The Best Plays and Musicals of 2018 (So Far)

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Tom Hollander in Travesties. Photo: Joan Marcus

From theater that’s questioning — or celebrating — the theatrical form itself, to theater that’s forging new takes on old stories, to angels and Westerns and wizards, oh my! — this year has seen its fair share of fascinating shows already. Here’s a list (as always, incomplete, subjective, and enthusiastic) of some of my favorite nights at the theater so far in 2018.

Ballyturk

Enda Walsh’s dark fable about the imagination in confinement was a heartbreaking, menacingly hilarious welcome to the new year. Back at St. Ann’s Warehouse after last year’s Arlington, Walsh, who both wrote and directed the show, continues to poke at his favorite Beckettian preoccupation: people trapped in musty purgatories, awaiting something undefined, wiling away the time with words. Ballyturk — a play about two unnamed men stuck in a windowless room where they’ve dreamed up a mundane imaginary town and the secret dramas of all its sad inhabitants — is also a play about theater. Anchored by expert performances (especially the manic Tadhg Murphy and the elegant, ominous Olwen Fouéré), it examines our human preoccupation with acting out narrative — with going into little dark boxes to tell stories — and it asks deep, self-eviscerating questions of artistic utility, courage, and cowardice.

Pursuit of Happiness

January was a good month for plays about plays. The Nature Theater of Oklahoma teamed up with the Slovenian dance company EnKnapGroup to bring this surreal, smart, riotously funny meditation on art and the American Dream to the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. Beginning in an off-kilter Western world — full of cowboy hats, missing teeth, broken bottles, and hilariously scored barroom brawls — and shifting to become the travel diary of a misguided artistic director hoping to revitalize his dance company (and reputation) by taking them to perform in an Iraqi war zone, Pursuit of Happiness is a sly, athletically performed satire that casts a fiercely skeptical eye on art’s relationship with capitalism, and yet still manages to be a celebration of the weird, wild vitality of human creativity. EnKnapGroup’s Bence Mezei delivered a knockout performance — and an epic monologue — as the fictional dance troupe’s self-aggrandizing director on an ever-more-ludicrous, violent quest for purpose, fortune, and fame.

[PORTO]

Kate Benson’s intelligent, self-aware, and at times blessedly silly play — about a 30-something Brooklyn woman seeking definition, satisfaction, and maybe even love in the terrible age of Tinder — made its delightful uptown debut at the Women’s Project after its 2017 premiere at the Bushwick Starr. Despite subject matter that could easily veer into hip in-jokery, [PORTO] proved to have more than its share of both brains and heart — not to mention wry meta-theatricality, narrated as it is by Benson herself, as an omniscient voice that speaks to the play’s searching protagonist, both torturing her with descriptions (literal and otherwise) of “how the sausage gets made,” and brazenly encouraging her to eat it anyway. Director Lee Sunday Evans led a charming ensemble, with wonderful performances from Julia Sirna-Frest as the titular heroine (the play takes place mostly in a bar, and people are named for what they drink) and from Ugo Chukwu and Noel Joseph Allain as a waiter and bartender that double hilariously as the feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir. The scene where they show up in Porto’s kitchen, mixing whiskey with their coffee as they advise her imperiously about men and sex, is one of the most wickedly funny things I’ve seen this year.

Returning to Reims

The quietly riveting Homeland star Nina Hoss gave a mesmerizing performance in Thomas Ostermeier’s thoughtful adaptation of the French Marxist philosopher Didier Eribon’s memoir. A meditation on Eribon’s middle-aged homecoming to the working-class town where he grew up (and which he ran from as an intellectually inclined young gay man), and a profound, meticulous excavation of the political failures that have led to the rise of xenophobia and hyper-conservatism in modern Europe, Returning to Reims might not necessarily seem like the most wildly theatrical material — and indeed, lengthy sections of the show consisted of Hoss narrating verbatim sections from Eribon’s memoir while a muted documentary film was projected behind her. But there was something utterly gripping in the production’s bold request for our attention. As was the phrase in Shakespeare’s day, we were there to hear a play rather than to see one. Ostermeier is known for his his visceral, in-your-face classical adaptations (like last year’s savage Richard III at BAM), and it was both moving and mentally stimulating to watch him turn the volume knob down and demand that we lean forward, listen, and really think.

Is God Is

Aleshea Harris’s sharp, bloody neo-Western won the 2016 Relentless Award and made a striking debut at the Soho Rep. Though I had a few quibbles with direction and design, I still delighted in Harris’s tale of twin sisters, horribly scarred in a fire as infants, now on a cross-country quest for revenge at the command of their wronged, venomous mother. Shades of The Oresteia and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — not to mention pop culture pop-ups from hip-hop to Scooby Doo — turned the increasingly violent proceedings into sinister fun, and Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes brought crackling life to Harris’s rhythmic, lyrical text as the twins, Anaia and Racine. Also excellent were Anthony Cason and Caleb Eberhardt as a second set of twins, teenage brothers whose characters became a clever, nasty parody of youthful male insecurity and witless bravado.

