This was an especially difficult year to narrow down the best off-Broadway shows, simply because there were so many good ones. We saw exciting debuts from playwrights like Loy A. Webb (The Light) and Alexis Scheer (Our Dear Dead Drug Lord); wrenching new works from established writers including Bess Wohl (Make Believe), Jeremy O. Harris ("Daddy"), and Suzan-Lori Parks (White Noise); and some really great revivals (Little Shop of Horrors and Much Ado About Nothing among them). With such a long list, it was hard to narrow the list, but these are the ones I haven't stopped thinking about.
1. A Strange Loop
Not every show can get away with calling Beyoncé a "terrorist," producer Scott Rudin "a fag," and Tyler Perry "a simple-minded hack." But Michael R. Jackson's extraordinary A Strange Loop dares to do so, laying it all on the line for the sake of soul-baring. The story of a black, queer, musical-theater writer writing a musical about a black, queer musical-theater writer, A Strange Loop is hilarious, devastating, anguished, ballsy, and truly daring, using the timeworn art form to tell a contemporary story that has never, ever been told before. Add in a blistering performance from leading man Larry Owens and you have an unforgettable off-Broadway musical that deserves a Broadway transfer immediately.
The theater industry doesn't have the greatest relationship with a cappella scores (just seeing the words In Transit makes me shudder), but Dave Malloy's Octet is in a class by itself. Octet is like the love child of A Chorus Line and an Annie Baker play: a musical drama about a group of internet addicts in a support group run by a mysterious, unseen leader. Entirely sung through, Malloy's virtuosic score is made up of eight-part vocal harmonies, body drumming, tongue clicks, and even synchronized pitch pipes. There are references to tarot, Black Mirror, Rumi, and more, and the excellent cast and staging (by Annie Tippe) were completely in tune with Malloy's vision. I still haven't figured all of it out, but I'm glad I have the new cast album to guide me.
Just a few short weeks after Phoebe Waller-Bridge's solo show Fleabag closed off-Broadway this spring, the second season of her TV show based on the play premiered on Amazon. The acclaim Waller-Bridge received catapulted her from relative unknown to triple Emmy winner in a matter of months. Those of us who got lucky and saw Fleabag at the tiny SoHo Playhouse got in on the ground floor, and I, for one, know I'll never forget the 65 minutes I spent basking in Waller-Bridge's hilarity (and peerless facial expressions) in a small theater the size of which she'll probably never play again.
4. Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Playwright Will Arbery came onto the scene this spring with his mysterious pseudo-ghost story Plano for Clubbed Thumb, and then became a true off-Broadway darling with Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons. In Heroes, Arbery dared to do what no one else had done: He put a group of religious, conservative millennials onstage and didn't patronize their views. Their debates about the futures of Catholicism and politics challenged largely liberal audiences to look past their views and actually consider the opposite perspective, unsettling a great many but cementing Arbery's reputation as a playwright to watch.
5. Accidentally Brave
Rarely have I seen a show as honest and unflinching as Accidentally Brave, in which writer and performer Maddie Corman recounts her experience facing the unimaginable and living to tell the tale. The show explores what it takes to bounce back after public humiliation, and while Corman's story is extremely specific, there's a universality that allows people in a variety of situations to relate. That Corman didn't crumble into the fetal position nightly was impressive; that she brought such humor and light to the darkness was even more so. It's no accident that this brave evening of theater has made my list.