Well, it took a global health pandemic for me to carve out enough time to put together my Best of 2019 List. This weekend, I actually had a string of shows (Endlings and Sanctuary City) lined up to see at New York Theatre Workshop, but with COVID-19 causing both Broadway and off-Broadway houses to shut down, and with the Massachusetts state governor putting a ban on public gatherings in my home state, I thought I would use this time to relive some of 2019’s most treasured theater memories.
1. Is This a Room: Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, the Vineyard Theatre’s Is This a Room is an unforgettable 70 minute thrill ride. In 2017, a young Air Force vet named Reality Winner (yes - that is her real name) was in the news briefly when she was accused of leaking evidence about Russian interference in the U.S. voting system to the media. In a rare instance, the FBI transcript of her interrogation became publicly available. Is This a Room stages, word-for-word, this transcript in a way that combines moments of uber naturalism with elements of surrealism, creating a mind-reeling, downright frightening theatrical experience. When the play begins, the quartet of actors including Emily Davis, giving a knockout performance as Reality, and her interrogators, Pete Simpson (as Agent Garrick), TL Thompson (as Agent Taylor), and understudy Joe Lanza (as Unknown Man) give such credible, understated line-readings of the transcript that you begin to wonder if you are watching actors lip sync to an actual recording of the event - interestingly enough, this is a device the Vineyard would utilize later in its season in Lucas Hnath’s play Dana H. With the production’s stellar ensemble, amplified sound design, and stylistic staging and spacing, every word (and noise) counts - making the banal unsettling and the casual claustrophobic. This is a play about power and pressure; but not in the usual sense. It is a work that illuminates just how words and the manner in which they are said, may not always be congruous to the reactions they elicit from us. Satter makes sure the interrogation lives in our heads and as Reality begins to unravel - so do we.
2. The Lehman Trilogy: As I write this recap, the current stock market is plummeting much in a way that is reminiscent (at least for my generation) of 2008’s Great Recession - a year that marks the beginning of The Lehman Trilogy and one that saw government backed bailouts and the demise of such juggernauts, like Lehman Brothers, once deemed ‘too big to fail’. Staged with ingenuity and grace by Sam Mendes and performed flawlessly by a miraculously versatile cast (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley), this three and a half hour historic epic follows the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers from its founding as an Alabama store in the 1840s by three immigrant Jewish brothers from Bavaria into the financial powerhouse of contemporary times. Ben Power adapted Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s script for this English language production. Massini’s work was originally conceived as a five hour radio play. Perhaps my only criticism of the piece (which is really more of a compliment) was that I felt somewhat short-changed, leaving the theater curious about what was left out. I would have happily spent an additional hour and a half with these masterful actors and Massini’s completely compelling and poetic storytelling While aiming to explore 150+ years of Western Capitalism sounds a bit ambitious, Massini strategically tells this story through the lens of a single family and one shrewdly evolving business. This National Theatre production was restaged in The Park Avenue Armory. Filling this grandiose space, set designer Es Devlin provides this epic tale with a cyclorama in which landscapes and cityscapes are projected behind a revolving glass box. Perhaps most moving was a black and white projection of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the distance as Henry Lehman arrived in America on September 11, 1844. In Henry, we see a man of humble beginnings, full of dreams, but grounded by a deep faith. We see elements of ourselves and our family history in him. And perhaps most sobering is the way we also see ourselves and America, as a whole, when community (as realized when the business trades Montgomery for New York) and faith (fully illustrated in the three minute observance for Philip Lehman’s passing compared to the week-long shiva for Henry) gives way to capitalism and modernism. Moments where Massini and Power make the historic feel personal earn this great play its number two spot.
