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.
Martin McDonagh, Ireland’s nastiest playwright, seems to be having quite the moment right now. While his plays and movies have long been admired by a rarefied audience, it is the recent critical and commercial success of his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, up for seven Academy® Awards this Sunday, that has shot McDonagh into the limelight. Folks across the country are able to encounter the solid-yet-unspectacular Billboards for themselves, but New Yorkers are currently presented with a special opportunity to see McDonagh’s latest work for the stage live and in person. It’s an opportunity that you won’t want to miss either: Hangmen is absolutely first-rate McDonagh, fully deserving of being included in the same breath as The Pillowman or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and as richly entertaining and deeply disturbing as any evening of theatre you’re likely to encounter.
Though in recent months, I have decidedly lessened my output of theatrical criticism—a conscious choice based on a variety of factors—the fact remains that I still make an effort to see an uncommonly high amount of theatrical performance as part of my day-to-day life. Understanding that not every person has such an intense commitment to seeing the density of performances that I do, I have been considering starting a special column specifically dedicated towards recommending and reviewing productions, both in New York City and elsewhere, that I find particularly noteworthy in the interest of helping potential readers determine what theatre is worth their time and money to go and see, and a recent trip to Playwrights Horizons to see Miles for Mary was just the kind of intensely satisfying experience I needed to kick off such writings.
Once again we find ourselves at the end of the calendar year, and while most sane humans are taking this time to surround themselves with family and friends in preparation for the new year, the folks who have completely lost their minds—theatre people, as we might term them—use the end of the year to qualify and quantify the theatre performances that they were lucky enough to see throughout the preceding year.
Britain’s Royal National Theatre, which has an annual budget that could make any of America’s fine regional theaters boil with anger, has perfected a model of high-budget playmaking with large casts and technical dazzle that turns many of their products into must-see events, a rarity for straight plays in an age that heavily favors musical theatre. War Horse, a National Theatre production, hit the brass gong when it transferred to Broadway in 2011 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the ever-popular novel by Mark Haddon, raked in the cash during its 2014 Broadway run, which lasted over two years. Now, the National’s production of The Curious Incident has made its way to San Francisco on tour, where it once again has become theatre du-jour for eggheaded San Franciscans looking for something highbrow to do with their teenage children, who are doubtless reading Haddon’s novel in their seventh grade english class.
Even the most major playwright has her fair share of minor works, the ones that tend to go by the wayside after the author’s death. For every Long Day’s Journey Into Night there is a Desire Under the Elms; every Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Such is the case with Rajiv Joseph, the prolific and intelligent playwright whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011, and whose The North Pool, an 85-minute two-character drama currently in production at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, carries with it the distinct note of being a footnote to larger works by the same author.
In an age which has become brow-beaten by simply how much everyone living today has seen, the concept of being made uncomfortable by that which is new can be a slightly alien concept. This is true in life and perhaps even more true in art. In an era where the hyper-violent Game of Thrones is the single most culturally relevant piece of current pop culture, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, and most popular music has been sexualized to the point of diminishing returns, finding a piece of art that is invigoratingly, aggressively different from any perceived norm can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but it can also be vital and arrestingly beautiful if done correctly. Such is the case with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, his 2014 play currently in a production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which can be initially off-putting, but offers tremendous rewards for those willing to give it a chance.