David Rooney on the Record Year in New York Theater

"Death of a Salesman"
Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine

"He will admit that he's wrong quicker than almost anyone I know, and he'll defer to someone else's ideas very quickly," says Hoffman (second from right with the cast of Salesman) of Nichols. "The really smart and complicated people are like that."

THR's theater critic rounds up his picks for the top stage productions of 2012, both on Broadway and Off.

NEW YORK – Broadway business continued to flourish this year, with $1.14 billion in total grosses for the 2011-12 season that wrapped in May, representing a history-making high. And while no breakout smash penetrated the pop-culture sphere to the degree of the previous year’s The Book of Mormon or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a number of memorable productions both in the big houses and Off Broadway provided dazzling theater.

New musicals offered little to sing about, and given that the Tony-winning Irish indie adaptation, Once, made my Top 10 list last year in its pre-Broadway incarnation, that category goes unrepresented among this year’s picks.

Noteworthy new American plays were also in short supply on Broadway, where only the long-awaited transfer of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning Clybourne Park made the cut.

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But Off Broadway has had a remarkably fertile year in which emerging talents delivered on the auspicious promise of their earlier works. Newer names also joined those ranks, while veterans showed they still have something to add to the conversation, and both minor and major works from the past yielded illuminating rediscoveries.

Reflecting those encouraging signs of creative ferment, two superb new Off Broadway venues were christened in 2012, both of them welcome additions to the city’s cultural landscape. The Signature Theatre Company debuted its deluxe Frank Gehry-designed three-stage Pershing Square complex. And Lincoln Center’s cozy Claire Tow Theater, designed by Hugh Hardy, provided a permanent home for the company’s emerging artists program, perched atop its existing theaters with an inviting bar and roof terrace.

In addition to Top 10 entries 4000 Miles and Disgraced, Off Broadway delivered some searing new works.

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Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit guided us with savage wit on a nail-biting skate across the thin ice of middle-class stability in recessionary America. David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan starred as trusting suburbanites who unwisely open their doors to the neighbors from hell.

Gina Gionfriddo followed up on her delectable Becky Shaw from 2008 with Rapture, Blister, Burn, a whip-smart and wickedly funny reflection on the post-feminist American woman that takes its cue from Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. Amy Brenneman starred as a successful writer and academic weighing career achievements against personal fulfillment.

British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes shrewdly examined the incongruity of silence in a hyper-verbal world. The play zooms in on the life of a young deaf man whose romance with a similarly hearing-impaired woman, and his belated decision to learn sign language, ruffle his complacently insular liberal family. David Cromer’s riveting production featured a knockout performance from Russell Harvard in the central role.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale was one of the year’s most original and unexpectedly tender dramas. Focusing on the efforts of a 600-lb man (played with aching sensitivity by Shuler Hensley) to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, this was a beguilingly intense consideration of the value of empathy from a young playwright who had impressed the previous year with A Bright New Boise.

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A veteran by comparison, Christopher Durang may have indulged in occasional rambling in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, in which he playfully co-opts Chekhovian themes to look at 21st century foibles and neuroses. But via a pedigree cast led by Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce, the absurdist master landed some priceless observations -- by turns contemplative, melancholy and hilarious.

While not quite as rich as her more personal plays that draw on family history, Amy Herzog expanded her range and again showed her impeccable ear for dialogue and eye for character detail in The Great God Pan, which explores with an unsettling gaze the festering wounds of the unaddressed past.

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Fewer new musicals of interest premiered Off Broadway, but perhaps the most notable was Murder Ballad, a darkly sexy, pulse-pounding rock tragedy about love and betrayal by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash. Trip Cullman’s sensational staging positioned much of the audience literally in the thick of the action as the four dynamic actors pinballed among a pool table, a bar and the lip of the tiny stage where a kickass band performed.

Many of the superlative revivals that graced the theater year are on my list below, but one that came close deserves mention.

Edward Albee’s 1980 drama The Lady From Dubuque had been widely dismissed as among his more inaccessible works. But David Esbjornson’s incisive production revealed haunting insights into the inevitability of death, for those departing and for those reluctant to let them go. Laila Robins’ portrayal of an enraged, agonized woman succumbing to cancer was unforgettable. And Jane Alexander made an ineffably elegant exterminating angel, unyielding and even sardonic at times, yet serenely compassionate.

Top of the list of shows I regrettably missed this year are Uncle Vanya in a contemporary update by American playwriting’s most clear-eyed miniaturist, Annie Baker; and Richard Nelson’s Sorry, the concluding part of his trilogy on the state of the politically ailing nation, viewed through the prism of a single family.

