The 10 Best Off-Broadway Shows of 2022
This was a great year off-Broadway for new dramas and delightfully unconventional musicals. Here are my 10 favorites from 2022:
There are few guaranteed good nights out in this town, but this hilarious retelling of the 1997 blockbuster film through the songs of Céline Dion is one of them. Marla Mindelle leads the cast as Céline, a starry-eyed romantic who claims to have been there on that fateful night. Campier than a giant plastic blue diamond from Claire's, the whole evening is naturally capped off with a sing-along of "My Heart Will Go On." While Titaníque has sailed on from the Gristedes basement in which it originally played, you can still catch it at the Daryl Roth Theatre until May 14.
Brian Watkins's beguiling existential comedy takes place during a dinner party marking Epiphany — a Christian feast now overshadowed by the political significance of its Gregorian date (January 6). In fact, none of the well-educated professionals invited to the party seem able to explain what Epiphany is. That includes the host, who was played at Lincoln Center Theater by the spritely Marylouise Burke, bounding up and down a very steep staircase like a woman half her age. This clever riff on James Joyce's The Dead asks us to marinate in the malaise of a society that seems to have it all but can't shake that uneasy feeling.
8. A Case for the Existence of God
Speaking of liberal atomization, Samuel D. Hunter's new play is about two men who find companionship in the trenches of late capitalism: Recently separated Ryan wants to buy a plot of land once owned by his great-grandparents, and he's hoping that mortgage broker Keith can help him out. Discussions of interest rates turn to the pressures of fatherhood and regrettable high school histories. Will Brill and Kyle Beltran delivered fleshy, painfully human performances in the world premiere of this two-hander at Signature Theatre. With warmth and sensitivity, Hunter dramatizes the feelings of male isolation and hopelessness that are the subject of several recent books, including Richard Reeves's Of Boys and Men.
Set in 1930s Germany, this musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman is about the Comedian Harmonists, a singing comedy troupe suppressed by the Nazis. Both tuneful and suspenseful, the show has been around since the '90s, but it made its long-awaited New York debut in 2022 with National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Under the shrewd direction of Warren Carlyle, the cast deftly navigated the tonal shifts required for a show like this, which is equal parts comedy and tragedy. Particularly impressive was Chip Zien, who played a surviving member of the group, as well as a ludicrous array of minor characters. It all amounted to a hearty evening of musical theater.
6. Oratorio for Living Things
Heather Christian's strange and wonderous musical creation defies categorization: It uses the form of an oratorio (a longform musical composition on a religious theme) to explore physics, memory, and time. The singers move around the audience, playing no specific character while seeming to give voice to all of existence. It took place within a tiny arena surrounding a nucleus of light in Lee Sunday Evans's extraordinary staging for Ars Nova. Christian boldly blasts past conventional wisdom when it comes to the relationship between music and theater. I can't wait to see and hear what she comes up with next.
2022 was the year Sanaz Toossi took the New York theater by storm: Just a month after the world premiere of English closed at Atlantic Theater Company, her play Wish You Were Here began previews at Playwrights Horizons. English is set in an English-language class in Karaj, Iran, where a group of students see fluency (and a successful TOEFL exam) as a ticket out of the Islamic Republic. Brimming with unspoken longing and resentment, this classroom drama marked a sophisticated debut for a playwright who has a keen understanding of group dynamics.
4. Wolf Play
Hansol Jung's emotional roller-coaster of a play is about a Korean boy who is adopted by a white American family and then "re-homed" through an online message board. Using Amanda Villalobos's cleverly designed puppet, Mitchell Winter plays the boy (who identifies as "the wolf") in one of the most heartbreaking performances of the year. Through incredibly inventive staging, director Dustin Wills delivers an off-Broadway drama with more tension than a Hollywood thriller. Luckily, Wolf Play is returning to New York next month at MCC, so audiences will have another chance to catch it.
3. Circle Jerk
The wildest, most ridiculous new play of 2022 is undoubtedly Circle Jerk, which made its in-person debut after first appearing as a streamed event during the pandemic shutdown. This form-shattering comedy takes place on Gaymen Island, where homosexual supervillain Jurgen Yionoullis (Patrick Foley) and sidekick Lord Baby Bussy (Michael Breslin) plot world domination with the help of AI influencer Eva María (Cat Rodríguez), who can draw on a global database of social media and search history to perfectly tailor her mind control. The third act TikTok ballet must be seen to be believed — and since the live show still streamed online, audiences around the globe could do just that. Circle Jerk firmly establishes Fake Friends (that's the name of the company) as one of the most exciting experimental theater troupes to come along in many years.
2. The Hang
Way back in January, when the Omicron variant was still raging, Taylor Mac invited us all to a raucous party at HERE. The Hang is set during last hours before the execution of Socrates, which the philosopher uses to drink, talk, and dance. Matt Ray's delightful jazz score makes all of that seem natural, drawing us into its verboten embrace. Machine Dazzle's outrageous costumes turned the stage into Athens ala Dr. Seuss. As Socrates, Mac radiated a puckish serenity as he sought to "debunk the verdict that a thought will trick or kill you." It all felt very comforting at the time, and I will always remember it as my favorite musical of 2022.
Bruce Norris's play set in a group home for sex offenders is the best drama I've seen in several years. Supported by great performances from the cast and tight direction from Pam MacKinnon, it forces audiences to consider the lives of people we would rather forget about. It also questions many of the orthodoxies that have gone unchallenged since the #MeToo movement. Downstate sets a high bar for boldness and bravery when it comes to what the theater can produce in the coming decade. It has just been extended to January 7, so see it while you still can.