3. Betrayal: As I sat in the Jacobs Theatre waiting for Betrayal to begin, I overheard multiple parties around me mention that they had seen the original production (it was a matinee, after all), but they no longer remembered the plot. I doubt anyone will soon forget Jamie Lloyd’s slick, minimalist revival. With just a turntable, a couple chairs, and two pairs of shoes amongst the sexy trio, Lloyd keeps the focus on the superb acting and each Pinter pause. Originally part of London’s “Pinter at the Pinter” season, this British transplant starred Zawe Ashton as Emma, Charlie Cox as Jerry, and Tom Hiddleston as Robert. This accomplished group of actors mines Pinter’s subtext, creating characters deeply at odds with each other and themselves. And honestly, I enjoyed this triangle so much, I would have considered returning a second time if this production offered performances where Cox and Hiddleston swapped roles. Donned in timeless costuming, Ashton, Cox, and Hiddleston bring a contemporary urgency and complexity to their characters - none of whom are blameless and all liable for their own wounds. Cleverly, Lloyd keeps all three characters onstage throughout; the third player observing without affect; a conscious obstruction in the minds of the lovers and a haunting, searing visualization of the psychology of infidelity for the audience.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird: Page to stage adaptations can be tricky, especially when adapting a work like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that has earned such reverence from readers across generations. Fortunately for theater audiences, celebrated playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and acclaimed director Bartlett Sher have teamed up for this adaptation. And the majority of the modest liberties they have taken with their adaptation pay off handsomely - most notably their decisions to split the narrative voice between Scout Finch (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick). With the new narrative structure, Sorkin creates a beautiful memory play that effortlessly bounces between courtroom and domestic scenes. Sher also hits a home run with his even bigger gamble (a choice that even left me questioning my favorite American director’s instincts) of having the story’s children played by adult actors. Fortunately, these fine actors deliver - bringing warmth, charm, curiosity, uncertainty, confusion, concern, humor, wit, and perhaps a depth that only an adult could as they recollect these transformative events. At the center of this story is Jeff Daniels’ Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Daniels’ subtle, layered performance is one of the night’s highlights. At the time of this recap, Ed Harris has slipped into the role - another fantastic casting choice. Daniels’ Atticus is purposeful, rational, patient, optimistic, but with an occasional ferocity. He, like us, is left questioning the limits of tolerance and forgiveness. And he, like us, wants to believe in a world where the goodness of our neighbors will shine through, in spite of the bigotry before us. But ultimately, we see the world through Scout’s eyes, coming-of-age and fully realizing the injustice around us, but admiring those willing to stand up to it. So much of the ugliness that Scout and her gang witness this summer is unfortunately still visible today. As such, some of Sorkin’s missteps become unnecessary, including giving Calpurnia, the Finch’s black housekeeper, the playwright’s 21st century voice, and further villifying Bob Ewell as not only a racist, but also an anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, alt-Right redneck. Even amidst these shortcomings, Sorkin and Sher’s impeccably staged and performed adaptation is delivered theatrically and dramatically (a true feat for any novel adaptation) with respect and relevance. This production deserves its blockbuster status and will undoubtedly become a new classic in the years to come
5. Score of We Live in Cairo: Inspired by a New York Times photograph of Egyptian youths gathered around a laptop during the Arab Spring, We Live in Cairo follows the stories of young activists who took part in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the overthrowing of President Hosni Mubarak, and the political and psychological aftermath of this momentous act. One of the biggest obstacles contemporary musical theater writers face is finding source material that sings. Full of artists, poets, musicians, and revolutionaries - composer and lyricist Daniel and Patrick Lazour face no such trouble. From satirical protest songs (“Sharm El Sheikh”) to rousing anthems (“Tahrir is Now”) to the folksy, delicate ‘what if’ love ballad (“Movement”), this sibling songwriting team produced this season’s most original and sophisticated score; one stacked with lyrics that stimulate the brain, melodies that pierce the heart, and orchestrations that remind us that there is nothing comparable to experiencing music live and together. Orchestrated by Daniel Lazour and Michael Starobin, Cairo layers Western chord progressions on top of traditional Arabic rhythms creating a sound that is unique to musical theater, but authentic to the infusion found within Arabic protest music. “Dreaming Words” is perhaps the song that stays with you the longest. In this fantasy sequence, Hany duets with his brother Amir as they sing about the hopeful future they envisioned for themselves in 2011. In the end, Hany is left facing reality and disillusionment alone. The heart of the story rests in the relationship between these siblings - not surprising given that Cairo is the product of close collaboration between two brothers. With Daniel and Patrick Lazour, I am confident to say that the future of musical theater looks bright.