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In alphabetical order, here are the ten best shows I saw on New York stages in 2012:

As You Like It – Critics doing annual roundups tend to overlook the Shakespeare in the Park offerings, given their short runs. But Daniel Sullivan’s intoxicating staging of the twisty tale of love, community and cross-dressing was a reminder of what a blissful experience this summertime ritual can be. Lily Rabe and David Furr led the cast of a production relocated to the antebellum American South, their obstacle-strewn union accompanied by Steve Martin’s original bluegrass score. Fine work from Andre Braugher, Oliver Platt, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Stephen Spinella increased the pleasure.

Clybourne Park Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer winner took its time getting to Broadway. But that delay allowed the flawless original ensemble time to burrow even deeper into their characters in Pam MacKinnon’s sizzling production. Taking its cue from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, this caustic satire examines with rare perspicacity and scalding wit how much and how little has changed in our attitudes toward race in America in the past half-century. This was a deserving Tony winner for best play.

Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller’s 1949 masterwork has always been shattering drama. But in the assured hands of Mike Nichols and an emotionally exposed ensemble led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield, Linda Emond and Finn Wittrock, this deeply affecting revival was a trenchant commentary on the hollowness of the American Dream and the heartbreaking casualties of a society in which a man’s worth is measured by professional success. Brilliantly staged with a bow to Elia Kazan’s original production, this great play seemed as relevant today as it must have 63 years ago.

Disgraced Ayad Akhtar staked a claim as one of the boldest voices to appear on the playwriting scene in recent years with this stinging swipe at the fallacy of the post-racial nation. Piloted by a prickly yet surprisingly vulnerable characterization from Aasif Mandvi (a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart) as a corporate lawyer tainted by his reluctant association with a persecuted imam, the provocative play explores faith and social politics, touching on radical Islam, terrorism, and presciently, even gun laws. As witty as it is confronting, this hot-tempered one-act gets under the skin in ways that often elude more overtly topical forays into similar territory.

4000 Miles – Like Amy Herzog’s earlier work After the Revolution, this exquisitely crafted play draws on the personal history of her radical leftist grandmother. That character was played by Mary Louise Wilson as a flinty old bird with diminished faculties but sharp observational powers where it counts, and little use for the standard filters of diplomacy. Her interactions with Gabriel Ebert as her grandson, an entirely different breed of liberal who lands on her doorstep with a rucksack full of hurt, were packed with heart, humor and an uncanny ability to locate feelings relatable to all of our families.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess – The incandescent Audra McDonald returned from the wasteland of girly medical TV (Private Practice) to reaffirm her formidable gifts as one of American musical theater’s foremost contemporary dramatic interpreters in a vehicle that was truly worthy of them. Purists griped about liberties taken with the score and book, but Diane Paulus’ production mined the full emotional depths of the landmark folk opera, with glorious work from a cast that also included Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier and Phillip Boykin. The show won McDonald her fifth Tony Award, as well as another for best musical revival.

Golden Boy – In his probing reappraisal of Clifford Odets’ 1937 drama about a talented violinist who chooses to pursue the money and fame of a prizefighting career, director Bartlett Sher created perhaps the most ravishing stage pictures of the year. A brilliant ensemble led by Seth Numrich, Yvonne Strahovski and Tony Shalhoub navigated the eternal art/commerce divide with grit and sensitivity, yielding an indelible theatrical experience that delivered visceral body blows as well as soaring emotional peaks and lingering moments of sorrowful desolation.

One Man, Two Guvnors – Anything that’s this much fun probably should be illegal. Brit playwright Richard Bean’s frolicsome transportation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic, The Servant of Two Masters, to Swinging ‘60s Brighton was a gut-busting shot of farcical buffoonery. Proving that comedy can sometimes trump drama, James Cordon snatched the Tony Award for his antic ringmaster turn in Nicholas Hytner’s delightful production, demolishing the fourth wall and making it all seem effortlessly spontaneous.

The Piano Lesson – The ghosts of the past that haunt August Wilson’s characters reached out to enter the minds and hearts of the audience in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s symphonic production of this 1930s chapter of the late playwright’s 20th Century Cycle. There may have been no more finely tuned ensemble on a New York stage this year than these figures struggling in different ways to participate physically and psychologically in the Great Migration of black America. The extraordinary performances of Roslyn Ruff and Chuck Cooper, in particular, were brimming with life in all its complexity.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Demonstrating once again that Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company has few equals as an incubator for great acting, this stunning revival transfer stripped away layers of dragon-lady camp and theatrical bravado to expose the wounded, bleeding core of Edward Albee’s lethal drama of marital warfare and defeat. Under Pam MacKinnon’s unerring direction, Amy Morton’s Martha released a venom that was made more potent by the pain and bitterness underneath. But the thrilling revelation was Tracy Letts’ George, who seized control of the fight with deadly aim, throwing startling new light on this American classic.