Angels in America

The Great Work made its thunderous return to Broadway 25 years after the original New York production, and it turns out a bunch of brilliant Brits (and a few ace Yanks) have cut straight to the heart of Tony Kushner’s sprawling, splendid, almost eight-hour-long, two-part opus. Director Marianne Elliott’s staging — elegant, spare, and muscular — and a fleet of killer performances breathe more life into this story of overlapping lives and celestial interference during the Reagan-era AIDS crisis in New York City. The production just snagged 11 Tony nominations (the most ever for a non-musical), among them nods for Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane as the twin hearts of the piece: the heroic, frightened, divinely visited Prior Walter and the villainous (and, in Lane’s hands, vulnerable) McCarthyite lawyer, Roy Cohn. From the performances to the puppetry — this time, the Angel is no shimmering, lily-white deity but a feral creature — this Angels feels bravely, brutally alive.

Yerma

And speaking of brutal, Simon Stone’s explosive adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma shook the monolithic foundations of the Park Avenue Armory in March, and all from inside a glass box. Billie Piper — who won an Olivier for her harrowing turn as a modern woman futilely obsessed with bearing a child — delivered a stark, brilliant howl of a performance, breaking apart behind the transparent walls of Lizzie Clachan’s set like an insect under a magnifying glass, simmering and finally burning in the sun’s unsparing heat. Stefan Gregory’s exquisite sound design was a marvel, amplifying the actors’ breath — the movements of their mouths, their tiniest hesitations and exhalations — to a level of excruciating intimacy. A masterpiece of free adaptation that preserved the power — both vital and deadly — of Lorca’s original, and a stunning showcase of both design and performance, Yerma landed like a gorgeous, ruthless fist to the gut.

Mean Girls

There’s more pink currently onstage at the August Wilson Theatre than in the Mattel aisle at a Toys-R-Us: There, Tina Fey’s adaptation of her beloved 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls is strutting and selfie-ing its way into 2018 (and selling every seat in the house, by the way). Fey’s clever updating of the material — which tells a bouncy story of high school popularity, back-stabbery, “and getting hit by a bus” — and the high-energy, winky-noddy music and lyrics by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin make this Broadway bauble both a fluffy delight and a pretty smart piece of storytelling. The supporting roles steal the show, especially Grey Henson’s shady-fabulous theater nerd, Damian Hubbard, and Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell’s top-notch comic shenanigans as the insecure Gretchen Wieners and the vacant Karen Smith, whose solo number about “sexy” Halloween fashions made me laugh harder than I care to admit. I just … have a lot of feelings.

My Fair Lady

In a season marked by heated debate over the revival of classic musicals, Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady came like a joyfully defiant breeze through a room full of fulminating traditionalists, ruffling some of their mustaches along the way. The musical still looks traditional enough — and downright beautiful, thanks to the clever, luscious work of Michael Yeargan on sets and Catherine Zuber on costumes — but it feels excitingly fresh, proudly refocussed on the character arc of its central flower-girl, Eliza Doolittle. As Eliza, Lauren Ambrose is giving a smartly calculated, musically ravishing performance (and a Tony-nominated one, too). Her Higgins (the ultra-charming Harry Hadden-Paton) is wonderful too. Together with Sher, they’ve created a wise, witty rendition of Lerner and Loewe’s take on Shaw, weaving smart staging with mischievous humor and stirring ambivalence — plus a final gesture that, while it might leave some huffing and puffing, lifts the play triumphantly into the 21st century.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

It cost $68 million and came to Broadway trailing clouds of West End glory — not to mention carrying the weight of perhaps the most popular book series of all time — and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child succeeded in making theatrical magic. Though Jack Thorne’s script (based on a story conceived by Potter author J.K. Rowling, Thorne, and the show’s director John Tiffany) feels a bit flat on the page, a game-as-all-get-out company of actors and a mind-boggling production design ultimately makes for a production that truly soars. Tiffany and his longtime collaborator, movement director Steven Hoggett, keep the action galloping along like a super-studly centaur (there’s one of those to be savored in the show, if you were the kind of kid who got special feelings from that part of the Pastoral Symphony in Fantasia), and the show’s designers — including master-of-illusions Jamie Harrison and lighting wizard Neil Austin — pull off some seriously stunning effects. There’s also plenty of lo-fi theater enchantment to enjoy, plus some charming performances, chiefly Anthony Boyle’s delicious Tony-nominated turn as Scorpius Malfoy, the ne plus ultra of nerdy sidekicks.

Travesties

Though not technically a wizard, Tom Hollander makes magic at the center of Patrick Marber’s dazzling revival of Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s irrepressible game of intellectual Calvin Ball involving artists and revolutionaries (and one foppish, inconsequential consulate official) in neutral Zurich, Switzerland during WWI. As Henry Carr — that minor official whose wandering reminiscences of the famous figures of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara create the background of the play — Hollander is both hilarious and, in the end, heart-wrenching. He and Marber recognize Stoppard’s Wildean riff of a farce for what it is: both a zany celebration of wit and theatrical verve, and a deeper meditation on the purpose of art, the responsibility of artists, and the nature of genius.

Summer and Smoke

Running until May 20 at Classic Stage Company, Transport Group’s spare, powerful, and refreshingly funny take on Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke is another brilliant example of the company’s fresh, exacting approach to the American theatrical canon. Stripping the stage of props and flourishes, director Jack Cummings III brings new vitality to the story of Alma Winemiller, a passionate but prim preacher’s daughter who goes through a tumultuous awakening over the course of one hot, heavy Mississippi summer. As Alma, Marin Ireland is both comically sharp and dramatically electric. She’s at the center of a generally excellent ensemble, revealing the raw heart of a character who’s coming to know herself in a world that might disgrace her for discovering the sensual complexity of her own inner grace.

The Best Plays and Musicals of 2018 (So Far)