Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More of the year's best

Ok, look. Don't think of this as "second best." Think of this as more of the best. The productions that tickled or excited or moved me enough that I remember them even now. So why didn't they make the top cut? Any number of reasons - but in general, of the new plays listed here, the productions were stronger than their material; while of the classics, one or two performance were slightly weaker than they should have been (but were still worthy).

So on to Part II of the Best of 2009:

Picnic - Stoneham Theatre. This revival of William Inge's classic melodrama was surprisingly affecting, largely due to its supporting cast, particularly Sarah Newhouse and Craig Mathers (both above).

Waiting for Godot - Classic Theatre of Harlem at the ICA. An honorable attempt at transporting Beckett's existential landmark to the wastelands of post-Katrina New Orleans. The conceptualization of Pozzo and Lucky was brilliant - but in the end, Godot is not FEMA (and the production knew it).

Daughter of Venus and Little Black Dress - Boston Playwrights' Theatre. In a way Boston Playwrights is doing precisely what it ought to do, which is mount highly polished productions of new plays. But do the playwrights realize how glaring the flaws in their scripts actually are once they're buffed to such a high gloss? Let's hope so. Both of these casts were strong - and that of Little Black Dress ran through its paces like a dramatic Rolls Royce; but both scripts broke down before reaching their final destinations.

Grey Gardens and Speech and Debate - Lyric Stage. Nothing could have disguised the weakness of the first-act book of Grey Gardens, but Leigh Barrett and Sarah deLima went to town with the stronger second half, which is sourced in the notorious film. Meanwhile Speech and Debate, though fun, and driven by a remarkable performance from Rachael Hunt (at left), could have been adjusted down in volume just a notch.

Romance - American Repertory Theatre. It turned out there was more substance to this "provocative" David Mamet farce than I thought there would be (even if it once again showcased his weird, flipside-of-macho fascination with gayness). And certainly the show is funny, with barbs expertly hurled by a crack cast. But the show was chiefly of interest as what may prove to be Will Lebow's swan song at this theatre, as Mamet's drug-addled judge. Now that the A.R.T. has gone pop, Lebow's been garnering raves down in Hartford; when will Boston audiences get the chance to see him again?

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Goat - Gloucester Stage. I know, the Albee is far superior to the Simon - although not all that superior; surprisingly insightful into both its period and its characters, Red Hot is one of the handful of plays Neil Simon will be remembered for. What these productions shared, however, was that both were intermittently lifted into the dramatic stratosphere by their lead actresses: Karen MacDonald (Red Hot) and Anne Gottlieb (The Goat).

Fences - Huntington Theatre. This time it was the central performance that held the production back from true greatness. August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winner depends on a galvanic lead to pull its rambling structure together - and the Huntington didn't have one. Kenny Leon's thoughtful production was studded with other memorable performances, however, including one of the best of the year from Crystal Fox.

The Superheroine Monologues - Phoenix Theatre/Company One. The joint script by John Kuntz and Rick Park was hilarious, but also disjointed. And unfortunately, when the piece returned for a victory lap at the BCA, its internal problems seemed to have been exacerbated rather than solved. But the wit was still there, and so were the performances. And the costumes (by director Greg Maraio).

2.5 Minute Ride - New Rep. A small gem, subtly directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, and acted with surprising naturalness by Adrianne Krstansky (even though she was effectively impersonating Lisa Kron, the piece's autobiographical author).

In on It - Whistler in the Dark. Daniel MacIvor's play was one of those tricky meta-narratives that in the end conceals a rather straightfoward, sentimental statement (Whistler in the Dark, when they're not essaying Howard Barker or The Bacchae, has a soft spot for this kind of thing). But director Meg Taintor and her two actors, Joe Lanza and Scott Sweatt, kept the question of its possible complexity tantalizingly afloat till nearly the finish.

Shooting Star - Trinity Rep. Steven Dietz's two-hander is pure boomer nostalgia-schmaltz, but this version was so expertly acted (by husband-and-wife team Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson) and directed (by Fred Sullivan, Jr.) that it counted as a commercial triumph. I do have one question for this kind of show, though - how is it that in these generational fantasies, boomers who look to be in their late forties still seem to have been in college together in 1970? Shouldn't the characters therefore be in their sixties?

And just a few last bouquets to a next tier of runners-up: The Pain and the Itch (Company One), Working (Metro Stage), An Ideal Husband (Bad Habit Productions), Truth Values (Central Square Theatre), Picasso at the Lapin Agile (New Rep); A View of the Harbor and Heroes (Merrimack Rep).

Next: the best individual performances of 2009.

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