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Best Theater of 2021 – The New York Times

jesse green

Until the pandemic, I had never seen a play with my shoes off. Nor had I been able to see so many from all over the world at the click of an icon. Yet by the beginning of 2021, I was tiring of those novelties. Watching shows by myself, at my desk — or, more often, lolling on a sofa — no longer seemed liberating but its opposite. I began to feel imprisoned in my own experience, a sensation that was one of the reasons I gravitated to the theater in the first place.

Despite a few timid outings earlier in the year, two-thirds of 2021 would go by before I fully felt the pleasure of live theater again. Starting in August, and accelerating through the rest of the year, the world reopened, or should I say the worlds: not just the strange buildings dedicated to communal storytelling but also the stories being told inside them. Urgent ideas that had been pent up, in some cases not just for months but for years, were now released, making the fall season as exciting as a child’s first fireworks.

Looking back, I find many reasons to hope streamed theater survives — and I tip my hat below to 10 of the best productions I experienced in that medium in 2021. But I’m otherwise filling my list with 10 live events that came later. Even if seeing them meant putting on shoes (and a series of itchy masks that fogged up my glasses), the eight plays and two musicals listed chronologically after the streaming highlights were more than worth the discomfort. If theater matters differently than television and film it’s not just because you have to leave your home to be part of it, but also because you have to enter someone else’s.

Hymn,” a look at Black British manhood by Lolita Chakrabarti (Almeida Theater); “Myths and Hymns,” the Adam Guettel song cycle, trippily reimagined for MasterVoices; Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander “The Last Five Years,” beautifully rendered by Black hands; “What If If Only,” a new play by the indispensable Caryl Churchill, perfectly realized by the National Asian American Theater Company; “Honestly Sincere,” a sweet adolescent comedy by Liza Birkenmeier that got the play-in-a-closet Theater in Quarantine treatment; a radically foreshortened “Romeo and Juliet” for Britain’s National Theater, starring the chemically explosive combo of Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley; “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’s Southern barbecue “Hamlet” filmed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater; two dystopian diatribes by Wallace Shawn (“The Designated Mourner” and “Grasses of a Thousand Colors”) retuned for the ear alone; and “Three Short Plays by Tracy Letts,” in which Steppenwolf Theater served up the acidulous playwright in potent doses of 15 minutes or less.

In early August, two years since we last gathered at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Bioh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed for the Public Theater by Saheem Ali, opened with a joyful noise of welcome. Set in an African diasporic community in Harlem, the comedy underlined the human qualities of foolishness and forgiveness we know from our own households — or would like to know from others’. After all, whether from Ghana or Zimbabwe or Harlem or Stratford-upon-Avon, we are all, if you look back far enough, an African diasporic community. (Read our review of “Merry Wives” and our interview with Bioh and Ali.)

Though Nwandu’s play, which opened on Broadway in late August, is forthrightly centered on the plight of two young Black men in an urban police state, its ambition is so far-reaching that it embraced (and in Danya Taymor’s production succeeded as) comedy, melodrama and even vaudeville. Melding sources as diverse as “Waiting for Godot” and the Book of Exodus, and without ever forgetting its origin in American racism, it broadened to ask not only why Black men must live in fear but also why all humans must, in any age and place. (Read our review of “Pass Over” and listen to our podcast about the production.)

The 12th and final play in Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama,” about three struggling families in a town 100 miles north of New York City, concluded a decade-long experiment that tested whether the most minimal materials could still make great drama. The answer, as this Hunter Theater Project production, directed by the author, once again proved, turned out to be yes. Even if you do not share Nelson’s faith in character over story or his preference for art that provides joy and solace instead of teaching a lesson, the performances by Maryann Plunkett and a cast of brilliant familiars were incontrovertible proof of concept. (Read our review of “What Happened?” and our overview of the Rhinebeck Panorama.)

Two Newark teenagers, both undocumented immigrants, struggle with two kinds of unreciprocated love: the kind they feel for each other and the kind they feel for their country. But as the political and the personal stories gradually merge, Majok’s play, directed at breakneck speed by Rebecca Frecknall for New York Theater Workshop, keeps throwing further complications into the frenzy. The result was one of the most wrenching demonstrations I’ve seen of the way external forces distort the inner lives of actual humans. (Read our review of “Sanctuary City” and our interview with Majok.)

