Monday, May 21, 2007

SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Plays

SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Plays

Throughout the course of the 2006-07 Theatrical Season, I've enjoyed the opportunity to see a wide variety of new plays -- 21, in fact.

Some of them were original Broadway runs, while others were world premieres, while still others were regional interpretations of major new works. Many dealt with intriguing current issues or historical events, while others simply provided vehicles for stars making their return to the Great White Way.

On the whole, I treated myself to many outstanding and memorable productions. Here's my personal "5 Best" list of the dramas and comedies that had me at the edge of my seat over the past year:

1 - Sonia Flew (Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL)

Steppenwolf's splendid, soaring Sonia Flew left me positively chilled by giving me an experience unique among all my visits to this excellent theatre: real tears. And they were my own.

Packing a powerful wallop without being overly sentimental, the Melinda Lopez drama won on so many levels: Jessica Thebus' exquisite direction, Stephanie Nelson's gorgeous set design, Stephan Mazurek's haunting projection design and a truly superb cast. Ultimately, Sonia Flew packed its most decisive punch as an engrossing, richly-layered account of redemption. That redemption is realized by Sonia, a Cuban émigré who has made a new life for herself in Minneapolis.

Thanks to Lopez' gifted writing, the story comes full circle to a point that left me in tears. Not only did her words deeply affect me; so did the raw emotions and flawless talent of the impeccable cast -- Sandra Delgado, Sandra Marquez, Andrew Perez, Vilma Silva, Jeff Still and Alan Wilder -- all showing incredible range and versatility in handling wildly divergent portrayals of two roles apiece. These fine actors infused their characterizations with just the right amount of emotional heft to be both believable and strangely intoxicating without ever being overwrought.

Click here for The SOB Review of Sonia Flew.

2 - The Unmentionables (Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL)

Initially planned as a vehicle to showcase the talents of Steppenwolf ensemble members John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf and K. Todd Freeman, The Unmentionables was certainly worth mentioning even without them. Playwright Bruce Norris' compelling brilliance was woven throughout his compelling tale, which enjoyed its world premiere last summer at Chicago's Steppenwolf.

Like so much of Norris' previous work, things are never exactly what they seem. His very humorous yet explosive play forced the audience to look in the mirror he so deftly held up to them, with a dare to look closely at themselves, confront prejudices and ponder how they'd behave in the midst of panic or crisis. The play's many twists were expertly helmed by Anna D. Shapiro, particularly in the layered dialogue that exposes the sanctimonious frauds Norris believes all too many Americans are.

The cast was absolutely superb. But let me single out Amy Morton (shown above to the right of Shannon Cochran) for offering one of the most memorable performances of the past year as the ditzy wife of a shady American businessman. Morton once again demonstrated just how incredibly versatile and funny she can be with her boozy, sex-deprived wife who simply can't keep quiet (think of the airline passenger from hell who just won't shut up) -- this is the best performance I've seen from her since she portayed Nurse Ratched on Broadway in Steppenwolf's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest back in 2001.

Click here to see The SOB Review of The Unmentionables.

3 - The Year Of Magical Thinking (Booth Theatre, New York, NY)

When finally seeing the transformation of author Joan Didion's critically-acclaimed 2005 book "The Year Of Magical Thinking" to its Broadway stage incarnation, I had already made the conscious decision not to read her work in advance. I wanted to enjoy the play for what it is. The result: I was absolutely stunned, not only by the breadth of the heartbreaking virtuoso performance by Vanessa Redgrave, but also by the very exacting and deliberate words Didion herself chose to tell her story to a wider audience.

Coping with the death of a loved one is certainly never easy, but in a beautifully subtle, almost poetic sense, Didion through Redgrave walks herself and her audience through the inevitable phases of denial and acceptance, along with the will to persevere -- at first for the sake of keeping hope alive for the dearly departed, but then to maintain one's own solitary sanity. I was awestruck by how intoxicating Didion's words were flawlessly delivered by Redgrave, along with the wellspring of heartfelt emotion shown when the acceptance phase finally takes hold, as well as the realization when it does.

No small wonder that Didion is so circumspect in deliberately cautioning her newfound audience that this indeed could happen to them. In fact, since Redgrave as Didion so gracefully girds the audience with what is unmistakably a gentle and compassionate embrace, I believe she should be praised for sharing her insights on her tremendous losses. She's certainly earned that right.

Click here for The SOB Review of The Year Of Magical Thinking.

4 - The History Boys (Broadhurst Theatre, New York, NY)

Yes, I realize that Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning Best Play The History Boys was a hit from last season; however, it wasn't until this past fall that I finally had the opportunity to see the show. I did so during its last weekend on Broadway.

