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The Best of 2007 Theater

by Harvey Perr

published February 12, 2008

 

2007 IS DEAD, LONG LIVE 2008: THEATER

 

Although the theater is marked by season, from fall through late spring – a tradition not about to be abolished without disrupting the annual awards ceremonies which put a period on the season’s end – it has, slowly but surely, with the passing of each season, paid less and less attention to the demarcation. And so, I see no reason why one can’t look back at a year in the theater in the same way that one looks back at a year in film or literature. Besides, this way, one might actually be able to write about an event that is still running, since, more and more, a season tends to be so self-contained that even the most honored plays seem to close within weeks of garnering their awards. And it so happens that the New York Times has already commenced giving space to the year’s best theatrical experiences, so why shouldn’t I?

 

So here goes.

 

The Best Play:

 

Tom Stoppard’s ROCK’N’ROLL.

I’ve had many experiences at  Stoppard’s plays in the past, most of them positive, largely because I feel that the Czech-born Stoppard, here possibly imagining what might have happened had he returned to Czechoslavakia in the post-Stalinist era, may be the last link to the glories of the English language in contemporary theater, but I have never dissolved into a bath of tears as I did at this play and I can’t begin to articulate exactly why. But some primal chord was struck. I suppose that my political beliefs, passionate as they are and committed to them as I persist in being, can’t hold a candle to the revolutionary effect that music has had in my life. And it isn’t just the potency of cheap music, either, though I wouldn’t ever want to dismiss Noel Coward’s trenchant observation. As I was leaving the theater, a woman, noticing the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably, trying to be compassionate, asked me if I was Czech. I sort of mumbled that I wasn’t, but just minutes later, too late to respond to her reaching out, I wanted to tell her that you don’t have to be Czech to be human. I regret not being fast enough on the uptake, but, on the other hand, I was, at the moment, too emotionally drenched to be coherent.

[Rock and Roll is currently scheduled to close on March 9, 2008]

 

Runners-up:

 

Tom Stoppard’s THE COAST OF UTOPIA.

Sometimes boring, sometimes downright irritating, frequently incomprehensible without a full grasp of the historical events being dramatized, and yet, that big “yet,” almost always thrilling as sheer epic theater. (The third and last part of the trilogy opened in 2007 and I saw the entire trilogy soon after that; it is therefore included in this year-end wrap-up.)

[The Coast of Utopia has closed]

 

Conor McPherson’s THE SEAFARER.

The set tells it all: this is a world in which up is down and down is up. And what better way to describe a play that deals with alcoholism as a topsy-turvy roller coaster ride where the Devil himself may greet you when you disembark? Grandly comic and strangely haunting, this long day’s journey into nightmare is also a Christmas play of sorts and, so, despite its grimness, it is also hopeful.

[The Seafarer is currently scheduled to close on March 30, 2008]

 

 

The Best American Play:

 

Tracy Lett’s AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY.

I can’t remember when I had such a good time in the theater just watching a play take its time unraveling before my eyes, done to a turn by the most committed ensemble to be found on Broadway. It may not be the masterpiece you expect, but neither is it anywhere near the conventional play its detractors, in the inevitable backlash, have suggested. This is a play for people who just happen to be a little bit in love with theater.

[August: Osage County is currently scheduled to close on April 13, 2008 – an extension is highly likely]

 

 

Runners-up:

 

August Wilson’s RADIO GOLF.

Not the best of Wilson’s cycle but, as the last, a worthy addition to it, one that never shrinks from the theme that consumed Wilson: there is no future if we abandon the past. And although I wouldn’t normally recommend this sort of thing, it was good to be in a theater where the audience was roused to talk back, not in anger but in joyous comprehension of the way things (unfortunately) are.

[Radio Golf has closed]

 

 

Edward Albee’s PETER AND JERRY.

HOMELIFE (Act I) is as terse, as smart, as witty, as sneakily profound as anything Albee has written and it’s altogether possible that, by adding it as a preface to his memorable THE ZOO STORY (Act II), it does indeed become the full-length play that Albee intended.

[Peter and Jerry has closed]

 

The Best Musical:

 

Stew’s PASSING STRANGE.

The best news is that this dazzlingly original and infectiously esoteric musical is coming to Broadway, because, win, place, or show, Stew’s stunning talents as a composer and performer deserve a vast audience. That it dares to search for the soul of a poet on his journey to self-realization – and to do it by having fun with the different musical styles that mark that journey, and, at the same time, to give us a look into aspects of African-American life our various art forms usually shun – would probably be enough to justify one’s pride in its existence. That it explodes with so much out-and-out stomping pleasure is what makes it so memorable.

[The Broadway version of Passing Strange is scheduled to open on February 28, 2008 for an open run]

 

Best Musical Revival:

 

The Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s FOLLIES.

Attention must be paid. This was the revival that finally put Harold Prince’s concept to rest and helped us to rediscover Goldman’s book, which turns out not to be the liability it has always seemed in past productions, but rather a marvelously intricate and highly theatrical juxtaposition of shadow play and illuminating human observation. Casey Nicholaw, who staged this revival, deserves the credit for this, and also for making me believe it is a party we are attending and that the guests really know each other and are not just waiting around for their star turns, and that they can dance and sing among ghosts without really ever seeing them. Added to all this was the most perfect quartet of the ever-astonishing Donna Murphy, the warmly real Victoria Clark, the dapper yet vulnerable Victor Garber, and the impulsively manic Michael McGrath. And there was something authentically heartbreaking about the way Mimi Hines stopped the show with her version of “Broadway Baby.”  And Robert E. Fitch, from out of nowhere, and decidedly no spring chicken, became the revival’s own Broadway baby, with his wonderfully agile dancing. This was one for the books!  One lives in hope that the five performances will develop into a full-scale revival.

