Friday, June 25, 2010

The Best of the Decade: Plays and Play Revivals, Part I

Since I have only seen roughly 1/6 of all the plays and revivals that opened on Broadway during the first decade of the 21st Century, I have some doubt as to whether this list has any value to anyone besides myself.  Oh, what the heck. 

I narrowed down the 34 plays and play revivals I did see to my 20 favorite productions.  I suppose if I had been writing more about regional theatre on this blog, I could include those shows, too.  As it turns out, if I included all of those productions, I have seen pretty much all of the major new and frequently revived plays, just not on Broadway.  No one regrets more than me that I missed Fences, A View from the Bridge, and Red just this past season alone. I hope the next decade affords me more opportunities to see plays.

Here goes...

20.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: I guess no one will ever match Jack and Louise as McMurphy and Ratched, but Gary Sinise and Amy Morton sure did their best.  The Steppenwolf production was tight and extremely well-acted.  Winner of the Best Revival of a Play Tony for 2001.

19.  Steel Magnolias: The cast, full of brilliant actresses, is what really made me love this production.  I mean, by the time this got to Broadway, it had played for years off-Broadway, made the rounds of all levels of theatre, and is a hugely popular and success all-star film.  The whole audience could probably say the lines with the actors.  But that Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen and Rebecca Gearhart could make us laugh and cry in all the right spots in spite of our familiarity was a major accomplishment.  Even more amazing was Lily Rabe, who gave the ditzy Jesus-freak hairdresser Anelle a complete makeover from any previous version.  Darryl Hannah who?

18.  Deuce:  This play really had the potential to be the top of the list.  Terrence McNally wrote it, Michael Blakemore directed it, and it starred two of the most accomplished actresses in American theatre history, Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury.  Instead, it turned out to be an entertaining study in acting greatness overcoming written mediocrity.  The ladies made this event theatre, and despite early troubles in previews, they did not disappoint.  Imagine what they could have done with better material.

17.  The Pillowman:  This is the play that sealed my love for Martin McDonagh.  A creepy horror story of a play, the tension was so thick in the theatre that it was nearly unbearable.  This was one of those times I was completely unaware of anything around me aside from the play in front of me and my own gasps.  A superb cast (Jeff Goldblum, Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek and Michael Stuhlbarg) and superb direction (by John Crowley) were what made the package complete.  And it is the only play I've ever seen that gave me nightmares.

16.  The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?:  Aside from the outrageous conceit of this play, the questions it posed about family, love, and sexuality were interesting, thought-provoking and perverse.  It stayed in my head for months, helped, no doubt by Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruehl and Jeffrey Carlson's honest, gripping performances.  But the ending...  ick!

15.  Radio Golf:  This last play of August Wilson's perplexes me.  I (still) can't decide if I missed his usual foray into the supernatural (like in Gem of the Ocean) or not.  Did I really like the grounding realism or not?  I did love the way the play brought in elements from the rest of the Decade Plays, and there were some superb Wilson-signature monologues that raised more questions than the answers it gave.  Standout performances from Anthony Chisholm and John Earl Jelks really upped the ante.  I loved the play when I saw it, and I still think highly of it, but somehow it feels like Wilson-lite to me.

14.  Golda's Balcony:  If you asked me how I felt about one-person shows, my initial reaction would probably be that they aren't my favorite dramatic form, and yet two such plays make my top 20!  First, is a play I saw almost by accident.  I bumped into a friend of mine who had a ticket for the show, so I took it.  I have to admit anything to do with the Middle East makes me uncomfortable, and I, like so many Americans, pretty much bury my head in the sand when it comes to that.  But Tovah Felshuh's fierce performance, equal parts strength, street savvy and charm brought Golda Mier to life in a story that captivated me from start to finish.  I learned a lot, I was moved, and it changed me in so much as I do a bit less head burying when the topic comes up.  If that isn't powerful theatre, what is?

13.  The American Plan:  This quiet little Richard Greenberg play really entertained me.  A lot.  There wasn't one thing I didn't love about it.  The smart direction by David Grindley brought out nuances and themes beautifully, and each scene built up a quiet but strong tension and kept me wanting to know where it was going.  I can usually spot a gay sub-plot a mile off, but you could have knocked me over with a feather when Kieran Campion and Austin Lysy started making out on that pier!  It was so intense, it was almost uncomfortable.  The same could be said for the relationship between leads Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe, as a mother and daughter at odds over who gets the most attention, and a lie that, when revealed, was devestating to an entire family.

12.  Next Fall:  I am sad to see this one leave so soon.  As a gay man, I suppose it was incumbent upon me to see this play, when in reality it was incumbent upon me as a human being to see this play.  To pigeon hole this comedy-drama is merely a "gay play" is so wrong.  Its themes about religion, faith (two entirely different things), love, relationships and even health care rights should resonate for everyone who is alive.  That such a play can come off as so light and still provoke heated debate amongst passionate theatre goers like myself and my friend Mike speaks volumes for the work.  What makes this play so wonderful, beyond its ability to provoke thought, is that it got seen on Broadway with the best possible actors, not the most bankable stars, and it was taken seriously.  This will have a long, healthy life in regional theatres for years to come.

11.  Say Goodnight, Gracie:  I laughed, I cried.  Frank Gorshin was astonishing as George Burns, and he captivated me and the entire audience.  His stories (script by Rupert Holmes) made the stage come alive, and his a cting so terrific, you could almost see the other characters he was talking about.  But that he could convey such a profound love between Burns and Gracie Allen by responding to a voice and a few photographs projected behind him was a beautiful, inspiring thing.

Coming soon:  My top 10 plays/play revivals.

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at (Note spelling!)


  1. I saw Deuce on my first trip to Broadway. I had one slot left, on a Monday night, and it just so happened there was a performance. Steve on Broadway told me I should not miss a chance to see Angela Lansbury and he was right! Not the greatest play but I was absorbed. I could have sat there and listened to those two women for another 90 minutes. Then to top it off, I got to meet them at the stage door, where they signed autographs on a chilly April night. So gracious. An evening to remember.

  2. Esther!

    I knew we were kindred spirits! My first Broadway show also starred Angela Lansbury - the 1983 revival of Mame. As for Deuce - yes, completely absorbing, and they are the very definition of graciousness. I can think of a few younger Broadway "stars" that could learn a lesson in grace from these two!


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