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The Best of 2010 by Matthew Murray

  • Of the 200 or so shows I saw in 2010, which were the ones I considered the best? Well, in alphabetical order...

    Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Off-Broadway): Note, very clearly, the words "Off-Broadway" there. By the time Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman's musical about America's seventh president got to Broadway, something had gone wrong—it had gotten too broad and too jokey, and lead actor Benjamin Walker toppled from his precarious balance between tragedy and comedy. But when the show was downtown at The Public Theater, before it had fully bought into all its own hype, it was an absorbing, unsettling take on what we should—and shouldn't—expect from the people we elect.

    Closer Than Ever: It may have been a dismal year for musicals overall, but this revival of Maltby and Shire's middle age–themed revue at Queens Theatre in the Park was a sparkling reminder of what the form can and should achieve. George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano were excellent as the men. But the event was the return of original female stars Lynne Wintersteller and Sally Mayes, who with their signature numbers ("The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" and "Life Story" for the former, "Miss Byrd" and "Back on Base" for the latter, and "It's Never That Easy" and "I've Been Here Before" for both together) proved that superb performers, like wine, only get better with age. These elements, combined with Maltby's direction and the return of Patrick Brady on piano and Bob Renino on bass, made Closer Than Ever the most intoxicating musical evening of the year. That the show was 20 years old was depressing; that it didn't feel like it was invigorating.

    Clybourne Park: Bruce Norris's bracing contemporary spin on A Raisin in the Sun, set both before and after the Youngers moved in, was a fascinating exploration of how issues of race and class have changed in America over the last half-century or so—and how they haven't. Political without being preachy and comedic without being lame-brained, Clybourne Park is a quintessential example of one of art's most important (but underlooked) responsibilities: responding to other art.

    The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity: I still don't understand why Next to Normal, which had its world premiere early in 2008, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, but this finalist was a spectacular and intensely theatrical investigation of America's infatuation with both entertainment and itself. Though concerning a wrestling organization, Kristoffer Diaz's play managed to vivisect the country's obsession with shallow glitz and easy cultural and racial stereotyping, all without falling into the same traps himself. Sadly, its technical and safety requirements will probably make it difficult for most theatre companies to do, but don't pass up any chance you may get to see this real winner.

    Equivocation: Equal parts factual and fanciful, Bill Cain's play at Manhattan Theatre Club was at once a contemporary spin on the question of Shakespearean authorship, a historical look at the creation of two of The Bard's most acclaimed plays (Macbeth and King Lear), and the role of politics in art. Considering it covered such a relatively narrow subject, it dug surprisingly deep, and thrilled in how it demonstrated that the past and the present aren't always as different as they might at first seem.

    The Language Archive: Sarah Ruhl could learn an enormous amount from Julia Cho's sparkling and shattering study of communication (and lack thereof) in contemporary relationships. Dancing with boulevard comedy, high drama, and magical realism all at the same time, The Language Archive, about a man who makes a living preserving dead languages but can't use words to keep his own life from dissolving around him, was a sloppy show that seemed like it shouldn't work at all, let alone come together in the end, but did. (It also had probably the best second act of the year—this was one of the rare cases where the conclusion far surpassed the setup.) The Off-Broadway production suffered a bit from broad acting and directing, but Cho's writing is rock-solid, and this work should rocket to the top of your must-see list if you live outside the New York area.

    Restoration: If Restoration proved nothing else, it drove home the fact that Claudia Shear has been absent from the theatrical scene for way too long. Her absorbing, thoughtful comedy about a lovelorn art restorer tasked with guiding Michelangelo's David back to its original perfection was one of the most straightforward but surprising shows of the year, weaving a tight story, centuries of history, and the full span of human emotions around a tiny group of people who have trouble distinguishing the difference between art and life. Like Dirty Blonde before it, Restoration is constructed of heart and craft in equal measure; hopefully we won't have to wait quite as long to see what Shear does next.

    The Swearing Jar: What? You didn't see Kate Hewlett's play at the Connelly Theater? I don't blame you, since it only played a handful of performances as part of the Fringe Festival. But wow, was it a special 65 minutes of theatre. Densely plotted, grippingly acted (with Hewlett giving a stunning lead performance), and thoroughly charming, it may have been "only" about a husband and wife, and the mother, lover, and baby that seem to come between them, but it was wrenching, funny, and thoroughly honest. An award-winner at the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, The Swearing Jar may be too closely associated with Hewlett to get performed much without her, but it's all the theatrical proof you need that marvelous things can indeed come in small, unassuming packages.

    The Temperamentals: Okay, I admit including Jon Marans's quasi-history play about a group of mid-century Hollywood gay activists may be a bit cheating, since it actually premiered the summer before. But because its stint at New World Stages was a commercial run, I say it counts—and is one of the strongest gay-themed shows of the year. As unapologetic in its activism as its theatricality, it relied entirely on its actors (led by a never-better Thomas Jay Ryan) to say everything that could be said about the evolution of gay rights over the last 50 years. Covering a ton of ground with style, taste, and surprising flair, it was incendiary and exciting in the way too few "message" plays today are.

    Time Stands Still: Donald Margulies's drama is far and away the most conventional show on this list, but when the construction is expert who cares if the design is time-tested? Laura Linney and Brian D'Arcy James were wonderful as a pair of journalists struggling with their relationship to each other and the world after she is severely injured while photographing in a war zone. Eric Bogosian and the actress playing his wife (first Alicia Silverstone, later Christina Ricci) provided much needed contrast as even more practical realists. Examining the role, the humanity, and the uncertainty of those who risk their lives to help others understand life, Time Stands Still was a simple but beautiful work that provided a compelling snapshot of a profession even those of us on the inside don't always fully understand.

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