Special Reports

Our 6 Favorite Theater Productions of 2021

There were a lot of shows on offer this year, both in-person and online.

After a year-and-a-half of virtual offerings, live theater reopened with a bang this year. Broadway, especially, stepped on the gas and accelerated from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye, with all of the shows that were scheduled to open in March and April 2020 finally getting their due. There were some really great productions we finally got to see, especially two fabulous revivals, Caroline, or Change and Company, debuting alongside surprise but well-deserved transfers of Pass Over, Is This A Room and Dana H. We'll be glad to remember those shows in the years to come, alongside the following five, which really made us sit up straight in our seats.

A scene from In the Southern Breeze
A scene from In the Southern Breeze
(© David Rauch)

In the Southern Breeze by Mansa Ra
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
In Mansa Ra's new play, what starts out as a monologue in which a Black man, tormented by all the violence and pain around him, contemplates suicide, becomes, in its second half, a surreal encounter among four Black men from different historical periods in a state of purgatory. The process by which they discover the tragic circumstances that connect them is alternately funny and heartbreaking, and the way in which they inspire the protagonist to ultimately choose life is genuinely uplifting. In the Southern Breeze got much less attention than Keenan Scott II's Broadway play Thoughts of a Colored Man, but Ra's play is a worthy, and in some ways even more daring, companion piece. With this and Arturo Luís Soria's equally terrific solo show Ni Mi Madre, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater re-established itself as one of the most enterprising off-Broadway theater companies around. — Kenji Fujishima

Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo
Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori
Atlantic Theater Company
The best new musical of 2021 is based on a 2001 David Lindsay-Abaire play by the same name that I admittedly never much cared for. It's about a New Jersey teenager suffering from a rare genetic disorder that causes her to age at 4-5 times the normal rate. With new music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), and book/lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire, the story soars out of the realm of the quirky to become something truly magical. It helps that the cast is led by Victoria Clark, who is giving a very convincing performance as a teenager: Her slightly muted diction tells the story of someone who feels the need to apologize for her existence, but her innocent smile will melt your heart. A hilarious performance by Bonnie Milligan and an absolutely charming off-Broadway debut by Justin Cooley seal the deal. This is the best musical at Atlantic Theater Company since The Band's Visit, and I hope it will live on elsewhere following that run — perhaps on Broadway. — Zachary Stewart

The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown
Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years was sort of the ideal musical to stage during the pandemic, with a pair of actors telling two sides of the same story but never really interacting. For Out Of The Box Theatrics's streaming production, director Jason Michael Webb set the show in a New York City apartment and let the memories of Jamie and Cathy's failed relationship swirl around very fine actors Nicholas Edwards and Nasia Thomas as they moved from room to room. The result was an extremely intense reimagining of the boundaries of immersive theater and a film that was way more convincing than the actual movie version. — David Gordon

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian Lester star in Stefano Massini and Ben Power's The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre.
Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian Lester star in Stefano Massini and Ben Power's The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Nederlander Theatre

An epic play about the rise of the Lehman brothers' dynasty and its eventual collapse might seem like a tough sell, especially with a running time of more than three hours. But Broadway rarely sees a play this good, and it's unlikely that it will get one better this season. Featuring three incomparable actors — Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Adrian Lester — portraying multitudes, The Lehman Trilogy looks at the behind-the-scenes family drama of the Lehman Brothers behemoth from its modest beginnings in the pre-Civil War American South to its devastating 2008 implosion, which unleashed calamity upon the world economy. Sam Mendes directs Stefano Massini's masterpiece of pride, power, money, and tragic downfall with unflagging energy in one of the most dazzling stage productions I've seen. It's can't-miss Broadway. Now in its final week of performances. — Pete Hempstead

Edie Falco, Marin Ireland, and Blair Brown in Morning Sun at New York City Center – Stage I.
Edie Falco, Marin Ireland, and Blair Brown in Morning Sun at New York City Center – Stage I.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Morning Sun by Simon Stephens
Manhattan Theatre Club
After a pandemic filled with quiet contemplation, Simon Stephens's Morning Sun was a perfectly gentle way to return to the theater. A Manhattan Theatre Club three-hander with a dream cast (Edie Falco, Marin Ireland, and Blair Brown), Morning Sun served up a modest family play about life, legacy, and generational inheritance in New York City. In the deft hands of director Lila Neugebauer, there was nothing in it to overstimulate, but it did keep audiences on their toes as characters transformed, time jumped between eras, and memories were constantly reconfigured. It was everything New York theatergoers love about new plays and offered an ideal homecoming for those of us who enjoy quiet evenings in the dark but have had enough solitude for a lifetime. — Hayley Levitt

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City
Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City
(© Joan Marcus)

Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok
New York Theatre Workshop
Martyna Majok's three-person drama tells the story of two best friends, both immigrants brought here at a young age, who inch their way toward legal status one grueling step at a time. The first part of the play shows that multi-year process in a rapid succession of thrillingly cinematic scenes precisely staged by director Rebecca Frecknall: Homework sessions, afterschool jobs, scavenged dinners, and school dances materialize like snapshots of a codependent relationship that inevitably breaks down when one of the two goes away to college. A later scene slows down to let us nosy drivers get a good look at the wreckage. It's brutal and breathtaking. This play felt personal to me: My husband is an immigrant who came to this country without a permanent status, and until 2013 (when same-sex marriage became federally recognized) I couldn't do anything to fix that. So the events of Sanctuary City (which transpire between 2001 and 2006) felt uncomfortably familiar. But even if that weren't true, this formally daring dramatization of a story not told often enough would still be the best play of the year. — Zachary Stewart