6. Sing Street: God knows I’m a sucker for good (and even some not so good) pastiche coming-of-age musicals. Set that coming-of-age story in a Christian Brothers all-male high school; throw in an awkward boy meets cool girl romance; add a catchy 80s pop score; and I’m sold. Based on John Carney’s modest movie musical, Sing Street could not be given a stronger opening than with protagonist Conor (Brenock O’Connor) hitting play and losing himself in Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. From there we see Conor and his band of misfits using their infectious music to woo the girl, rebel against their draconian Headmaster Brother Baxter, slip away from the pressures of their home lives, and form their identities amid Ireland’s dismal economic state. With a young and multitalented (all the band members play their own instruments) cast, Sing Street has charm and energy to spare. Carney and Gary Clarks score nails the period and perfectly captures adolescence with its beautifully simple (“Going up, / She lights me up, / She breaks me up, / She lifts me up.”), refreshingly rough (“All the complicated boys boys / Know that the girls are so complicated / Try to open up your mind let go / Can you feel your heart liberated /By the complicated boys boys boys boys / And the complicated girls girls girls girls”) and delightfully direct (“Freedom / I’m takin’ it back / I’m outta here, no turnin’ back / In a baby blue Cadillac”) lyrics. The three leads including O’Connor, Zara Devlin (as the “happy sad” girl next door Raphina), and Gus Halper (as Conor’s agoraphobic, stoner brother, Brendan) all give top-notch, grounded performances. Devlin possesses an “it” quality that makes her irresistible to Brendan and the audience. Halper brings such conflicted pathos to his relationship with Conor that you think you are watching an O’Neill play. And Director Rebecca Taichman guides this cast with a sensitivity primed to explore themes of complicated first love, marital discontent, financial pressures, and ultimately escape. While the boys have been using their music as an effective temporary escape, Conor’s coming-of-age allows him the courage and ambition to envision a life beyond designer Bob Crowley’s projected Irish Sea. This is the ultimate escape - one that, with earned melancholy, is not afforded to every character in this family play. Book writer Enda Walsh graciously awards the moving finale “Go Now” to Halper and company, leaving my heart with an uplift I have not felt from a musical since The Band’s Visit.
7. Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Benjamin Walker in All My Sons: All My Sons is Arthur Miller’s best play. While some might disagree, I’m holding strong to this opinion. It’s a well-made play that when done well nearly always destroys. The play’s antagonist is Joe Keller, played with precision by the dependable Tracy Letts. Joe is a complex character; warm, gregarious, a steadfast capitalist, building a business as a loyal family man. When Joe makes the call to sell defective cylinder heads for wartime bombers, he pins the crime on his partner and neighbor as an act of self-preservation and protecting his business, specifically for his family, more specifically for his sons. Maybe it’s because I have just finished season one of The Sopranos, but I can see how the themes of Miller and the characterization of Joe Keller can be viewed somewhat as a prototype for the contradictions that make contemporary film and television characters like the conflicting Tony Soprano so compelling. Upon discovering the truth behind his father’s crime his eldest son, Larry, commits suicide (out of shame for his father’s actions) by crashing his bomber. This brings us to the action of All My Sons, years later when Joe’s younger son, Chris (Benjamin Walker), learns the truth about Larry’s death from his brother’s fiance Ann. Chris, who idolizes his father and, above all, believes in his innocence becomes a defeated man and shatters the bond between father and son: “I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father. I can’t look at you this way, I can’t look at myself.” Realizing his responsibility in one’s son’s death and without the love of the other, a man has nothing. And with this Joe slips into the house to take his own life. Joe’s wife, Kate (Annette Bening) consoles her son, “Don’t dear. Don’t take it on yourself,” - but at this point, we know that is impossible and our tears shed for Chris. Letts gives a commanding performance as Joe - his charming, but slightly gruff and undeniably stubborn portrayal depicts a self-made mid-twentieth century man; the type that even without formal education can use grit, determination, gregariousness to build a business and a life for him and his family. Walker’s Chris, on the other hand, is of the next generation; softer, more sensitive, contemplative, and discerning - a most interesting portrayal of post-war masculinity, yet still possessing an unabashed idealism as we’ve come to expect from traditional Greatest Generation depictions. Bening’s Kate is a broken, guilt-ridden woman. She is desperate to believe that Larry is alive, out of fear that her husband’s action could have played a role in his death. But perhaps most surprising about her portrayal was the arsenal of manipulation (maternal warmth, nostalgia, hospitality) she unleashes on Ann’s brother George when she fears he will revive the case against her husband after he had talked with his wrongfully accused father in jail. In this scene, we believe this woman had the strength and the will-power to have lived this horrific lie out of loyalty to her husband and protection of family. We see Joe and Kate as a team. To watch Letts and Bening work this scene together was simply exhilarating. Upon George’s exit, I sat there and thought to myself: Bening would have made one hell of a Lady Macbeth in her day.
