A year without a new play by Sir David Hare can’t be all bad—and so it happily proved.
Top of my list is the stunning, imaginative achievement of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch—the first docudrama about war I’ve seen to successfully turn reportage into art, and the first play about the Iraq war to tell its story from the point of view of the soldiers. It was a political play that—praise be!—didn’t preach to the choir. To the contrary, it frequently wrong-footed us. It took us all as close to the experience of war as any of us is ever likely to get, thank God. Its ensemble of unknown Scottish actors was superb. And it left us in tears.
Many theatergoers had to be turned away during its sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse. It would be a smashing gift to New York if Black Watch returned in the New Year.
Two other political plays made fine contributions—The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers’ parable of well-meaning, blundering Americans abroad, set in Rwanda on the edge of civil war, was brilliantly directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Christopher Shinn’s admirable, spare, 90-minute Dying City, which the dramatist also directed, is set in Manhattan, though the dying city of the play’s title is Baghdad, and its fatal wound a family at war.
The best performance of the year is F. Murray Abraham’s Shylock in Darko Tresnjak’s production of The Merchant of Venice at Theatre for a New Audience. The veteran actor’s Shylock is the most authentic I’ve ever seen. His cry of “I crave the law” represented the reverberating, righteous demand of the Jew the law has always betrayed. Mr. Abraham miraculously unlocked Shakespeare’s mythic Shylock to present us, warts and all, with modern, mortal Man.
I’m not certain that Sir Ian McKellen famously displaying his wee-wee during Lear’s mad scene in the Trevor Nunn King Lear quite qualifies as the Event of the Year. The agony of decline and decrepitude were the arresting hallmarks of Mr. McKellen’s showy, great performance, but his wee-wee moment wasn’t the first it was made out to be by my fellow critics. That honor belongs to Sir Ian Holm’s naked Lear on the heath in Sir Richard Eyre’s 1998 production at the National Fair’s fair.
Kevin Kline has played both Lear and Falstaff with variable results—but I cannot imagine a finer, or wittier, Cyrano than his superb nobleman with the ludicrous nose in David Levaux’s loving revival of Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s the perfect role for Mr. Kline. An understated player at heart, the star effortlessly captures Cyrano’s swaggering panache (and swordsmanship). He’s also a born, light comedian. But it’s in the refined details that Mr. Kline conveys the pain of Cyrano’s soul and romantic yearning. He’s so good that he even has us believing Edmond Rostand is Shakespeare.
IT WAS THE year of the Broadway strike, the year of the $450 ticket (take another bow, Mel Brooks) and—as usual—the year of great Irish actors playing reeling drunken dingbats pissing all over the place (the mesmerizing Ciarán Hinds and his fellow Irishmen in Conor McPherson’s showdown with the Devil, The Seafarer). But more than anything, it was the year of the actress—from the lovely Jennifer Garner’s sensational and remarkably assured stage debut as spoiled, beautiful Roxane in Cyrano to Lauren Ambrose’s spectacularly intelligent performance as Juliet in Michael Grief’s Romeo and Juliet for aqua-lovers in Central Park during the summer.
There are six actresses, no less, in August: Osage County—Tracy Letts’ saga, or soap opera, of American family life that has a little bit of everything for everyone (incest, child abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, pedophilia and suicide). Chicago’s Steppenwolf troupe has consistently produced the best actors in the land (including the young John Malkovich). Deanna Dunegan’s cruel, mad mother in Osage County and Amy Morton’s seething daughter will be among the favorites to take home a Tony Award this spring.
Martha Plimpton as Cymbeline’s Imogen—the test for any actress—surely confirmed her stature as one of the finest classical actresses in America. I also very much enjoyed Eve Best’s glacially seductive Ruth in the revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and the excellence of Joanna Day in Edward Albee’s Homelife (Mr. Albee’s new companion piece to The Zoo Story).
Both the Pinter and Albee plays produced lines that are so surprising they’d make worthy entries in a Book of Best Theater Quotations:
“I think my circumcision is going away”—the wan husband to his wife in Homelife.
“What fun we all used to have in the bath, eh, boys?”—the nostalgic father to his three stunned grown-up sons in The Homecoming.
On balance, I think the performance that has the edge over all the other actresses this year is Sinead Cusack’s two outstanding roles in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll. In Act I, Ms. Cusack is Eleanor, the flinty Cambridge professor and dying wife of an unrepentant Marxist; in Act II, she’s Eleanor’s now middle-aged daughter, Esme, a disenchanted romantic and lapsed hippie. (“Lean out of your window, golden hair.”) In each contrasting role, whether in a state of fury or grace, Ms. Cusack captures the mysterious essence of the passage of time.
THIS WASN’T THE best of years for new musicals, unless the kitsch of Xanadu or Mel Brooks’ bloated Young Frankenstein are for you. I was happy to catch at the Fringe Festival an unlikely, hot musicalization of The Winter’s Tale—of all magical, brutal fables—and to acclaim the confident new voices of its gifted creators, Bridget Ryan and Chris Winters.
I also hailed the theatrical magic of Julie Atlas Muz, who brought a whiff of Weimar in the night to Spiegelworld’s revivalist burlesque show, Absinthe. Ms. Muz entered seductively wearing little more than a G-string, carrying a huge balloon, as “Moon River” played. Then she suddenly put her head inside the balloon, where it remained! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And then—as the strains of “Moon River” reached a crescendo—she swiftly climbed into the balloon! And there was the miraculous Ms. Muz, waving merrily at us from inside! How I longed to climb into the big balloon with her and shout out to the world, “This is the life!” Or, “Too beautiful! Too beautiful!”
But duty called. The downtown Flea Theater Company production of Adam Rapp’s Bingo with the Indians, directed by the playwright, reminded me in its physicality and daring of Steppenwolf in its infancy. Meanwhile, Off Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble continued to stage risky and important new work—Howard Barker’s uncompromising moral fable about blindly compromised world leaders, A Hard Heart, with the dazzling Kathleen Chalfont.
It was also the year when we said farewell to one of our greatest playwrights, August Wilson. Radio Golf was the last of his magnificent 10-play cycle of African-American history born in the chains of slavery and the necessity of memory. He wrote it as he was dying. And if this furious comic parable—the only example of a Wilson play to deal with the black middle class—wasn’t quite his finest, it still pierced the heart and soul and conscience inexorably.
August Wilson’s come and gone. Let’s see out the year toasting his plays and his memory.