Given that no two people feel exactly the same way about any given play, the Best Plays series has always been a rather nervy proposition. Who dares say that, for example, Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero was one of the best plays of 2000-2001 while Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets was not?
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins dares; he's the new Best Plays editor, having replaced Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., who died in 2001. The included plays are selected by Jenkins, assisted by an editorial board that includes Robert Brustein, Linda Winer, Jeffrey Sweet, and 11 other theater writers, critics, and professors. One might disagree with their selections, but the utility and fun of the final product can't be denied. The Best Plays of 2000-2001 provides a cleanly edited, vastly informative, fascinating account of a particularly memorable season.
Jenkins gives us some help in understanding the choice: For the first time, instead of including excerpts from the 10 selected plays, the book offers essays on them by members of the Best Plays editorial board (except for the one on David Auburn's Proof, which was written by New York Times critic Bruce Weber.) These short pieces are generally very well written and insightful, and they aren't hagiography, either. "Best" doesn't mean perfect, and the critics include a fair amount of criticism to leaven their praise: "Although more fascinating in many ways than much of contemporary theater," writes John Istel of Mnemonic, "the piece has its ponderous side."
The essays are rewarding, whether or not one has seen the plays in question and whether or not one agrees with the writer's opinions; I particularly enjoyed Christopher Rawson's King Hedley piece while largely disagreeing with its contentions, and I appreciated Chris Jones's words on Boy Gets Girl even though I haven't yet caught a production of this Rebecca Gilman work. First and foremost, though, Best Plays functions as a yearbook, detailing the who, what, and where of the season in question (including Broadway, Off-, and Off-Off). If you want to know, for example, who were the cast replacements in touring companies of various shows, that information is here, along with lists of award winners from the Lucille Lortels to the Drama Critics Circle to the American Theater Critics/Steinberg Awards. As with all yearbooks, this one has got everyone's picture; these were provided not by the school photographer but by caricaturist par excellence Al Hirschfeld, who has been adding his expressive line drawings to the Best Plays volumes since the 1952-1953 edition.
Best Plays is also like a school yearbook in that there's a lot of stuff about the most popular kids. Dominant among them in 2000-2001, of course, was Mel Brooks, whose The Producers won an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards. Brooks is present from the first sentence of Jenkins's witty and lucid introduction. "It is fairly typical for the New York theater season to begin with a whimper and end with a bang," Jenkins suggests, "but no one (except, perhaps, the untamed ego that drives Mel Brooks) could have predicted a year like [this]."
Jenkins' intro is a breezy but detailed walk through the season, divided into sections on musicals, revivals, Off-Broadway, solo shows, and so on. While giving this play-by-play on the course of the season, he isn't shy about sliding in his own opinions of the works in question. ("The Full Monty received puzzlingly positive notices from the New York critics," he says.) The intro also includes a series of illuminating charts and graphs. Did you know, for example, that the 2000-2001 Off-Broadway season, from which quarter six of 10 ten best plays emerged, was made up of 15% new musicals and only 1% musical revivals? Well, now you do. (The 1% was one musical, namely Godspell--which, we learn in the "Plays Produced Off-Broadway" section, ran for 77 performances in the Theater at St. Peter's Church.)
That's the joy of Best Plays, as its loyal readers know and newcomers will be glad to discover. It is a walk through the landscape, not just of theater as an art form but as a business as well. It's a treasure trove, an almanac for the faithful who take a special hobbyist's pleasure in learning when Lee Blessing's Cobb opened, who played Cobb, and who built the set. The 2000-2001 edition does not disappoint.