Friday, May 30, 2008

SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best New Plays

SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best New Plays

If you're a fan of new plays over musicals, this was truly your year. The 2007-08 Theatrical Season marked a resurgence in exceptional plays.

Personally, I was fortunate to see 18 new plays, not only coast-to-coast across America, but also in London. And guess what? I actually enjoyed most of them, making my picks for the "Top 5" the most difficult category to select.

However, reigning supreme at the number one spot is a show I instantly fell in love with the first time I saw it last summer at a regional theatre (and for regular readers, you'll allow that I was way ahead of the curve on this one). Now that it's on Broadway, I'm preparing to take it in for second time there and third time overall. As the best play I've seen this year, let alone the past decade, it has set a new standard by which I've begun judging all other productions.

Here is my personal "5 Best" list for the past twelve months:

5 - 100 Saints You Should Know (Mainstage Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, New York, NY)

At the intersection where faith and disbelief collide, Kate Fodor’s arresting and provocative new play 100 Saints You Should Know provided a frequently humorous, yet ultimately circumspect morality play about a woman finding herself on a spiritual quest. What still resonates and lingers with me is the purity in which Fodor wrote this compelling piece, seemingly without any agenda or ax to grind about faith or religion. To that end, she succeeded brilliantly without being heavy-handed or preachy. It didn't hurt that her script was aided tremendously by the world premiere's uniformly exceptional Off-Broadway cast, including the graceful dignity offered by Lois Smith, the sassy adolescent insolence of Zoe Kazan, or the tender awkwardness that comes with burgeoning teen sexuality as portrayed by Will Rogers.

Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, 100 Saints You Should Know was well worth seeing and knowing.

4 - Mauritius (Biltmore Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, NY)

Some plays just don't get the respect they deserve. Theresa Rebeck’s surprisingly thrilling and highly entertaining Mauritius was among them. Thanks to Doug Hughes’ taut direction, Mauritius provided one of those exceptionally riveting, edge-of-your-seat theatrical experiences -- a veritable roller coaster ride of delicious deception that literally pulled no punches. In fact, the play about two half-sisters arguing over the rightful ownership of a potentially invaluable stamp collection left behind by their now deceased mother packed quite a wallop that is typically as rare in theatre as the collection’s two 19th Century stamps from Mauritius.

With a superb ensemble collection, Rebeck spun a diabolically delicious yarn. Alison Pill scored with a truly extraordinary, breathtaking performance by inhabiting the darkest recesses of someone willing to sell her very soul for a shot at money. To say she delivered a nuanced portrayal would be an understatement. While the Tonys inexplicably passed over her performance, Pill further cemented her reputation as Broadway's top young actress. Mauritius met with my stamp of approval on virtually every level.

3 - From Up Here (New York City Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, NY)

Liz Flahive's poignant, yet darkly funny From Up Here provided an auspicious debut for this budding playwright, particularly as she instilled her fully realized characters with compassion, along with a heaping healthy dose of what troubled teens need more than anything else: hope. Flahive ably underscored how hope requires elevating the teenage human spirit to a loftier place where they can see that life doesn't begin and end in the place perhaps mistakenly called "high" school.

In one of the year's most profoundly moving male performances, Tobias Segal deftly exhibited all the knotty tableau of emotions ranging from utter dejection to glimmers of hope his tortured soul endures. Mark my words, this is one hot young actor whose name you'll want to remember. Julie White gave a tightly wound, measured performance laced with an appropriate blend of humor and anxiety for a mother who's at the end of her rope. She was truly brilliant. In a very honest, straightforward manner, Will Rogers once again nailed the coming to wits angst inherently found both among those growing up and those who must deal with fragile youth.

What really struck a chord with me is that for all the awkwardess that most youth must go through, From Up Here gave immense direction by pointing the way out via a revelatory, resonating route that made live theatre suddenly relevant again.

2 - The Seafarer (Booth Theatre, New York, NY)

Conor McPherson's chilling new play The Seafarer was so damned good, it's practically enough to put the fear of God in you. In his mesmerizing new and often funny morality play set on Christmas Eve, McPherson proved he's all aces. Both writing and directing this cautionary tale, he magnificently constructed a harrowing, on the edge of your seat nailbiter that was as much about giving the devil his due as it is about the potential for redemption for two card-playing good-for-nearly-nothing drunks for brothers.

