The 10 Best Off-Broadway Shows of 2016
These are the works we'll remember for years to come.
This was a banner year for off-Broadway theater — filled with risks in both the play and musical genres, with expansive and fearless stories told through daring, recognizably human lenses. Here are our picks for most memorable shows of the past 12 months.
1. The Wolves
In an exhilarating example of theater's power to give voice to the voiceless, Sarah DeLappe presents an all-girls high school soccer team in The Wolves, a Playwrights Realm production that received such acclaim this fall that it has returned to the Duke Theatre for a second engagement. Though it might seem that not much happens in the play's 90 minutes, DeLappe paints a vibrant portrait of how, over the course of a single season, a group of adolescent girls bloom into strong-minded young women. As directed by Lila Neugebauer, The Wolves is performed by a group of energetic and distinctive actresses who deliver their dialogue so realistically that you feel as if you're really eavesdropping in on their conversations. At the age of 26, DeLappe writes with a maturity and sharp ear for dialogue that many authors twice her age only dream about achieving. Remember her name.
2. and 3. Skeleton Crew and Sweat
This year was bookended by plays about American workers who risk losing their livelihoods during the Great Recession of the 2000s. Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, which premiered in January at Atlantic Stage 2 and transferred to the company's larger space over the summer, and Lynn Nottage's Sweat, which played the Public Theater this fall and will move to Broadway's Studio 54 in April, are two sterling dramas that share a similar theme: the fight for survival in a world that ignores you. It also paints a telling portrait of how the United States got to be where it is today. In their characters, Morisseau and Nottage exquisitely depict full-blooded, recognizable humans who've rarely had a place in the world of theater, infusing their life-or-death struggles with the gravity and respect they deserve.
It sounded like a dicey proposition at first, a more than three-hour play about the events that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords. But J.T. Rodgers had more in mind than dry historical drama. Oslo, which follows a married pair of Norwegian diplomats as they plan and execute top secret meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was a crackling good time and an edge-of-your-seat thriller, the equivalent of binge-watching three episodes of a captivating Netflix series. Director Bartlett Sher and his electrifying ensemble cast, led by Tony Award winners Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, created an event that popped with theatrical fireworks, which will be replicated (hopefully with the same effect) in this spring when Oslo moves upstairs to Lincoln Center Theater's Broadway home, the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
At the same time Broadway rediscovered the 1921 musical Shuffle Along and learned how it was created, downtown audiences at the Vineyard Theatre did the same with Sholem Asch's play God of Vengeance. Paula Vogel's Indecent, directed and cocreated by Rebecca Taichman, explores the history of Asch's 1906 Yiddish drama, which shocked New York audiences in 1923 with its explicit depiction of a lesbian relationship. Exploring the history of this piece, its loss to time, and its ultimate reclamation, Indecent is powerful in its rawness and haunting in its beauty. Vogel will finally have her 40-years-in-the-making Broadway debut when the play transfers to the Cort Theatre this spring.
6. The Band's Visit
An Egyptian police band accidentally arrives in the wrong Israeli town on its way to a concert. Unable to leave until the next morning, the members of the orchestra have a night that changes all of their lives. It's a simple story, first told in Eran Kolirin's acclaimed 2007 film, and now beautifully crafted as a musical by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses. Yazbek's haunting score, orchestrated with nuance by Jamshied Sharifi, wistfully infuses traditional Middle Eastern and klezmer sounds with the jazzy influences of his past musicals The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, while Moses crafts a sweet, delicate book from this enigmatic story. David Cromer's dreamlike production benefits greatly from a compulsively watchable cast led by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, whose chemistry and sexual tension is palpable from their very first scene.
7. A Life
How do you measure the life of an average fiftysomething man whose existence was largely unremarkable? That's the question at the center of Adam Bock's A Life. This small drama, which deceptively tackles the weightiest subject possible, ran this fall at Playwrights Horizons. As the play begins, Bock introduces us to Nate, a gay proofreader whose life is spent in mostly unwanted solitude. Played with recognizable likability by the spectacular David Hyde Pierce, Nate's life is upended (literally, Laura Jellinek's set turned upside down) when an unexpected event takes place at the 80-minute work's midpoint and changes the tone of everything that came before it. It's a hard maneuver to pull off, but Bock — aided by the Pierce, his fellow cast members, and longtime directorial collaborator Anne Kauffman — achieved a sense of realism that shattered audience members.
A New Orleans-set reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Hadestown originated as a concept album by folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. But working with visionary director Rachel Chavkin, Mitchell wove her songs together to create this thrillingly innovative musical at New York Theatre Workshop. Vividly performed by a cast led by Damon Daunno, Nabiyah Be, Amber Grey, and Patrick Page, Hadestown tells one of the world's oldest stories through a fascinatingly contemporary lens. Considering the songs were first performed in 2010, its prescience was pretty remarkable: The first act ended with an eerie tune called "Why We Build the Wall," echoing the sentiments of the, at the time, ongoing presidential election campaign.
Christopher Chen's Caught, which received its world premiere in a production by the Play Company at La MaMa under Lee Sunday Evans' direction, is like an onion. Every time we thought we knew what the story was, Chen would peel off another layer. In Caught, the playwright explored the story of Mike Daisey's This American Life controversy through the lens of a Chinese dissident artistic who fabricates a story about his inspiration. Or did he? Bending genres and defying categorization, Caught is a piece where truth is as elusive as the meaning of a piece of abstract art. No matter what he wanted us to believe, the one certainty was that it was thrilling to watch.
Sam Gold's mounting of Othello, set in a contemporary army barracks built within New York Theatre Workshop, stars film titans David Oyelowo in the title role and Daniel Craig as the villainous Iago. The hottest ticket of the fall season based on their presence alone, Gold's intelligent rendering of the Shakespearean drama deserves to be a big seller for other reasons, namely the clarity of its storytelling. In an interesting twist, this brutal, absorbing rendition of Shakespeare's drama emphasizes the potential toxicity of male relationships alongside the question of race, giving it a stunning timeliness. It deserves a larger audience as it proves that an American-born Shakespearean production can be just as compelling as those hatched in the U.K.