Sometimes, when things look bleak, you just want a blast. In October, “Six,” the first musical to open on Broadway since March 2020, provided that blast, in the form of a Tudors Got Talent belt-off among six sassy divas who happened to be the wives of Henry VIII. It shouldn’t have worked, but the cleverness of the concept, and the sheer fun of the (pardon me) execution by Moss and her co-director Jamie Armitage, made “Six” the ideal way for the commercial theater to welcome us back into its brand-building, money-grubbing, confetti-shooting arms. (Read our review of “Six” and our guide to the queens.)

On June 3, 2017, a woman named Reality Winner returned from some Saturday chores to find F.B.I. agents waiting outside her barely furnished house. They had come, one of them told her, “about, uh, possible mishandling of classified information.” The banal 65-minute interrogation that ensued, performed verbatim, allowed Satter, who conceived and directed the play, to create an expressionistic portrait of government overreach — and allowed Emily Davis, in a heartbreaking performance, to make words into windows on a world of interior terror. (Read our review of “Is This a Room” and our interview with Satter and Davis.)

If the arrival of “Is This a Room” on Broadway, after a successful run at the Vineyard Theater downtown, were not enough to signal that the tawdry old street was beginning to rethink itself, “Dana H.,” also from the Vineyard, and which alternated with it at the Lyceum Theater, made it impossible not to dream of continued change. Another “documentary” play, this one drawn from recorded conversations in which the playwright’s mother told the horrifying story of her kidnapping, it featured a stunning lip-synced performance by Deirdre O’Connell that needed to be seen by as many people as possible. (Read our review of “Dana H.” and our article about O’Connell.)

Tony Kushner is a maximalist, creating drama by corralling enormous forces and aiming them straight at each other. In this 2003 musical about a Black woman who works for a Jewish family in 1963, the forces are racism and economics, which are shown to be nearly identical. Yet the musical, with a radio dial’s spectrum of songs by Jeanine Tesori, is no schoolhouse lesson; it’s a thrilling demonstration of how change is made through conflict. And in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, Sharon D Clarke took that idea back to its source, making the maid a figure worthy of Shakespeare. (Read our review of “Caroline, or Change” and our profile of Clarke.)

When a Black actress is cast in yet another degrading role, and her white director asks her to “justify” her character, she learns something unexpected about him, herself and the theater. If that sounds like news, it’s not; this tragedy of wasted talent, cleverly disguised as a comedy of backstage manners, was first produced in 1955. That it did not make its Broadway debut until this November, in a Roundabout production starring LaChanze and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, tells you how well Childress understood a world in which the systemic imbalance of power backstage is hard to distinguish from racism — and just as hard to uproot. (Read our review of “Trouble in Mind” and our article about its history.)

My Top 10 lists usually include just a few Broadway productions. This year’s features six — a great portent, and yet I worry that they will be one-offs, done in by economics. Arriving in late November with a possible solution to that problem was this empowerment allegory in the guise of a workplace comedy, in which Nottage and the director Kate Whoriskey shrewdly offered a laugh riot (starring a zingy Uzo Aduba) with real meat on its bones. Sometimes literally; “Clyde’s” is set in a sandwich shop that may also be an anteroom to hell. The question is: Can the formerly incarcerated cooks who work there imagine their way out of the limitations the world puts on them? And: Can we all? (Read our review of “Clyde’s” and our profile of Nottage.)

Thrilling duos. Chilling monologues. And beginnings and endings that surprised, healed and got us dancing. Here are some of the theatrical events and experiments that left their mark on our editors and critics this year.

In a silent performance that burrowed soul deep, Deirdre O’Connell played the title character in “Dana H.” without ever speaking a word. The playwright Lucas Hnath assembled the drama from edited excerpts from interviews with Dana Higginbotham, a psychiatric chaplain brutalized by a former patient. (Higginbotham is also the playwright’s mother.) It is her voice that the audience hears throughout, with O’Connell lip-syncing along. In the play’s first moments, O’Connell entered as herself and sat center stage. She slipped in her earbuds and as Higginbotham’s voice sounded inside her head, she executed an eerie and utter transformation, becoming the woman we hear. ALEXIS SOLOSKI (Read our review.)

“A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter,” an experimental, audience-free piece by 600 Highwaymen, puts two strangers alone in a room. With a script to guide their hourlong interaction, it’s a powerfully effective exercise in perceiving another’s humanity. Toward the end, one person was asked to write their first name on a card — “or if you’d rather,” the script says, “make one up.” In a meticulous hand, my stranger at the Public Theater spelled out “Karl,” which I would bet huge sums was not his name. But it felt surprisingly OK. Trust takes time; we only had a little. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES (Read our review.)

