My Top Ten Moments of Theatre in 2011

It’s always hard to pick just five moments of New York theatre a to wrap up a year. But it’s especially difficult when you’ve seen and processed the most recent season so I thought I’d do a Top 10 list.

1. First on this list is obviously Sleep No More, presented by Punchdrunk. I’m glad I got in on this before people caught on to what was going on down in Chelsea. If you’ve gone to see Sleep No More, you know what it’s like and if you haven’t seen it, there’s really no way to explain it without sounding like a crazy person about why it was such an amazing experience. Save up your money and go buy yourself a ticket for 2012.

2. The next thing that instantly came to mind was Once, currently showing at the New York Theatre Workshop. Based on the indie movie of the same name, it’s a touching story of how one girl helps a musician achieve his dreams (and they kinda-sorta fall in love too). This was such a unique piece of theatre because it starts an hour before “curtain” time. The cast, who doubles as the band, is playing, singing, and dancing onstage for an hour before the actually story starts (and don’t worry, you’ll know when the show starts). They announced their transfer to Broadway hours before they opened off-Broadway, which is pretty amazing. It’s Spring Awakening for adults and it’s theme is to not live your life without pursuing your dreams – which is a pretty important one, if you ask me.

3. Next up comes The Hallway Trilogy presented by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and written by my favorite, Adam Rapp, which I just realized I never actually wrote about and that’s probably because there was no way to translate the experience into words. This was a hundred year history of this one hallway from the time of Eugene O’Neil to a time 50 years in the future when New York was disease free and now financially strapped individuals could make money being injected with ‘old fashioned’ diseases in a museum for the rich to come and witness.

4. I still can’t believe that American Idiot closed only this year; it all seems like so much longer ago. Whenever I think back to one of the most ridiculously energetic performances I saw, I immediately think back to February 27th, 2011 – the night John Gallagher Jr., Michael Esper, and Billie Joe Armstrong left the show. It felt like every single person in that theatre was there for those three guys and you could hear the love pouring out from them. It was just a ridiculous and amazing night, one that I will not soon forget.

5. An incredible moment that makes this list happened only last week. A benefit for Royal Family Productions, Anthony Rapp performed a reading of his brother Adam Rapp’s script Nocturne at Symphony Space, a few blocks from where I live on the Upper West Side in a night titled “Rapp Reads Rapp.” Nocturne was one of the few plays of Rapp’s that I had no familiarity with but oh boy is it amazing, and Anthony did an incredible job with it. By the end he was in tears.

6. I thought Thomas Sadowski was pretty good in 2009’s reasons to be pretty but he left me speechless in this season’s Broadway transfer of Other Desert Cities. His character was so complicated and went through so many emotions that I was absolutely exhausted and heart broken watching him from the front row. 

7. When you try to think of the most fantastic actress discovered out-of-the-blue in the last five years, you’d be hard pressed to think of someone more talented of Nina Arianda and her performance in Venus in Fur. Her performance is a tour-de-force and isn’t to be missed. I’m not sure how to use words to describe it actually. It has to be seen and not described. She crashes through the door ten minutes into the script and the whirlwind that she creates onstage never stops.

8. When I think of Norbert Leo Butz, I will always think of him as my first Roger in Rent in 1998. The next moment I’ll think of is his performance in this year’s Catch Me If You Can. Catch Me was a [mostly] bore of a show that had all the makings of what should’ve been a great musical, but the only reason I saw it twice was to watch Mr. Butz. He danced and moved in ways that I didn’t think he could during the song “Breaking All the Rules.” Watching him on the Tony’s, and then win his second Tony, it was a great thing.

9. I missed Boeing Boeing a few years ago and after seeing Mark Rylance in both La Bete and Jerusalem this year, that will forever be one of my great theatre-related regrets. I will still stand my ground that Mark Rylance was even better in La Bete than in Jerusalem, but for the purposes of doing a review of the year of 2011, I’ll talk about his performance in Jerusalem.  Playing a modern day pied piper in England, you loved him, you felt bad for him, you loved listening to his rambling. Like I said back in April, Rylance might be one of the great actors of our day.

10. I’ve been a fan of Jan Maxwell since I worked at Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang in 2005 and I’ve seen almost everything she’s done since. She’s never won a Tony but this just might be her year with her mouth-dropping turn in this season’s revival of Follies. She brings down the house in Act 2 like I’ve never seen her do. I never knew she could dance like she does, and she’s absolutely heartbreaking. Follies isn’t my cup of tea when it comes to musical theatre, but I’d see it again to watch her onstage.   

So, I think that’s it. Honorable mentions go to War Horse (breathtaking, just absolutely mind-blowing), The Normal Heart (after the 2010 reading, this production was magnificent), The Book of Mormon (I’m glad I saw this in previews), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Mr. Radcliffe blew me away with his moves, and after wanting to see this show revived again for so many years, this is a great production), and The Amoralists (a fantastic theatre company that produces really unique theatrical experiences such as this one and this one). 

I won’t deny the fact that there was a ton of crap produced on and off-Broadway this year, but it’d be silly to neglect to acknowledge the amazing moments that I was fortunate enough to see too. We’ll see what 2012 holds.

photo taken in April 2011

The young(-ish) man above, Jim Parsons, was the most compelling argument that convinced me to see the revival of The Normal Heart.  My dad and brother are big fans of The Big Bang Theory and anytime that I was made to watch it, I’d always loved his character.  I’d seen almost the same exact cast during their one-night-only reading a couple of months ago and although it’s an amazing, moving play, I didn’t know if I wanted to pay to see it again.  Luckily, the last two rows of the Golden Theatre are only $25.  And for $25, I couldn’t say no.

