Friday, June 05, 2009

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best Play Revivals

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

During the past year, I've had over 70 opportunities to take in a wide range of musicals, plays and "special theatrical events."

If last year was the "Year of the Play," then this one would have to be the "Year of the Play Revival." Over the last twelve months, I saw 17 revivals of plays of varying degree, but on the whole, an unusually large number of them completely captivated and enthralled me, making this "5 Best" list the toughest to select. And, incredibly enough, I haven't yet seen the well-reviewed revivals of Mary Stuart, Waiting For Godot or presidential favorite Joe Turner's Come And Gone -- all are vying with my favorite show of the year for the Tony in the category of Best Revival of a Play.

No wonder I acted so viscerally when I read that that important honor would be relegated to the pre-Tony telecast this Sunday. With the best shows of the year being revivals, aren't they particularly deserving of prime time love?

UPDATED (6.5.09, 1:50 p.m. EDT): WOW!!! Actor Kevin Spacey tells us via@KevinSpacey: "Great news theatre lovers. Got official word that the Tony Awards have reconsidered and Best Play Revival will now be on the telecast on CBS." That's the best news I've heard today.

So, without any further ado, drumroll, please:

5 - The Cripple Of Inishmaan (Linda Gross Theater, Atlantic Theater Company, New York, New York)

Who would have thought that a play so politically incorrectly named would be so powerfully funny, yet demonstrate heart?

As revived as a joint project by New York's Atlantic Theater Company and Ireland's Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Martin McDonagh's The Cripple Of Inishmaan crackled with wit and pathos. With frequent McDonagh collaborator Garry Hynes at the helm, the two have spun an exceptional yarn. David Pearce was superb as Inishmaan gossip JohnnyPateenMike, who never met a rumor he didn't like to exploit.

McDonagh intrigues with his compassion for humanity. Along with his rich humor, outstanding cast and Hynes' loving direction, this able play easily ranked among the year's better revivals.

4 - Speed-The-Plow (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, New York)

When David Mamet's good, he's just about as stimulating and entertaining as any playwright can be. He's the real deal.

In Neil Pepe's astounding and absorbing revival of Mamet's gutbusting Speed-The-Plow, this is almost as good as it gets.

By the time I saw the show, William H. Macy was the second actor in as many months to take over the juicy role as Bobby Gould. Macy was good, but he couldn't outfox the monumentally stunning Raúl Esparza as Charlie Fox as they sparred over Hollywood scripts and Tinseltown's ability -- or lack thereof -- in making cinematic art. Once again, Esparza is an amazing revelation, a genius consistently delivering an excellent performance and then some.

3 - Ivanov (Wyndham's Theatre, London, United Kingdom)

The Michael Grandage-helmed West End revival of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov was so vibrant and alive with pleasure, brimming with dark humor throughout, that I found myself completely rapt with attention.

With excellent new adaptation from Tom Stoppard, Ivanov was both entertaining and enlightening, soaring with one of the year's best ensembles on either side of the Atlantic. Kenneth Branagh was absolutely brilliant in the title role, but it was the breathtaking Gina McKee who turned in one of the year's most heartfelt performances, radiating enough warmth to melt the icy bitterness from any Russian town, past or present.

With uniformly scintillating performances from a sterling cast that didn't take itself too seriously, there's no doubt why Donmar Warehouse's superb Ivanov was the West End's must-see sensation this fall.

2 - Our Town (Barrow Street Theatre, New York, New York)

Hands-down, the best show I had seen all year -- that is, right up until I caught the show at number one. Thornton Wilder’s classic stage drama Our Town has never looked better.

Stripped down to its bare essentials by director David Cromer, this exquisite revival moves all about the audience with an unforced urgency. It's hard to imagine live theatre could get anymore intimate than this. Wilder’s heartfelt words never seemed truer or more genuine, which is refreshing considering how Michele Spadaro's deceptively spare stage design gives way to one last breath of real life, which itself ultimately proves a veritable feast for and in all senses.

Making the case against living in the past, this mind-blowing production simply can’t be missed.

1 - The Norman Conquests (The Circle in the Square Theatre, New York, New York)

Alan Ayckbourn's uproariously hilarious The Norman Conquests cuts with remarkable, exacting precision, but it also slices and dices its six fully-rounded characters in this jujitsu of love.

Just when you think you have the first portion of this trilogy figured out, one intriguing layer after another is carefully stripped away to reveal more of Ayckbourn's intricately woven story. Each character's motives are eventually cut to the core. And they aren't necessarily what they seem.

Matthew Warchus' brilliant direction of each installment -- Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden -- makes each story accessible and comprehensible in its own right. Yet it's only after seeing all three that all the complex pieces truly come together as an unequivocal masterpiece.

Rising to the challenge of Ayckbourn's pure genius, Warchus helms an excellent cast offering a breathtaking master class in nuanced ensemble acting. Each actor so fully inhabits his or her character that their exceptional use of body language is amplified just as effortlessly as their voices.

Not only did I find myself on the edge of my seat, but miraculously, I found myself not wanting it ever to end. It's every bit as funny as it is sublime. The Norman Conquests is the best show on Broadway or anywhere else I've been over the last year.

So what were the best revivals of 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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