2018 has been many things, but it has not been dull. The same can be said of the theatre of this year, which had many wonderful highlights and almost as many painfully bad lowlights. Wonderful plays like Is God Is, The Thanksgiving Play, and Mlima’s Tale were highlights of the year, though they just missed out on the top ten list. Of the worst of the year, nothing could possibly come close to the almost unimaginable stupidity of the King Kong musical, but better theatre always makes for more interesting reading; and so, without further ado, my top–10 list of the theatre I saw in 2018.
#10: Glenda Jackson in ‘Three Tall Women’ at the Golden Theatre
I’m not much of a fan of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, nor was I particularly fond of Joe Mantello’s critically acclaimed revival, which was overly fussy and low on the wattage. The exception to this was Glenda Jackson, who, in returning to the Broadway stage after a long absence, proved that when it comes to pure scenery-chewing, nobody does it quite like Glenda. Hers was the best performance of 2018 (in a year jam-packed with excellent performances) and thus I cannot help but reserve a slot on my list just for her.
#9: ‘Lobby Hero’ at the Hayes Theatre
Trip Cullman’s production of Lobby Hero wasn’t exactly ideal: the cast overplayed the action and the direction was too heavy-handed for Kenneth Lonergan’s delicate script, but the play remains one of the masterpieces of the 21st century, at once tough-minded and enormously sympathetic. To see a production of the play in a Broadway house proved to be moving and wonderful, flaws notwithstanding.
#8: ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Berkeley Rep. has managed to make my top-10 list for three years running, proving their might again this time with Lisa Peterson’s perfectly balanced and unabashedly intellectual production of Lillian Hellman’s Marxist melodrama. The play is more relevant than ever, with its no-holds-barred condemnation of fascists and fascist sympathizers, but it is Hellman’s masterful eye for screw-tightening tension that made Rhine one of the most sheerly entertaining productions of the year.
#7: ‘The Zoo Story’ at the Signature Theatre
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story is one of the best plays of the 20th century, so it’s unfortunate that his estate demands that it be produced side-by-side with the far lesser Homelife in a bill dubbed At Home at the Zoo. Homelife once again didn’t come off in Lila Neugebauer’s superior production at the Signature Theatre, but The Zoo Story, acted with depth and grace by Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks, proved to be ferocious and fabulous.
#6 : ‘Emma and Max’ at the Flea Theatre
Todd Solondz’s Emma and Max wins the award this year for Most Disturbing Play, with his acridly funny and ultimately harrowing script brought to life by a perfect cast (led by the impeccable Zonya Love) and remarkably precise direction. At once imminently theatrical and excruciatingly static, to feel the pit in one’s stomach as they leave Emma and Max is to reckon with the true capacity of theatre to affect. Solondz, whose movies have never quite reached the heights they aim for, hopefully will return to the theatrical form soon, as he has a remarkable knack for the live theatre.
#5: ‘Miles for Mary’ at Playwrights Horizons
Lila Neugebauer makes her second appearance on this list, this time with her original devised piece by her ensemble The Mad Ones. Suspenseful and hysterically funny, Miles for Mary is an excavation of the torture that is working on a group project that leaves the viewer newly aware of the trauma they once sustained by being forced to get along with others. Bolstered by a remarkable ensemble of actors, Miles for Mary is yet another example that the best theatre of the twenty first century is neither comedy nor tragedy, but the theatre of horror.
#4: Druid’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the White Light Festival
What more can one hope for than to see a production of Samuel Beckett’s seminal masterpiece that was near-perfect in every way? Garry Hynes tapped right into the Irishness at the center of Beckett’s enigmatic work, and in doing so unveiled an ocean’s worth of depth in a play we’ve often become complacent with. The European theatre of late hasn’t impressed much, especially many of the National’s heavy and humorless productions which somehow keep making their way to New York, but Druid remains the exception that proves the rule, with their crystal clear and light-as-air productions. Fingers crossed more Druid works its way to New York, and soon.
#3: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Museum of Jewish History
Fiddler on the Roof isn’t written in Yiddish, but seeing this production from director Joel Grey, you would never guess it. Fiddler is decidedly the greatest accomplishment of the American musical theatre, and this particular staging tapped into the anger and desperation at the core of the work, and created an evening (or matinee) that can not soon be forgotten. With almost no set and an emphasis on performance, this Fiddler stripped away much of the cultural grime and dust that has accumulated over the past fifty years and a masterpiece could be seen in a new light, much to the benefit of us all.
#2: ‘A Pink Chair (in Place of a Fake Antique)’ at the Wooster Group
The Wooster Group is having something of a comeback these days, with their spectacular The B-Side making a splash in late 2017 and A Pink Chair proving to be the perfect synthesis of the Group’s avant-garde stylings of the past 50 years. LeCompte has no plans of slowing down soon, nor has her well run dry in the slightest, and to have such a richly founded and artistically excellent ensemble consistently producing work in America is a gift to be treasured.
#1: ‘Dance Nation’ at Playwrights Horizons
Clare Barron’s searing, soaring Dance Nation was quite simply an unforgettable evening of theatre. All elements were all firing on all cylinders, but none more so than Barron’s script, which is a postmodern miracle of intersectional feminism, Neo-Paganism, and a true sense of existential terror. Assumably many of the country’s most ambitious regional theaters will mount the play in their upcoming season, but it was an honor and a privilege to see Lee Sunday Evans’ original production. I expect the play will stick around for longer than most of what was produced in 2018.
And with that, 2018 in theatre has wrapped up. I was disheartened by much of the work produced this year, but in writing this list I was thankfully able to remember what I wanted to remember from the year of theatergoing. As for 2019, there is much to be looked forward to, most notably Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play White Noise at the Public, a revival of Athol Fughard’s Boseman and Lena, new pieces by the aforementioned Mad Ones and Wooster Group, and Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger?, which is certain to provoke some extreme reactions on both sides of the critical spectrum.