Saturday, December 30, 2017

OFF BROADWAY - Top Ten Shows of 2017

Another year, another 111 Off Broadway shows. That's how many I saw in 2017, from the 50th anniversary revival  of SWEET CHARITY early in January to HUNDRED DAYS two days ago.  

From these, I have selected the best of the best, my Top Ten list, in alphabetical order:

CHARM:  It has been fascinating watching how playwrights and theater companies have been striving to tell the stories of transgender individuals. Not surprisingly, the earliest efforts in recent years were clumsy and overly pedantic, and even efforts at casting transgender actors to play
transgender characters have been hit-and-miss. This play, written by Philip Dawkins, marked a leap forward. It told an engaging story about a 67-year-old transgender woman who
volunteers at an LGBTQ center, teaching a mix of etiquette and self-esteem to a group of disorderly street teens. It incorporated the kinds of still-necessary explanations for the audience, but within the context of the play rather than making us feel we are sitting at a lecture. (Great line: "Have pity on the straight people; they get confused so easily.") And it starred a transgender actress, Sandra Caldwell, in the lead role.  

DOLPHINS AND SHARKS:  Stellar writing, directing, and acting combined to tell the gripping story of a group of African American and Latino workers at a copy shop in Harlem, dealing with low pay, constant demands by an absentee
boss, and "what you gotta do" in order to survive. This fiercely comic, provocative, and at times harrowing play marked the professional debut of writer James Anthony Tyler, whose voice is just the kind we need to hear more of off and on Broadway.     

IN THE BLOOD: Suzan-Lori Parks' play grabbed you by throat and never let go as it related the story of Hester, a single mother of five children between the ages of 5 and 13, all of them living together under a bridge in an unnamed and indifferent urban environment. Some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's works are densely abstract and difficult to stage convincingly, but this one was nothing short of breathtaking in capturing the lives of people who cannot win for losing.  

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:  A joyful night under the stars at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Lear deBessonet directed, and Annaleigh Ashford
headed a cast that brought pure magic and a touch of Mardi Gras to Shakespeare's enduring comedy. In every way, it was a a treat for the eyes and ears.   

OF HUMAN BONDAGE:  A presentation by the Canadian company Soulpepper during its summer sojourn at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This production of W. Somerset Maugham's sprawling coming-of-age novel
(adapted by Vern Thiessen) was a perfect piece of ensemble acting, reminiscent of the kinds of plays the Royal Shakespeare Company used to bring to New York back in the day.  Hope they'll come back with more like this!

PIPELINE: Dominique Morisseau's brilliant play about an African American family all but torn asunder following an altercation between a high school student and a teacher at a private boarding school that was supposed to provide a safe and nurturing haven for a teenage boy. Namir Smallwood
gave a superb performance as the boy's mother, a teacher herself, but at the kind of urban high school she wants to keep him away from. The playwright showed a real determination to avoid painting anyone purely as either villain or victim. This was a stunner from the start to its intentionally uncertain ending. 

SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY: Jocyln Bioh's funny, viciously biting comedy takes the familiar story of snotty high school cliques and plunks it down into a private girls' school in Ghana, where it takes on a life of its own. The writing and the performances were as sharp as tacks as the girls participated in the well-established pecking order that
controlled their lives together. Things took a turn when a new student showed up, rivalries exploded, and the girls got ready to participate in a beauty pageant they all hope will lead one of them to being named Miss Ghana. A glorious production by all concerned.    

TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET: Another rising playwright, JirĂ©h Breon Holder, gave us a play that dive-bombed onto the stage of the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre, an incubator for exciting new works like this one.  The play recounted the experiences of two young black
couples in the early days of the Freedom Riders, the busing protest from the early 1960s.  It centered on the character of Bowzie (a mesmerizing performance by Brandon Gill), who has been offered the rare opportunity of a scholarship to attend the prestigious Fisk University but who is uncertain where his future lay as he gets caught up in the emerging Civil Rights movement.  The playwright managed in the course of the evening to explore issues of race, gender, power, faith, and politics in the black community without once losing sight of his characters.  A masterful achievement!

THE WOLVES: Sarah DeLappe's thrilling "girl power" play about a high school girls' soccer team. Wonderfully acted by a tight-knit ensemble, it is about the things we miss when we fail to pay attention to the seemingly random conversations
among girls. The playwright and the production perfectly captured the voices of these young women as they talk during their pre-game warmups in the course of a season.   

20th CENTURY BLUES: At the other end of the age spectrum, this play by Susan Miller captures the story of a group of women in their mid-60s as they gather at the home
of one of their number, a professional photographer named Danny (Polly Draper) who has taken portraits of the other three each year without fail ever since they met in the 1970s. The dialog and the splendid acting perfectly embodied the spirit of the women of the baby boomer cohort,  with all of their shared memories, trials, and successes. 


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Broadway plays: (Top Ten Broadway Plays - 2017) 


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1 comment:

  1. What an excellent list. I'm in agreement with so many of your comments that I wish I'd seen "Dolphins and Sharks." Here's hoping 2018 treats us just as well.