While the subplot -- concerning the predation by teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths) of his exceptionally gifted and intelligent students -- often overtook the primary plotline of his care in preparing them for their pursuit of Cambridge and Oxford admissions (I saw the play the day after the infamous Mark Foley page episode erupted into the headlines), I found myself mesmerized by the highly fascinating and utterly funny performance.

Nicholas Hytner's direction was both fast-paced and jarring, moving swiftly from scene to scene, interspersed with Ben Taylor's fascinating video sequences that continued telling the story outside the classroom as Bob Crowley's effective, efficient set design is quickly changed. Ultimately, this is an ensemble piece with some extraordinarily talented actors, young and old. While Tony Awards were bestowed upon Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, it's the sensitive, perfect breakthrough performance by Samuel Barnett (pictured) as outwardly gay student Posner that ranks among the most affecting I saw over the past year.

Click here to see The SOB Review of The History Boys.

5 - Radio Golf (Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL)

Before it landed on Broadway, I caught playwright August Wilson's powerful and gripping final drama Radio Golf with much of the same creative team and cast behind the Cort Theatre production.

As moved as I was by the incredible performances, I couldn't help but wonder whether Wilson ever succeeded in reconciling his own mainstream, critical success with the vehement antipathy his protagonists express toward African Americans who willingly play ball with the "white establishment." Set in the nineties, Radio Golf certainly charts the great strides blacks have made, but Wilson also seeks to expose how many have sold out to whites to the detriment of their own people.

Almost everything about this production was top-notch, from Kenny Leon's direction to David Gallo's outstanding set design that was completely evocative of a neighborhood neglected by time and lack of capital. But I reserve special praise for the brilliant cast. Hassan El-Amin, who didn't make the journey to Broadway, provided a spectacularly nuanced performance as the would-be mayor, easily maneuvering from the early euphoria of assured success to an explosive finish. Yet it's the impassioned performances by both Anthony Chisholm -- a Wilson staple -- and John Earl Jelks that deserve special recognition for the moral compass they provided (and the actors have received Tony nominations for their performances in the Broadway production).

Click here for The SOB Review of Radio Golf.

Honorable Mentions:

As mentioned above, I had the opportunity to see many outstanding productions during the course of the past year. The following two productions merit special honorable mention:

  • Edgardo Mine (McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, MN) -- Alfred Uhry's riveting and vitally important play Edgardo Mine examined the real-life 19th Century struggle between the Catholic Church and Jewish parents whose gravely ill son had been baptized without their knowledge. Under the expert direction of Mark Lamos, Edgardo Mine had me seriously struggling to determine where love and devotion end and evil and demonization begin. (Click here to see The SOB Review of Edgardo Mine)

  • Frost/Nixon (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY) -- Frost/Nixon’s finest moments are derived directly from the interviews between talk show host David Frost and disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon, and that’s when the production shifts into high gear. It’s during these passages that Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost) really shine. Just as Langella is breathtaking as his Nixon steamrollers over Frost in the early interview stages, you can’t help but be awed by how Sheen’s Frost cowers like a punch drunk fighter not knowing what hit him. Notwithstanding the flaws in Peter Morgan’s overall script, the two actors deliver two of the most riveting performances of the year. (Click here to see The SOB Review of Frost/Nixon)

What were the best new plays you saw over the past year? I invite you to join the conversation by sharing your theatre experiences with me.

Also, don't forget to vote for the shows you believe will win in each of the four major Tony Award categories: Best Musical, Best Play, Best Revival of a Musical and Best Revival of a Play. You'll find all four polls on the right-hand side of Steve On Broadway.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for Frost/Nixon tickets.
Click here for Radio Golf tickets.
Click here for The Year Of Magical Thinking tickets.
Related Stories:
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 18, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Plays (May 16, 2007)
The SOB Five "Worst" Of 2006-07 (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best & Worst Of 2006-07 Theatre Season (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #1 - Theater Of The New Ear (May 30, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #2 – Guys And Dolls (May 26, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #3 – Hedda Gabler (May 25, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #4 – A Blameless Life (May 24, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #5 – Reeling (May 23, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #6 – “MASTER HAROLD”…And The Boys (May 21, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #7 – Love Song (May 19, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #8 - Billy Elliot The Musical (May 18, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #9 - The Well-Appointed Room (May 17, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #10 - Sweeney Todd (May 15, 2006)
SOB's Best and Worst of 2005-06 Theatre Season (May 12, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2004-05 (May 26, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2003-04 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2002-03 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2001-02 (May 24, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2000-01 (May 23, 2006)

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At 29 December, 2009, Blogger Kevin Daly said...

I, too, was at The History Boys during its last weekend on Broadway. Wouldn't it have been something if we were at the same one?


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