Thursday, June 04, 2009

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best New Plays

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best New Plays

Over the past year, these eyes have seen over 70 performances of a wide range of musicals, plays and "special theatrical events."

Ten of those productions were new plays, although one of them was a regional staging of a relatively recent London and subsequent Off-Broadway work. (Please note that the full list under consideration does not include God Of Carnage, which I enjoyed early last year in London. Nor did my full list include the Tony-nominated Dividing The Estate, which I never had the chance to see in New York, but certainly could in Hartford.)

The year's best play I'm counting down to is significant because it's the second year in a row that its gifted playwright has nabbed the top position on my "5 Best" list. Fortunately for you, dear readers, his latest work will transfer to Broadway this fall. But be prepared -- it is a striking departure from his last play, which took the theatre world by storm just a year ago.

Drumroll, please:

5 - reasons to be pretty (Lyceum Theatre, New York, New York)

There are plenty of reasons to like Neil LaBute’s surprisingly endearing reasons to be pretty, but the biggest is Thomas Sadoski as the comedy’s protagonist Greg, a lunkhead stuck in a dead-end job and a relationship going nowhere in a hurry.

Right before our eyes, Greg transforms from a juvenile jerk into a principled man. But getting there is anything but pretty, where the honesty that alternately seems too much or completely lacking in Greg's relationship with with his girlfriend Steph (a marvelous Marin Ireland) is what propels this tight comedy forward.

Expertly directed by Terry Kinney, LaBute's reasons to be pretty epitomizes a coming of age story for a new generation. Its courage of conviction and taut cast makes reasons to be pretty highly compelling.

4 - 33 Variations (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, New York)

Just when I thought Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations was amounting to nothing more than another endless variation on a Lifetime movie, complete with one woman’s courageous battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, along came one of Broadway’s most inspired and marvelous moments of the entire season.

Most of the media focus had quite rightly been shining on Jane Fonda’s comeback to the Great White Way after two generations away. Fonda delivered a tremendous performance as a frail ALS patient. But the chills overcame me from head to toe in witnessing Zach Grenier as Beethoven as he quite literally made the composition of the maestro's music come alive.

For a play that was fundamentally about staring down death, life never sounded so wonderfully vibrant.

3 - Blackbird (Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri)

It took a January trip to St. Louis to finally see a production of David Harrower’s harrowing Blackbird, which has been winding its way across the United States in regional productions after first winning the Olivier Award in London a couple seasons ago.

A perfectly chilling Christopher Oden played Ray, who had succumbed years earlier to the seemingly wily temptations of a twelve year old named Una. Years later, having relocated and establishing a new identity and family, the hunter becomes the hunted as Ray receives an unexpected visit by the adult Una (an astounding and equally complex Carmen Goodine), seeking to confront him.

The questions in Blackbird ultimately hinge on the provocative. Harrower's answers appear to be that there's a reason why minors are considered such.

2 - Impressionism (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York, New York)

Let it be noted that I was absolutely charmed by Michael Jacobs’s Impressionism. Maybe some critics just couldn’t see for forest for the trees.

Coincidentally, in this story about the potential for love, its leading characters -- art gallery owner Katharine Keenan (Joan Allen) and onetime photographer turned Keenan assistant Thomas Buckle (Jeremy Irons) -- have difficulty seeing the infinite possibilities of a relationship that's right in front of them.

A truly lovely story with a wonderful cast, Impressionism is one of those plays that stealthily sneaks up on you and packs an enormous emotional punch. I guess it’s true that art truly is in the eye of the beholder.

1 - Superior Donuts (Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, Illinois)

How is a hero distinguished from a coward? In Tracy Letts' profoundly moving new play Superior Donuts, it all comes down to choosing one's battles. Wisely.

Marking yet another stunning departure from his previous efforts, Letts intelligently combats some urban myths about race. Superior Donuts proprietor and Vietnam draft dodger Arthur Prysbyszewski (an astonishing and nearly unrecognizable Michael McKean) is in dire need of a lifeline. It's as if Arthur has permanently thrown in the towel, resigned to defeat. That is, until promising literary genius Franco Wicks (a wonderfully cocksure Jon Michael Hill) walks into his donut shop to apply for an open position.

Thanks in large measure to Tina Landau's loving direction, Superior Donuts feels genuine, gritty and real, right down to its climactic brawl. Losing himself in a most unglamorous role, McKean anchored the premiere production with amazing humility.

There's so much more to chew on in Superior Donuts than what's on its surface. Instead of finding a sugary goo, or worse, nothing at all, there's plenty of humanity and heart to be found deep inside of this intelligent and entertaining play. I absolutely loved this courageous show that truly lives up to its name, and I can't wait to see how Letts' latest work has evolved when it opens on Broadway this fall.

So 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).

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At 04 June, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

I know Dividing the Estate came under some criticism for being sitcom-like and August: Osage County lite. But I have to say, I sat in the audience for 2 1/2 hours and I laughed a lot. There were characters and situations that resonated. I was thoroughly entertained. It had a great cast, including Hallie Foote, who I was seeing for the first time and loved.

And I'm definitely hoping to see Superior Donuts.

At 04 June, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Esther. I wish I could get to Hartford to see the play. It came and went much too quickly last winter in New York.

At 05 June, 2009, Blogger DianaGolightly said...

I agree about Superior Donuts...can't wait :)

At 05 June, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'll look forward to seeing you there!


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