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year in culture 2012

Scott Brown's Top 10 Theater Picks of 2012

Clockwise from top left: Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks, and Carrie Coon.

1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Half the reason people watch Hollywood movies is to see superhumans jujitsu each other into skyscrapers and landmarks, bringing whole cities and even civilizations down around their ears in the process. As our digital spectacles grow steadily less tactile, detectably less immediate, and entirely post-verbal, the berserker in me hungers for the old ways, the old weapons. “You have ugly talents, Martha,” snarls her deceptively tweedy history-prof hubby, George. “Hideous gifts.” Oh, mama, is that an understatement—and, coming from George (himself a sadist of the first water), a major compliment. They’re Edward Albee’s greatest creations, these college-town monsters made of words, and seldom have those words been incanted with the power, with the poison, with the sheer awful honesty supplied by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Pam MacKinnon’s Steppenwolf-born production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The timing couldn’t be better. Here’s a play about the perverse, fun-house-mirror First Couple of a permanently divided country, deciding against divorce and hoping instead to work things out over a traditional murder-suicide. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad. And so, so, so familiar to any resident of our imperfect union. I speak figuratively about the carnage, of course, but George and Martha don’t, not as a rule. Few performers are equal to these roles; fewer still can make them more than violent New Yorker cartoons. Letts and Morton bring a raw, Chicago-style heft and sinew to Albee’s marathon marital fight night. The show itself is still throwing full-strength haymakers 50 years on; it’s no prisoner to the countercultural sixties psychodrama that bore it. (Hell, George might say, that’s blood under the bridge.) Who’s Afraid manages, night after night, to grab all of Western Civ by the sweetbreads. To paraphrase Martha, its arm has not grown tired from whipping us. “I want you on your feet and slugging, sweetheart,” George challenges his wife. “You’ll get it,” Martha promises. And we do. Thank some dark god croaking beneath the History Department, we do.

2. Tribes
Nina Raine turned the dining-room family yakfest on its ear with this David Cromer–directed masterpiece, starring the breathtaking Russell Harvard as Billy, deaf bystander in his family of brilliant, solipsistic, logorrheic British-Jewish intellectuals.

3. Sorry
Richard Nelson’s third entry in his delicately observed Apple Family Cycle is set on the date it opened—Election Day, 2012—yet felt instantly timeless, thanks in no small part to a flawless cast led by the exceptional Maryann Plunkett.

4. Death of a Salesman
Every so often, we’re reminded why a great play is great, how it speaks to us across different epochs, different economies. Mike Nichols’s near-archaeological re-creation, featuring a thunderous Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, provided one of those moments.

5. Cock
Another bright young Brit, Mike Bartlett, delivered this surgical dissection of a bi love triad, getting beyond American sexuality-as-identity politics, venturing into thornier, hornier territory at the heart of human cohesion, and releasing the genius of Amanda Quaid.

6. The black-box conjurations
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present …, the Debate Society’s Blood Play, and the Mad Ones’ Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War all wielded the basic tools of theater brilliantly (and never cutely) to excavate terrifying social fault lines. Giant plays, tiny boxes, endless layers.

7. Detroit
Anne Kauffman never let the suspense flag in Lisa D’Amour’s smolderingly funny recessionary quartet, where a pair of matchless actresses (Amy Ryan and Sarah Sokolovic) were squired hilariously by David Schwimmer and Darren Pettie.

8. Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya
In this suburbanized, Sam Gold–directed adaptation of Chekhov’s classic, theater’s greatest misfits—including Michael Shannon, Matthew Maher, Reed Birney, Peter Friedman, and Maria Dizzia—fumed and stewed among audience members in an intimate, wall-to-wall deep-pile funk.

9. The Unmusicals
Peter and the Starcatcher; The Old Man and the Old Moon;
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; and One Man, Two Guvnors all bent or broke the rules governing the ways music and theater combine—often with hummable results.

10. Clybourne Park
Plenty of plays pry up the surface of political correctness. Bruce Norris toes the rock over and starts stomping. His Pulitzer-winning black comedy revisits A Raisin in the Sun as an inside-out gentrification squirm-fest—and, as in Who’s Afraid, director Pam MacKinnon expertly choreographed the conversational combat.

Plus: The Good

Best Filibuster
The Flemish sado-humanist Ivo van Hove’s full-bar, five-and-a-half-hour Roman Tragedies.
For three nights, the audience-rabble ate, drank, and roamed freely in BAM’s Gilman Opera House … while remaining absolutely trapped in the fully surveilled machinations of Caesar, Brutus, Coriolanus, Antony, and Cleopatra.

Most Lolitious
Sarah Stiles’s kazoo-voiced Little Red Riding Hood—styled as a bike messenger with a kinky streak—in the Public’s Into the Woods.

Best Drunk
Carrie Coon in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as “slim-hipped,” easily soused Honey, a hilarious, heartbreaking dance suite of intoxication and self-loathing. Runner-up: Chuck Cooper’s bluesaholic in The Piano Lesson.

Best Grown-Up
Sexy credible adult Roslyn Ruff in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. In a culture full of man-children and manic pixies, she’s a national treasure.

Best Worst Jew
The infuriatingly great Tracee Chimo created a hell of a monster in Daphna, centerpiece of Joshua Harmon’s explosively funny, Holy Land–detonating Bad Jews.

The Bad

Worst Lyric
From Scandalous, by Kathie Lee Gifford:
Hey, little Lassie / Come show me your assie / Come show me the way to your sweet pot o’ gold / And then when I find it / D’ya mind if I grind it? /
Now, let’s get it hot before it gets too old!

Worst Pop-Culture Mash-Up
Alicia Silverstone astride Henry Winkler in The Performers. Cher and Fonzie should not dry-hump.

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*This article originally appeared in the December 10, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: MICHAEL BROSILOW/New York Magazine