On the September afternoon when I saw “Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, it was so warm and sunny that at least two groundlings collapsed mid-show and had to be assisted out. What they missed in Ola Ince’s joyously romantic, brilliantly analytical production was a “Romeo and Juliet” that achieved the near impossible, making utterly believable every rash impulse of the two young lovers and their grown-up accomplices, the Nurse and Friar Laurence. When the familiar ending came, we witnessed the suicides with a gut-punch sensation: For once, this well-worn tale truly felt like a tragedy. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Philip Ridley’s “The Poltergeist,” a monologue about an embittered young artist who was once deemed a prodigy, showcased a wrenching performance by Joseph Potter, an actor new to me. Streamed from London’s Southwark Playhouse, the play set Potter on a rapid ramble through a troubled mind, barbed with resentment. Only a few years out of school, Potter’s still got his career in front of him; I’m excited to see more. MAYA PHILLIPS (Read our review.)

Watching Ian McKellen as Hamlet in a hoodie, at the Theater Royal Windsor in Britain, you could have taken his performance at face value: an octogenarian playing a young prince returned from university. Shift the kaleidoscope just a bit, though, and this “Hamlet” became a kind of memory play, with the gray-haired title character reliving the lowest moments of his life, the way we all replay fragments of our past that torment us. Vivid, fresh and physically impressive, McKellen at one point delivered his lines at full force while dashing upstairs to the set’s second level. Who does that at 82? LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES (Read our review.)

The entire original Broadway cast of “Spring Awakening” gathered for a benefit concert one rainy Monday night in November, and even after 15 years, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr. and the rest of those hormonal misfits still sizzled. The most welcome reappearance was Lea Michele, who has largely decamped for Hollywood since the musical’s run. From “Mama Who Bore Me” on, she sounded gorgeous; duetting with Groff on “The Word of Your Body” brought chills. Sure, Fanny Brice is spoken for, but what other roles are out there that could bring her back? SCOTT HELLER

There are not many characters to love in “The Lehman Trilogy,” the Stefano Massini-Ben Power saga about the family that founded the fabled investment bank Lehman Brothers. But Adrian Lester, shape-shifting among numerous roles, gives us one to cherish unreservedly: young Herbert Lehman, first as a silent 3-year-old sucking his thumb at his father’s knee, then as a voluble 9-year-old, objecting at Hebrew school to all of the biblical plagues. In a production that runs more than three hours, child Herbert barely gets a cameo, but I’d see a whole show starring Lester playing him. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES (Read our review.)

Watching Yevgeny Mironov and Chulpan Khamatova embody Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev in Alvis Hermanis’s bioplay “Gorbachev” was as gripping as the real events that unfurled in the background. Not only did the actors craft a powerful depiction of a symbiotic couple through most of their lives, but they changed costumes and did their own aging makeup in full view of the audience — including a remote one, as I watched a capture as part of the online Golden Mask festival of Russian theater. Exposing the artifice only made it more convincing. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Anton Chekhov wrote the story called “He and She” in 1882, but in the hands of Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy, married actors reading together at Symphony Space, it couldn’t have felt more contemporary — arch, barbed, delicious. In a Selected Shorts evening with a theater theme, the performers feasted on every tasty volley between a grande dame of the stage and the husband who scuttles in and out of her spotlight. SCOTT HELLER

I was on the edge of my couch the entire time the immense Dutch actors Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink faced off as the title character and his wife in Robert Icke’s thriller-like retooling of “Oedipus” (livestreamed by the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam). Kesting is unsettlingly good portraying men who use their power for evil — he’s played Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” and the monstrous pedophile Brother Luke in “A Little Life,” after all. But Heebink stood her ground as Jocasta, bending but not breaking. The suspense was oppressive. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

The alt-cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond and the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s staged concert at St. Ann’s Warehouse, “Only an Octave Apart,” was a playful, smart and unexpectedly moving evocation of unexpected connections in life and music. It was also greatly funny, with Costanzo usually playing the straight man, so to speak, while Bond unspooled acidic bon mots. Witnessing them attempt to get back on script and move on to the next number was like watching a classic comedy duo in action. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI (Read our review.)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Emerald Fennell’s “Cinderella,” in London’s West End, is fun for loads of reasons, including a title character who wants no part of her town’s Prince Charming obsession, and whose song “Bad Cinderella” is guaranteed to play on repeat in your head. Then there’s the jaw-dropping moment during the ball scene, when a whole front section of the audience is mechanically whisked to the other side of the auditorium, and the stage revolves closer to the rest of us. Suddenly we’re in the round, in a much more intimate space. It’s machinery, I know, but it’s also magic. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES (Read our review.)

