jez Butterworth

    Just as Jez Butterworth tilled the ancient soil and mythology of England in his epic play Jerusalem, he digs deep into the blood-soaked peat bogs and pastureland of Northern Ireland in this rambunctious celebration of big-family rural communion, threatened by the long reach of violent history. Director Sam Mendes corrals 21 actors, a baby, a rabbit and a goose in a crackling thriller pulsing with vitality.

  5. 5
    10

    Twelfth Night

    Joan Marcus

    Few classics are as ideal a fit for Shakespeare in the Park as this prototype rom-com, given exuberant new life in a breezy update by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and composer Shaina Taub, who wrote the production's catchy, genre-hopping score. The buzzword of "inclusivity" has never seemed so apt as in this shot of unadulterated joy, which mixed professional actors with local community group recruits of all ages. 

  6. 6
    10

    To Kill a Mockingbird

    Julieta Cervantes

    Playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher's fine-grained, richly detailed retelling honors the seminal Harper Lee novel about racial injustice in the Deep South of the 1930s, while subtly positioning its events to address our divided present-day nation, under a government defined by incivility. Jeff Daniels leads an impeccable cast in an adaptation very much alive and emotionally impactful.

  7. 7
    10

    Carmen Jones

    Joan Marcus

    With his signature minimalist approach and a sizzling lead in Anika Noni Rose, blessed with lustrous pipes, director John Doyle rescued Oscar Hammerstein II's 1943 Bizet update from obscurity, conjuring heady atmosphere, dramatic urgency, ripe sensuality and heavenly singing in this jazzy historical curio, set in a World War II parachute factory in the black American South.

  8. 8
    10

    What the Constitution Means to Me

    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

    Premiered ahead of the midterms, amid the rancor of Brett Kavanagh's Supreme Court nomination, Heidi Schreck's time-traveling leap back to her teenage debate years demonstrates that the best political plays are also deeply personal. An almost obsessive contemplation of the document that frames our government, it yields humor, poignancy and provocative insights, particularly when the writer-performer traces connections to the history of domestic violence in her family.

  9. 9
    10

    Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

    Courtesy of Manuel Harlan

    This wildly imaginative two-part continuation of J.K. Rowling's wizardry saga, by playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, mixes old-fashioned sleight-of-hand with elaborate techno-trickery, evoking the wonder and excitement of vintage Saturday-matinee serials. The story trips nimbly back and forth between past and present, fusing adventure, intimate family drama and even dystopian shivers with dazzling assurance.

  10. 10
    10

    Hangmen

    Courtesy of Ahron R. Foster

    Martin McDonagh's delectably caustic comedy about injustice, revenge and man's instinct for violence cast Mark Addy as a British executioner contemplating his obsolescence with the abolition of capital punishment in 1965, until a shady Londoner, played by knockout discovery Johnny Flynn, gives him fresh motivation to ply his trade. A taut balancing act of farce and horror.