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The Best Theater of 2018

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

There was a lot to like in 2018, but the productions that stand out as I look back are those that opened unexpected doors on the world outside the theater. That can happen anywhere, of course — even, occasionally, on Broadway — but it happened most for me in noncommercial settings Off Broadway or out of town. Here, in order of opening, are the seven plays and three musicals that flung those doors widest and shoved me through hardest.

The avant-garde has a way of becoming old hat every quarter-century or so, as history sifts the culture to see what’s worth keeping. But Edward Albee’s comedy about decrepitude (or tragedy about survival) has grown only more powerful since its premiere Off Broadway in 1994, as this spring’s brilliantly polished Broadway production by Joe Mantello proved. Starring Glenda Jackson in her return to the New York stage after 30 years, the play in fact seemed ageless: fierce and unforgiving.

At the end of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle renounce romance and go their separate ways. When Lerner and Loewe turned “Pygmalion” into a musical in 1956, that was hardly a viable choice. Now, it seems like the only choice, and in making it Bartlett Sher not only restored the feminism inherent in the material but also made the Lincoln Center Theater revival the best Broadway musical production of the year.

Drama is not just what happens under the lights; it’s what happens in your head as you watch it. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s daring, despairing new play at the indispensable Soho Rep counted on that duality as it led its audience through formal manipulations of genre — from a sitcom about a black family to a satire on racism to something truly shocking. In the end it posed a question that strikes at the deepest assumptions of theatrical culture: Is this play meant for you?

In the last year I’ve seen six new plays about young black men being murdered in America. Though all were powerful, they faced a common difficulty: How to theatricalize in one gesture both individual devastation and collective disaster. Antoinette Nwandu’s solution in this searing drama is to weld the story of two black youths in a city like Chicago to spiritual antecedents including enslaved African-Americans, biblical Israelites and Beckett’s hobos Vladimir and Estragon. In Danya Taymor’s production for LCT3, the combined weight of the past and the present was overwhelming.

Two productions I saw outside of New York found established playwrights returning to — and bettering — their top form. Adam Rapp, already a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Red Light Winter,” debuted a new work about a Yale writing professor who discovers in her star student a genius, a mystery and a moral conundrum. All three elements were brought out brilliantly in David Cromer’s spooky production for the Williamstown Theater Festival, starring Mary-Louise Parker (never better) as the teacher who learns how little it’s possible to know.

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