“A Dozen Dreams,” one of my early in-person theater experiences during the pandemic, began and ended in the bright atrium of Brookfield Place, amid a collection of high-end stores. But the thrilling surprise of this installation-as-theater piece (from En Garde Arts) came near the start: being led from the public space into a back hallway that opened up into a labyrinth of interlinked rooms. Each was intricately designed in different modes, offering plenty to inspect as we listened over headsets to women playwrights recounting their dreams. MAYA PHILLIPS (Read our review.)

Months before I felt comfortable stepping inside a theater, Bizarre Brooklyn, a walking tour with occasional wizardry, provided an unexpected gift — the pleasure of being part of a live audience again. As I strolled in a group of 20 or so through the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, absorbing a historical fact here and there, I oohed in concert and laughed in unison and at the command of Alexander Boyce, the tour’s illusionist host, twirled as one with the group. It was a consoling reminder of the pleasures of live performance and the bliss of enjoying that performance in community. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Pixel the Drag Jester’s re-enactment of the Doja Cat video for “Moo” at the “Love Cabaret” fund-raiser for La MaMa got a little messy, in the best possible way. Luckily, the event, hosted by the drag queen Sasha Velour, was in person — splash zones don’t translate on streaming. I was also smitten with the drag king Sweaty Eddie, who took on creepy vaudevillian masculinity in exaggerated wrinkle lines and prosthetic arms. How exciting to marvel at a new generation reimagining drag in an East Village venue that has welcomed masters of the form over the decades. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Bard SummerScape delivered one of the most titanically entertaining musical nights of my year, bringing gospel, soul and Afrobeat to Rodgers and Hammerstein in “The Sound of (Black) Music,” reimagined for 20 musicians and vocalists by Michael Mwenso and Jono Gasparro. Then, a little later at the festival, came Daniel Fish’s concert rethink of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” titled here “Most Happy.” Thanks to luscious musical arrangements and sublime singers like Tina Fabrique, Mary Testa and Jules Latimer, I definitely was. SCOTT HELLER

Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” felt cleansing to me as a Black theatergoer. But it was the production’s final gesture — the invitation for the non-Black audience members to leave — that truly showed Harris’s commitment to creating a safe space for Black people in an art form, and in a country, that often disregards us. Even at plays by Black playwrights about Black life, too often I’m the only Black person in the audience. “What to Send Up” was a welcome change. MAYA PHILLIPS

It would have been enough. After months of planning, rehearsals, Covid-19 testing and at least one severe injury, “Merry Wives,” Jocelyn Bioh’s sparkling adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” finally opened at Shakespeare in the Park. So even ordinary bows would have brought the audience to its feet. Instead, the director Saheem Ali and the choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie offered a curtain call reimagined as a West African wedding, an ecstatic dance party that solemnized the union between two young women — in the least solemn way imaginable — while also celebrating each cast member who had brought the work to life. ALEXIS SOLOSKI (Read our review.)

After seeing James Ijames’s vicious satire “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, I was nearly stranded on the way home. When I did catch the train after the play, which at one point found Martha Washington on the auction block, poked and prodded by her former slaves, I overheard an infuriating argument about race and reparations between two passengers in my car. A poignant indictment of America’s history of racism and oppression, the play invited me into Ijames’s rage; on that train, I touched base with my own. MAYA PHILLIPS (Read our review.)

Simon Stephens’s “Blindness” plunged audiences into a darkness black as onyx, but that’s not what we were frightened of last spring, early in the vaccine rollout. What petrified us, we theater lovers, was the daring required to experience this high-design audio play: to sit among other actual humans at the Off Broadway Daryl Roth Theater, headphones over our ears, listening to Juliet Stevenson speak a story of contagion. New York felt so frail then. Yet a heart-soaring hope arrived with the show’s final tableau — a perfectly framed reveal of Union Square outside, bright and beautiful, coming back to life. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES (Read our review.)

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