Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Machinal.
Photo: Joan Marcus
2014 was, like most theatre-going years, a grab bag of exquisite highs, painful lows, and a wide, bland middle. But as Wendy and Liz have both so rightly noted in their end-of-year essays, one of the beauties of being an unpaid blogger is that we have the luxury to focus on that which we enjoyed the most. Those who read my reviews regularly probably wish I would heed that advice more often--since rejoining this site over the summer, I've noticed that my negative columns seem to outweigh the positive--but I believe that one of the functions of this site, other than highlights and promoting the productions I absolutely love, is to advise readers to steer away from (or, at least, proceed with caution towards) that which I feel isn't worth the time and expense. Before I shower with praise the productions that lifted my spirits and transported me in the way that only good theatre can, I'll briefly highlight the hours of 2014 I spent in theatres, wishing I was somewhere else.

On and off Broadway, Manhattan Theatre Club seemed to have a terrible time of it in 2014. From the peculiar and unsatisfying Outside Mullingar, to the intriguing but undercooked Casa Valentina, to Donald Margulies' irredeemable bore The Country House, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre couldn't catch a break. Off-Broadway, MTC gave us When We Were Young and Unafraid, which turned one of the most potentially interesting plots I've come across in a while (a woman who, in the early 1970s, uses her bed-and-breakfast as a sort of Underground Railroad for battered women) into a crushingly boring kitchen sink dramedy; and Lost Lake, a largely pointless two-hander from Pulitzer-Prize winner David Auburn (Proof). 2015 is already looking up for MTC, however; they'll start the year on Broadway with the American premiere of Constellations, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, and later import Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of Sam Shepard's Fool For Love, with Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell. Off-Broadway, they'll feature new plays by the always-reliable Richard Greenburg and David Lindsay-Abaire.

A brief inventory of my other theatrical low-points in 2014 would include Martha Clarke's production of The Threepenny Opera for the Atlantic, which was poorly cast and, for reasons I cannot fathom, used the inaccurate and outdated Blitzstein translation; Samuel D. Hunter's Pocatello, which is the first miss I've encountered from this talented playwright--but a wide one; the overpraised British import The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I seem to be alone in finding underwhelming; and the unnecessary Broadway revival of On the Town and Side Show, the first two musicals in a while that sent me fleeing at intermission.

Chris O'Dowd and James Franco in Of Mice and Men.
Photo: Sara Krulwich
Well, that's more than enough negativity. Let's get to the good parts. I will remember 2014 as the year of the revival, both on Broadway and beyond. Starting in January with the Roundabout's extraordinary production of Machinal, which was criminally overlooked when the time for awards came around, much of the best theatre I saw in the calendar year involved taking the old and making it new. I wept as Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy read Love Letters. I marveled at how fully Chris O'Dowd shed his lovable lug movie-comedy persona to embody the mentally-challenged Lennie in Anna D. Shapiro's Of Mice and Men, which also featured career-best work from James Franco. I was shocked and startled by how relevant David Rabe's Vietnam-era pastiche Sticks and Bones, remounted Off-Broadway by The New Group, remained over forty years after its premiere. On the musical side, I was deeply impressed by Sutton Foster's uncharacteristically dark, fully-committed performance as the disfigured title character in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crowley's Violet, and exhilarated by Andrew Rannells and Lena Hall in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Santino Fontana and Tony Shaloub in Act One.
Photo: Joan Marcus
This is not to say that there weren't worthy new plays in 2014, though it might be telling that my two favorite new dramas aren't really new at all. In the early summer, I was enthralled by James Lapine's love letter to the theatre, Act One, based on the classic memoir by Moss Hart. Making great, sumptuous use of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, this highly ornamented and deeply moving work accessed every part of my senses and offered a much-welcome reminder of why I, and so many of us, choose to spend a good chunk of our time (not to mention our money!) in the darkened halls of Broadway. The role of Moss Hart was expertly shared by Santino Fontana and Tony Shaloub, who also did wonderful character work as Hart's oft-exasperated collaborator, George S. Kaufman.

Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which has been kicking around since 2011 and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, finally made it to the main stem in 2014. A potent powder keg of a play, Akhtar skillfully draws out the deep-seeded personal and cultural resentments and prejudices of a crew of well-heeled Manhattanites. He's hardly the first playwright to do so--paging Edward Albee--but it's been a long time since I've seen this level of airless confrontation handled so well. The production, which is currently running at the Lyceum Theatre, is anchored by a slow-burning performance by Hari Dhillon that builds to a volcanic, genuinely shocking climax. The rest of the cast--Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, and Danny Ashok--are equally superb. If Disgraced isn't already on your must-see list, make a point to put it there.
Hari Dhillon and Karen Pitmann in Disgraced.
Photo: Joan Marcus

In alphabetical order, my standout individual performances of 2014 are: Tracee Chimo, Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Hari Dhillon, Disgraced; Linda Emond, Cabaret; Mia Farrow, Love Letters; Sutton Foster, Violet; James Franco, Of Mice and Men; Romola Garai, Indian Ink; Rebecca Hall, Machinal; Rosemary Harris, Indian Ink; Holly Hunter, Sticks and Bones; Latanya Richardson Jackson, A Raisin in the Sun; Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill; Celia Keenan-Bolger, The Oldest Boy; Chris O'Dowd, Of Mice and Men; and Ben Schnetzer, Sticks and Bones.

There is much that I am looking forward to with great anticipation in 2015. On Broadway, I am champing at the bit for Fun Home, which is easily the most interesting and affecting new musical I've encountered in years, to make its Main Stem debut. I'm also very interested in catching the revival of Skylight, with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, and in Airline Highway, the new play from Lisa (Detroit) d'Amour. Chances are that I'll indulge my diva worship via Renee Fleming (coming to Broadway for the first time in the new play Living on Love) and Kristin Chenoweth (back on Broadway after five years in a revival of On the Twentieth Century, which seems like a good fit for her). Off-Broadway, I'm keenly interested in CSC's A Month in the Country with Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling (if I can get tickets, that is!); Bruce Norris' The Qualms at Playwrights Horizons; and Josephine and I, the one-woman play about Josephine Baker written and performed by Cush Jumbo (currently starring opposite Hugh Jackman in The River), which the Public will produce in February.

More than anything, however, I am looking forward to continuing my work with Show Showdown, which has afforded me the pleasure of meeting many passionate individuals and talking theatre till we're blue in the face. Shows come and go, but that has been a priceless and ongoing gift. Happy holidays, happy new year, and see you back on the aisle in 2015!

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