Wednesday, December 27, 2006

20/20 hindsight

Yep, there was quite a bit of good theater in New York this year, and here's what I liked, listed in chronological order:

1. Red Light Winter, by and directed by Adam Rapp, at the Barrow Street Theater. Rapp is moving beyond shock tactics and into craft.

2. BLACKland, devised by Krétakör and directed by Árpád Schilling, at Montclair U's Kasser Theater. A political revue created and interpreted by a super-physical Hungarian troupe. The Kasser is quickly becoming one of the area's most daring venues. But the one thing that depresses me every time I go there is the dearth of students in the audience, especially considering they get free tickets. I guess those cretins would rather be at some sports event.

3. The Wooster Group's revival of its take on O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at St. Ann's Warehouse. Fucking A! This is theater!

4. Measure for Pleasure, by David Grimm and directed by Peter DuBois at the Public Theater. The year's smartest, warmest, most generous comedy. And the most unfairly neglected.

5. The History Boys, by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hytner at the Broadhurst Theater. Enough has been said about the merits of Alan Bennett's play. But why American directors can't put together anything as kinetic as what Hytner does here is a mystery to me.

6. The Drowsy Chaperone. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's score is delicious pastiche of the old Gershwin/Wodehouse musicals of the 1920s. The show is an oddly intimate experience at the cavernous Marquis Theater.

7. Spring Awakening. I missed the Broadway version but on the Atlantic's small stage Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's ode to burgeoning teen sexuality was pretty darn cool. And it showed the horrible, embarrassing High Fidelity that rock & roll is a state of mind, not a few hasty references and a couple of dudes in band T-shirts.

8. Eraritjaritjaka. Heiner Goebbels hardly ever disappoints and this year's entry, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, was gripping, using technology in a thrilling way. The Met should get him to direct an opera.

9. Mother Courage and Her Children. Edge-of-your-seat spectacle from the two merrymakers known as…Bertolt Brecht and Tony Kushner?

10. Mary Poppins. Some say it's too long or clumsy or overblown—I don't care. I'm sure the ungainly sight of my jaw hanging fairly low in amazed delight was a turn-off for my neighbors at the New Amsterdam but yeah, I loved it. This is exactly what an all-ages show should be.

But the best thing about going to the theater may well be watching actors at work. Here are my all-stars:

• Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed—but the Off Broadway version, which I found less shrill.

• Kate Valk in The Emperor Jones. The best actor in New York. Only Elizabeth Marvel comes close.

• Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Yeah yeah yeah…but she really is that good.

• Michael Stuhlbarg and Euan Morton in Measure for Pleasure. Stuhlbarg is acknowledged as a great by now, but Morton is turning into a real asset to the New York stage. He was rather cool in Brundibar as well.

• Sherie Rene Scott in Landscape of the Body. She can sing, she can act, she can slink. Old-school sass and an underrated performer.

• Nellie McKay in Threepenny Opera. Watching that show, I could not figure out what the hell McKay was doing. Then I realized she was doing the part filtered through an old Hollywood idea of an ingenue done by someone who can't act. Not sure it worked at the moment, but several months later it sticks in my mind and remains the only thing worth saving from that wretched production.

• Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer. The play was a snooze (and Cherry Jones was uncharacteristically awful) until McDiarmid came in at the beginning of the second act, with his ratty orange hair and fantastic timing.

• Judy Greer in Show People. Watching the quirky Greer was taking a master class in reactive acting: Even when she wasn't speaking, Greer was in the scene—without mugging to draw attention to herself. It's a fine line, and one she walked beautifully.

• Felicia Finley in The Wedding Singer. A couple of quick in-and-out numbers were enough for Finley to bring down the house. It was fun to watch someone chew the scenery with such gleeful vulgarity.

• Nina Hellman and Jeremy Shamos in Trouble in Paradise. Subtle comedic chemistry from these undersung stalwarts of the Downtown stage.

• Sherry Vine in Carrie. Whaaaaa…???

The year's visuals belonged to the opera, though: Joyce DiDonato going mad in Hercules at BAM; Viviva Genaux and Elizabeth Futral in super-sexy Handelian closeness in Semele at City Center; Madama Butterfly's gorgeous death at the Met. (Note to potential employers of Julie Taymor, however: Stick a fork in her, she's done.)

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