The fact that journalists had no problem coming up with 10-best lists this year is significant in itself. If you don't believe me, just think back to a time less than two years ago, when Side Man was the only new American play running on Broadway and the revue Fosse had received a Tony for Best Musical. Then think about the 2000 Tony ceremony, wherein Contact -- a "dance play" that is superbly entertaining but features no singing, no original score, and no live music -- got the Best Musical nod. To say that things are now looking up is an understatement. And so, here (in no special order) are this writer's picks for the top 10 shows that opened on Broadway during the current calendar year, all but three of which (The Best Man, True West, and The Wild Party) are still running.
1. The Full Monty is something really special. Structurally, it's a true musical comedy (remember those?) with actual book scenes (remember those?). Yet the show's score by the hitherto little-known David Yazbek -- one of those geniuses who's adept at crafting both music and lyrics -- is a brilliant melding of contemporary pop sounds with old-fashioned Broadway know-how. Terrence McNally may not have written a decent straight play (you'll pardon the expression) in years but, on the evidence of this show and Ragtime, he's a solid musical librettist. Also: The Monty cast is perfect, as is Jack O'Brien's direction. Run, don't walk, to the theater.
2. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, with award-worthy performances by Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts, and Michele Lee, is Charles Busch's wildly funny yet intellectually stimulating story of a West Side matron's quest for self-actualization. The production was so well received in its initial run at the Manhattan Theatre Club that a Broadway transfer was inevitable, and now it's one of the biggest hits on the Main Stem.
3. The Dinner Party can't be counted among Neil Simon's very best plays, but it is his most satisfying work in several years. Top-notch work by actors Penny Fuller, Len Cariou, Veanne Cox, Henry Winkler, Jan Maxwell, and John Ritter enlivens this character study of three recently divorced couples who are brought together in a private dining room of an elegant Paris restaurant by an unknown person, for an unknown purpose. The unit set by John Lee Beatty is absolutely gorgeous.
4. Proof is another worthy transfer from Off-Broadway -- again, from the estimable Manhattan Theatre Club. Mary Louise Parker stars as a woman coming to terms with the legacy of her father, a brilliant mathematician (played by Larry Bryggman). Ben Shenkman is tremendously appealing as the Parker character's suitor, and Johanna Day is breathtakingly real as her sister. David Auburn's play becomes all the more touching in the hands of one of the American theater's finest directors, Daniel Sullivan.
5. The Best Man is a 40-year-old political comedy/drama by Gore Vidal that seems eerily contemporary; among other things, the plot concerns the possible use of past sexual peccadilloes to sabotage the campaigns of presidential hopefuls. Though one of the starriest companies in recent memory -- Spalding Gray, Charles Durning, Chris Noth, Elizabeth Ashley, etc. -- no doubt contributed to the success of this revival, I suspect that it would have been a hit even if it had been cast with lesser lights. That's how great the writing is.
6. The Rocky Horror Show has been given a near-ideal production at the revivified Circle in the Square theater -- previously home to another big hit, True West (see below). This transvestite rock musical from the wacky '70s is most famous in its film version, which became a cult classic through midnight screenings hither and yon. Director Christopher Ashley deserves a medal for leading a kick-ass roster of performers including Alice Ripley, Jarrod Emick, Tom Hewitt, Raúl Esparza, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Joan Jett, Lea DeLaria, and Dick Cavett (!) through a staging that satisfies the film's fanatic fans even as it puts a new spin on the material.
7. True West, Sam Shepard's 20-year-old yarn of two yin-and-yang brothers who more or less trade personalities when one comes to live with the other, was the perfect vehicle for a stunt in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switched back and forth between the roles of Austin and Lee during the run. This gave the production an added kick, but it would have been a must-see even if Hoffman and Reilly had limited themselves to one role apiece. (Later in the show's limited engagement, Josh Brolin and Elias Koteas continued the switcheroo.)
8. Dirty Blonde, despite the participation of James Lapine as director and "co-conceiver," is one of the freshest and most enjoyable plays to hit Broadway in quite some time. (The production transferred to the Helen Hayes Theatre after a critically acclaimed run at the New York Theatre Workshop downtown.) Claudia Shear stars in her own play as a devotee of the legendary Mae West who meets a kindred spirit--originally played by Kevin Chamberlin, so warm and empathetic in the part that he was immediately snapped up for Seussical. Tom Riis Farrell has succeeded Chamberlin and, as of January 9, Shear will yield the play's central role to Kathy Najimy. Bob Stillman remains in the cast to deftly limn a number of supporting characters.
9. Betrayal, Harold Pinter's time-bending tale of a constantly morphing love triangle, is the vehicle for one of the Roundabout Theatre Company's rare artistic successes. Though David Leveaux's direction is less than stellar, two excellent actors (Juliette Binoche and John Slattery) and one great one (Liev Schreiber) make this production a memorable experience.
10. The Wild Party was, to employ a hackneyed phrase, a challenging work -- so challenging that I didn't fully appreciate it the first time I saw it. Apparently, I was not alone in this. But anyone caught the show more than once and/or has spent time listening to the original cast recording it yielded will be happy to tell you of the glories of Michael John LaChiusa's music and lyrics. Though star Mandy Patinkin's shockingly unprofessional behavior resulted in yards of press that nearly overshadowed the show's plusses, The Wild Party was also notable for the return of the fabulous Eartha Kitt to Broadway as part of a top-drawer ensemble cast. And I'll say it once more, for the record: Toni Collette should have won a Best Actress Tony Award for her fearless, riveting performance herein as the amoral hedonist Queenie.
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