As one of those brothers, the astounding Jim Norton appeared to have literally drunk himself blind. His performance was matched by an utterly unrecognizable Conleth Hill as one of the brothers' card-playing mates.

All in all, this was one helluva great play.

1 - August: Osage County (Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL/Imperial Theatre, New York, NY)

Was there any doubt?

Since first being blown away by this now Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece by Tracy Letts way back last August in the Windy City, I've devoted considerable space to the best-written, best-acted play I've ever seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf, and that's no small feat. In August: Osage County, Letts has constructed an absolutely brilliant, riotous script that provides for one stellar performance after another by its excellent ensemble.

Now six months into its acclaimed Broadway run, the play runs even deeper, packing a more lethal, visceral punch than what I saw in Chicago, hitting even harder with greater precision that I would not have even thought possible. Credit Anna D. Shapiro for sharpening this play into a razor-sharp, whip-smart American classic. And it's even funnier, too.

Deanna Dunagan (Violet) single-handedly delivers a bravura performance for the ages as the matriarch of the Weston clan. But she's matched by an equally stunning ensemble, with Amy Morton giving as good as she gets, and even better, as Violet's daughter Barbara; Rondi Reed's Mattie Fae is likely to remind you of your favorite, if she wasn't so crazy, aunt; and Francis Guinan as Mattie Fae's long-suffering husband Charlie offers a sweet dignity to the proceedings, especially when considered against one of the play's many revelations exposing the startling truth about his own son.

Since first seeing the show last summer in Chicago, I've known that I've witnessed something very, very special in the world of live theatre. Upon considerable reflection, I can attest that this is the best new stage play I've seen over the last five years.

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.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best New Musicals (May 29, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 28, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Revivals Of Plays (May 27, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Special Theatrical Events (May 24, 2008)
The SOB Five "Worst" Of 2007-08 (May 23, 2008)
SOB's Best & Worst Of 2007-08 Theatre Season (May 22, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Top Ten Of The Year (June 4, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Musicals (May 22, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Plays (May 21, 2007)
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 30 May, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Of course I totally agree with you on your number-one pick. And I feel especially privileged to have seen "August: Osage County" with its original cast, including the late Dennis Letts. What memorable characters, dialogue that was witty and searing, and amazing performances.

Tracy Letts really aimed high with a 3 1/2-hour, three act play, and really the time just flies by. It gets even better when I think about it in comparison with some other new plays that I didn't enjoy. I think at its heart, "August" has a compelling story with compelling characters. Sounds easy, but as I've learned, it's not that easy to pull off.

I also want to give a shoutout to another one of my favorites, "The 39 Steps," which I saw in Boston. I just thought it was so funny, so clever, so well done, really a delight to watch, unlike anything I'd seen before. And even though it won't win, I'm glad it got a Tony nomination for Best Play.

At 30 May, 2008, Anonymous dylan said...

Okay, Steve, I meant the Southwest for both my and A:OC's familial origins. ;) And though I enjoyed the play, appreciating the dialogue and that the time flew while watching it, ultimately I thought this show was severely shallow. In fact, I felt that many of the characterizations bordered on camp. Still, I am clearly in the minority here and may even take in the show again just to be sure I stand behind my original feelings.

Until that time of reassessment, I'm going with The 39 Steps as my fav new play of the season. How can you not love a show that literally snows all over you at the end?

At 30 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther and Dylan, Thanks to both of you for giving props to The 39 Steps, which in a typical year would have easily made my top five. But this was not a typical year given the extraordinarily good selection of new plays out there. The show ranks in my top ten new plays of the year.

And Dylan, I believe the show gets better the second time around.

At 31 May, 2008, Blogger Dale said...

I enjoyed Mauritius a lot too and wondered why it didn't get more buzz. I'd seen Allison Pill in The Lieutenant of Inishmore and was happy to see her onstage again battling it out with F. Murray and the gang.

I'd loved to have seen From Up Here after falling in love with Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed. I'm all envy right now.

At 02 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dale, I was feeling pretty lonely out on my limb known as Mauritius, but the show had me on the edge of my seat and had truly outstanding turns by each of the principals. I can't wait to see Alison Pill perform live again on Broadway.


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