The production is very sparse.  Scene changes and settings are indicated by projections atop the proscenium and once again the only sets to speak of are four white walls with barely legible names carved out of them, and a few tables and chairs to signify that we’re in an office or an apartment.  Projections of names, significant public figures during the 80’s, and names are used often and effectively. 

Every single person in the cast (including Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace, Joe Mantello, Benjmain Lee Hickey, Mark Harelik, Luke McFarlane, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox, and of course, Jim Parons) is, in my humble opinion, phenomenal.  From Ellen Barkin, to Joe Mantello, to Lee Pace.  They’re all fantastic.  The Normal Heart is not an easy text to grab hold of and communicate unless it’s in the hands of highly skilled artists.  And it is. 

Because of the realism of the play, I dare to say that it’s even more moving than Angels in America (which I love with my entire being from start to end).  There’s no fantasy aspect taking you out of the moment, only cold hard facts of the reality these men were facing being slammed into your face like an iron fist. 

The Normal Heart is inspiring, compelling, heart breaking, funny, frustrating, but most important of all, it’s brilliant.  

(photo via)

Lee Pace and Jim Parsons Join Cast of Broadway’s Normal Heart

I didn’t think I was going to make an effort to see this revival of The Normal Heart (because I did see the reading a few months ago with almost the same cast), but now I feel that I’m going to need to.  I have no worries that Jim Parsons will be able to act the role.  I have to go back and look at my script to see which role exactly it is that he’s playing, but despite the fact that he’s a television actor, I’m pretty confident that he’s also got a talent for the stage.  

I’m not an avid watcher of The Big Bang Theory, but whenever I’m home and my dad and brother are watching it I’m always captivated by Parsons’ character.  I don’t think this is a play that my brother would really appreciate (he’s 15) but my dad might.  Let’s see what kind of discounts are released – if any – when tickets go on sale.  

For anyone who didn’t go to the benefit, you better catch this run.  It’s a fantastic play.  

Lee Pace and Jim Parsons Join Cast of Broadway’s Normal Heart

Words can’t describe how lucky I was to be in the Walter Kerr Theatre last night witnessing a bunch of rock star artists perform a 25-year old yet still insanely relevant work of art such as The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer. I first read The Normal Heart during my summer break in 2005 (I think) when I was in the (expensive) habit of going to The Drama Bookshop every few weeks and buying $40-$50 worth of plays to read, only going back when I’d finished all of the previously purchased ones.  I picked The Normal Heart because I’d heard it was amazing and also because The Public Theatre had produced a production in 2004, starring Raul Esparza, which I’d been sad I’d been unable to see.  I’m happy to say that The Normal Heart is still effective even if you’re just reading it.

Last night’s performance benefited the Actors Fund as well as Friends in Deed, an extraordinary crisis support group created by Cy O’Neal during the AIDS crisis.  The cast included Glenn Close, Joe Mantello (onstage for the first time since the early 90’s when he was in Angels in America on Broadway), Victor Garber, Jason Butler Harner, John Benjamin Hickey, Jack McBrayer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Patrick Wilson, as well as the previously unannounced Michael Ceveris and Santino Fontana.  All powerhouse actors and on the same stage, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were going to bring the house to tears.

The Normal Heart is a semi-autobiographical work about the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York City and the creation of the first HIV advocacy group, led by gay Jewish activist Ned Weeks (loosely based on Larry Kramer himself).  (On a personal note: Weeks reminded me a lot of myself because we’re both hot-headed with tempers – so I felt for his battle with himself when his board members and friends were telling him to cool it.)  The audience watched Weeks fall in love, create this group, and then lose both. 

The federal and state level government’s refusal to acknowledge the epidemic is on full display during the two heart-wrenching acts as the audience watches the homosexual community once again become ostrecized and sex between two men once again is called “dirty."  It’s only when cases pop up in more than 15 American cities, as well as Africa and parts of Europe does the group get a meeting with the New York State governor’s assistant (played by Michael Cerveris), who ultimately can’t do anything for them.  

Joe Mantello gave the performance of the night by far, with Glenn Close, though shakey and almost glued to her script in the first act, really delivered in her character’s 2nd act monologue.  Michael Stuhlbarg, although overacting at times, gave an overall great performance.  Victor Garber, as Week’s older brother, isn’t given much to work with, but does the most he can with what he had.  Patrick Wilson was also genuinely and engaging, especially during his monologue in the second act about his partner dying and being tossed outside a hospital in a garbage bag.  Michael Ceveris and Jason Butler Harner were also great, though both also didn’t have much to work with.

The surprise performance of the night (aside from Mr. Mantello) was Jack McBrayer, as one of the group’s young founding members who was appropriately empathetic and sympathetic at all of the right moments, and it was easy to believe that he genuinely cared.  Josh Benjamin Hickey also gave an unbelievable performance as Week’s partner, Felix.  

The set was simple – nine chairs placed in a semi-circle around the stage, with a white backdrop with the names of those who had lost their lives to AIDS.  Joel Grey directed beautifully and not much I think would (or should) be changed if there was ever a re-mounting of this brilliant piece.

Sobs were being stifled by the dozen in the Kerr last night at the end of the second act.  A truly important piece of theatre, and everyone in that theatre who hadn’t seen it before was unspeakably lucky to see it last night.

(photo via Walter McBride)