best of 2009

The Best Theater of 2009

Just when you think Broadway — where nine of every ten ticket dollars are spent on tourist-friendly musicals — is finished with smart and provocative new work, along comes a year like 2009. Yes, it was once again too reliant on Hollywood star turns (Jude Law, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, Sienna Miller), and ticket sales were shaky at shows without the glimmer of Hollywood, but you got the sense that producers were at least back in the game, hunting for provocation and originality. For every turkey (David Mamet’s dried-out Race, the painfully missed opportunity of Bye Bye Birdie) there was a perfect onstage moment (Laura Benanti’s turn in In the Next Room or Jon Michael Hill’s in Superior Donuts). Away from Broadway, unlikely material also spawned terrific work, both musical and otherwise: a larger-than-life African musician, a comic monologue about the recession, and even a hoary old American chestnut that you might expect would defy reinvention.

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At the Public with his latest monologue, Mike Daisey (21 Dog Years) cannonballs into the Great Recession, deploying the populist sensibilities of Michael Moore and Lewis Black, the vocal stylings of Chris Farley, and the macroeconomic obsessions of Paul Krugman. We got our money’s worth — then left wondering what that means, exactly.
It’s hard enough to be born into the gossipy world of Hollywood royalty. Then, to add insult to injury, George Lucas turns you into a space princess and an action figure. Carrie Fisher’s freewheeling, un-self-pitying, hugely entertaining one-woman show chronicled the high and low points of her life with remarkable candor, but also with a refreshing lack of cruelty: You always hurt the ones you love — but if you’re Fisher, you know when to stop. Studio 54; through January 17.
Robert Wilson has the singular ability to make an assault into a caress. His exhilarating avant-garde take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses (the play that is itself Heiner Muller’s take on the 1782 novel) was a circus of the carnal, with Isabelle Huppert — tongue flickering, hair towering — the deliciously devious ringmaster.
Director Emma Rice’s adaptation of the noir-ish glories of David Lean’s 1946 film is as buoyant, exquisite, and utterly original a valentine to unrequited love as you are likely to see onstage. St. Ann’s Warehouse; through Jan. 17.
It isn’t Sarah Ruhl’s cleanest play (in any sense), nor even her most ambitious. But this Broadway debut — about sex and science’s bump and grind for supremacy in an 1880s doctor’s office — established the young playwright as a consummate entertainer. Lyceum Theatre; open run.
Lynn Nottage’s blistering, lyric Mother Courage–in-the-Congo made Off Broadway feel epic again — and introduced us to the powerfully talented Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as Salima.
The year’s most perfectly in-tune ensemble brought to life Alan Ayckbourn’s wistful three-part, seven-hour farce of middle-aged Brits in heat. Big laughs, big heart, and — at the center of it all — big, gangly Stephen Mangan as Norman, whose all-encompassing love for his wife, his sisters-in-law, and even his wife’s brother could not be contained in a single play.
The transfer to a cavernous midtown house makes it clearer than ever that Bill T. Jones’s bio-musical about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sacrifices story for spectacle. But what a spectacle! Propulsive and alive, with some of the most insane dancing ever seen on a Broadway stage, it’s as exciting an evening as you’re likely to have — especially if you get up and shake your ass like the Black President tells you to. Eugene O’Neill Theatre; open run.
Chamber-Sondheim by candlelight, with an enchanting cast, led by the indomitable Angela Lansbury (one of her two great turns this year — the other her daffy medium in Blithe Spirit). Prepare to laugh through your tear ducts. Walter Kerr Theatre; open run.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is, for good reason, a middle-school staple. But the Barrow Street Theatre production, directed by David Cromer, reinvigorated Wilder’s delicate, resonant ideas about the nature of memory and the earthly comforts of family relationships, taking familiar stuff and making it new, immediate, and devastating. Barrow Street Theatre; through January 31.Honorable mention: Two women gave astonishing performances in productions that didn’t match their talent: Cate Blanchett, directed by Liv Ullmann, gave Blanche Dubois a new and muscular narcissism in A Streetcar Named Desire, turning a wilting flower into a tantalizing (if doomed) Venus flytrap. And Janet McTeer’s titular Mary Stuart was so commanding, it’s impossible to imagine another actress in the part.
The Best Theater of 2009