8. Small Mouth Sounds: Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds is one of my favorite plays of recent years and it received a stellar production directed by M. Bevin O’Gara at Boston’s SpeakEasy Theater last year. While few words are actually spoken in this play, it is a story that speaks loud and clear to this generation. In an age where the mainstream and social media have never been louder; where the noise around us creates tensions, frustrations, and insecurities; and our lives racing along at a mile a minute on empty - Wohl presents us a scenario of six individuals seeking respite at a secular, silent, spiritual retreat. While these six characters carry with them their share of stress and sorrow (Cancer, loss, relationship problems, etc.), Wohl’s narrative forces us to be astute observers - piecing together and inferring backstories based on characters’ expressions, gestures, reactions, sighs, cries, and laughs. O’Gara shapes each retreat episode with such clarity, empathy and humor leaving the audience rooting for each character to find exactly what he or she needs on this retreat. SpeakEasy’s cast is comprised of some of Boston’s finest actors including Barlow Adamson, Sam Simahk, Nael Nacer, Kerry A. Dowling, Celeste Olivia, Gigi Watson, and Mirianna Basshan as the unseen, androgynous overhead voice of The Teacher. Each of the fine actors create well-defined, unique characters evident in the ways they interpret The Teacher’s instructions, unpack their bags, undress for bed, etc. Hardly ever have I seen an ensemble as ‘in the moment’ as this one. While it may be unfair to call out the talent of a single actor in this piece, special mention should be made of Nael Nacer’s performance as Ned. Nacer delivers one of the funniest monologues onstage (perhaps short of Nathan Lane’s rant as Walter Burns in The Front Page) that I have ever seen. Not to give too much away, but Ned’s bad luck begins with a skull fracture in eight places and only gets worse from there. Nacer continued with his laundry list of misfortunes until my sides ached with pain from laughing so hard; and just as I thought he was done; he made a masterful shift into the existential. And in many ways, Wohl’s play as a whole is just like this monologue - a rare work that’s extremely funny and entertaining with moments of beauty and poignancy that reminds us of our very own struggle for peace and enlightenment.
9. Greater Good: I honestly debated including Company One’s production (in association with the American Repertory Theater) of Greater Good on this Best of List, but ultimately the sheer ambition of this project landed it a spot. When playwrights and directors attempt to tackle immersive theater, one of two things usually happen: the dramatic work plays second fiddle to the immersive and what you get is an experience, but not much narrative/drama; or the play itself remains paramount and the concept of immersion is used in the loosest sense of the word. To its credit, Greater Good manages balance between delivering a full-length play and giving audiences a full sensory site-specific voyeuristic experience. Playwright Kristin Greenidge and Director Steven Bogart boldly stage this cautionary tale at Boston’s Commonwealth School. This production uses various rooms (classrooms, library, boardroom, stairwells, administrative offices) to play out scenes in this magnificent brownstone educational building, a stand-in for the fictitious Gleason Street School, an alternative private school for students preschool through eighth grade. With the audience taking on the role of potential buyers for the property, and small groups, led by “real-estate agents”, moving room to room for each scene, the play adopts a non-linear structure until the audience reunites for the climactic final scene in the school’s board room where the cause of this school’s turmoil is finally revealed. Along the way, each scene reveals clues and exposes us to the political agendas, alliances, and rivalries that exist among the administration and parents council. Greenidge is a playwright who is not short for ideas. Her play examines themes of race, class, gender, and pedagogy through the politics of a once thriving, now struggling private school. Unfortunately, these themes are met with an equal number of tones and styles not so successfully blending elements of realism, satire, and surrealism. I can’t imagine how complicated the planning for this production must have been. At times, this nearly three hour experience felt far from finalized, as our guides were left delivering over-written filler to accommodate for the proper timing of moving audiences between rooms. While scripted, it felt more like awkward vamping on the part of these green, non-professional actors. Though far from a perfect play, I applaud these creatives for their courageous attempt. In an era where entertainment is so easily accessible right in our own homes (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.), it is essential for theater makers to envision ways to encourage potential audience members to engage in a more active consumption of storytelling and art. As playwrights, directors, designers, and producers navigate this new frontier, I’m always thrilled to be part of the experiment as is evident in my respect for the efforts put forth in mounting Greater Good.
10. Once Upon a Mattress: A non-professional production has never made one of my Best of Lists...until now. Last June, in support of some friends, I attended Stepping Stone Community Theater’s production of Once Upon a Mattress. Stepping Stone is an inclusive theater company where individuals with varying physical, emotional, and learning abilities have the experience of performing in a full-scale theatrical production, while partnered alongside actors from the local theater community. By the end of “Opening for a Princess”, I was smiling from ear to ear with tears streaming down my cheeks. Never before have I witnessed actors displaying such an uninhibited joy of performing, met equally by an audience sharing, in return, such pride and support for those onstage. This infectious joy shared by the performers triggered the memory within me of the precise moment when I first fell in love with the theater. May these performers carry this love with them to each and every future production. I can’t wait to see what this group does next!