[The Encores! production of Follies was a limited 4-day run of a partially staged reading;  occasionally a success in the Encores! series will inspire producers to re-stage it for a longer run]

 

Best Play Revival:

 

Patrick Hamilton’s GASLIGHT.The reliable Irish Repertory Theatre, which seems to just get better and better, took this familiar and tired old thriller and, under Charlotte Moore’s exquisite direction, demonstrated how fresh and exciting a theater experience it could be, if you just devote loving attention to the craft of the play and treat it as if it truly deserves revival. This was a handsome production in every way, impeccably acted, tastefully designed, and capable of sending a shiver up your spine one moment and having you convulse with laughter the next.

[Gaslight has closed; however, any production of the Irish Repertory Theatre is usually a rewarding experience; go to www.irishrep.org for their schedule]

 

Runners-up:

 

Edward Bond’s THE SEA.

An even better, and less familiar, play than GASLIGHT and almost as well done, for exactly the same reasons. Care was lavished on this production, not money, and The Actors Company Theatre proved its mettle with the extraordinarily satisfying results. What I remember best is the fluidity of the work.

[The Sea has closed; visit www.tactnyc.org for the Actors Company Theatre schedule]

 

R.C. Sheriff’s JOURNEY’S END.

There were two moments in which the stench of death in wartime was brought so vividly to life by director David Gridley that they literally burned into my memory and can be counted among the greatest moments in my theater-going lifetime.

[Journey’s End has closed]

 

Best New American Playwright:

 

Bob Glaudini. A VIEW FROM 151st STREET proved what JACK GOES BOATING more than suggested: that the LAByrinth Theater Company is fully justified in putting its faith in this playwright. His unobtrusive but unique style, his big heart, and, best of all, his compassion for what might be called ‘little people’ as well as his anger about the limitations of language that make it so difficult for his people to connect with each other, guarantee that what he has to say deserves our listening to.

[A View From 151st Street and Jack Goes Boating have closed; visit www.labtheater.org for LAByrinth Theater Company’s schedule]

 

Runners-up:

 

Will Eno. OH, THE HUMANITY and other exclamations confirms what a refreshingly eccentric voice Eno is in possession of. And, in Brian Hutchison, he has found an actor who can give dimension and size to that voice.

[Oh, The Humanity and other exclamations has closed; visit www.theflea.org for The Flea Theater’s schedule]

 

Adam Rapp. BINGO WITH THE INDIANS and, to a lesser extent, AMERICAN SLIGO, demonstrate Rapp’s genuine outrageousness, which we could use a lot more of, as well as his ability to write brilliantly for actors. If he can bring a play, no matter how nutty, to a satisfying end, he’d be at the top of this list.

[Bingo With the Indians and American Sligo have closed]

 

Best Most-Difficult-To-Categorize Theater Experience:

 

Richard Maxwell’s ODE TO THE MAN WHO KNEELS.

Maxwell, one of the finest innovators on the Off Off Broadway scene for the past decade, created an elegiac tribute, in song and spoken word, to the loneliest and most poignantly poetic images of our collective childhood response to the American Western. One either responds to a work like this with either bored confusion or with complete surrender. I admit to the latter and, after watching John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” the other day for the umpteenth time, it was Maxwell’s opus that floated through my mind and, intermingled with Ford’s sensibility, came through with a force that, as the saying goes, would have had Ford turning over in his grave.

[Ode to the Man Who Kneels has closed]

 

Runner-up:

 

Fantasia in THE COLOR PURPLE.

Everyone else in the cast of this production was singing and dancing and clapping in hopes that God would hear them; and then a woman appeared – Fantasia – who seemed to already have God inside her, and, without ever asking for the audience’s attention, transformed Celie into a celestial being, a child and a woman for our times, and, because it is a miracle anytime something like this happens anywhere, let alone in a Broadway theater, she left ordinariness in her wake, and traveled blithely into the stratosphere, and turned a fair-to-middling musical into a work of art which even Oprah, in her wildest dreams, could not have imagined.  A true force of nature, I hadn’t seen anything like it since Ethel Waters in “Cabin in the Sky.”

[The Color Purple is currently scheduled to close on February 24, 2008;  Fantasia is no longer in the cast]

 

The performances of the past year which I remember with the greatest affection:

 

Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton (AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY)

John Earl Jelks and Anthony Chisholm (RADIO GOLF)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (JACK GOES BOATING)

Donna Murphy (FOLLIES and LOVEMUSIK)

Evan Enderle (BINGO WITH THE INDIANS)

Paul Sparks (AMERICAN SLIGO)

Christopher Plummer (INHERIT THE WIND)

Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, David Morse (THE SEAFARER)

Brian Murray (GASLIGHT)

Rufus Sewall, Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack (ROCK’N’ROLL)

Brian Hutchison (OH, THE HUMANITY and other exclamations)

Bill Pullman (PETER AND JERRY)

Paul Dano  (THINGS WE WANT)

Craig (muMs) Grant and Elizabeth Rodriguez (THE VIEW FROM 151st STREET)

Kerry Butler (XANADU)

Greg McFadden (THE SEA)

Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, Martha Plimpton, Josh Hamilton (THE COAST OF UTOPIA)

Marylouise Burke (IS HE DEAD? and AMERICAN SLIGO)

Lisagay Hamilton (OHIO STATE MURDERS)

David Pittu (LOVEMUSIK and IS HE DEAD?)

The Ensemble (FOLLIES; THE COAST OF UTOPIA; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY; THE SEAFARER; GASLIGHT; THE SEA) 

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 

 
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