– This is one of a 3 part series in which our writers look back on the 2008-2009 season, leading up to your chance to vote for best plays and performances in this year’s Audience Choice Awards. –
I enjoy a good production of a play by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, or Tennessee Williams as much as the next theatre fan. For theatre to remain fresh and relevant, though, it is important to have a continuous fountain of new works. Accordingly, I especially enjoy regional premiere productions of fresh and interesting plays.
It is a tribute to the diversity of the Washington, DC theatre community and the sophistication of local audiences that we are exposed to a plethora of new plays each year from the world’s best playwrights. I consider it a real treat to discover an original work that challenges me intellectually and involves me emotionally. In this past year, I enjoyed many new plays that had their regional premieres here.
(Note: I generally consider a play “new” if it was written in the last decade–I have included the play’s initial world premiere date in my listing.) I decided to recognize my favorite fifteen, although even that number leaves out several more that are also worthy of praise.
A few caveats before I roll out my list. First and most importantly, I didn’t get the chance to see everything that played in DC over the last year, so that may explain why a play you loved is not on the list. Second, I assembled this list based primarily on the script’s quality and potential longevity. Accordingly, I tried not to overly reward an outstanding production or penalize a deficient production. Finally, I did not consider musicals, one acts, or new adaptations of older existing works.
1) Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard (2006), Studio Theatre
Who but Tom Stoppard would dream of writing an epic drama about the influence of rock music on democratic resistance to communism in Czechoslovakia? While Rock ‘n’ Roll features Stoppard’s characteristic witty digressions about a host of intellectual topics (e.g., the ancient Greek poetry of Sappho), it is also a warm and deeply personal story about individuals living lives with no easy answers. Rock ‘n’ Roll may be Stoppard’s most well-rounded play and richly deserved its 2008 Tony Award® and the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Best Play. I have seen it three times (Broadway and local production) and continue to find it fascinating.
2) The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh (2001), Signature Theatre
Martin McDonagh has a truly original voice. His works combine brutality and black comedy like no other playwright. Of all of McDonagh’s many successful plays, The Lieutenant of Inishmore may best balance those two qualities while including some brave satire of Irish terrorism as well. The play features gallons of blood and evokes loads of nervous laughter resulting from violence against both humans and a beloved cat. In 2006, the off-Broadway production won McDonagh both Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards.
3) Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías (2009), Arena Stage
It is especially pleasing to recognize a terrific new work that was created by a Washington playwright and nurtured by a local theatre, but I don’t need any hometown boosterism to rank highly Legacy of Light. Karen Zacharias brilliantly combines the stories of a modern woman scientist and the historical physicist (and object of Voltaire’s affections) Émilie du Châtelet, both facing the challenges of child bearing while in the midst of discovery. The work is well-crafted, intelligent, and erudite (one could justly praise it as “Stoppardesque”), while also being just plain entertaining. Let’s hope that Legacy of Light achieves the broader national success that it deserves.
4) Blackbird by David Harrower (2005), Studio Theatre
To use a popular cliché, watching this story of a young woman confronting the middle-aged man who molested her as a 12 year-old is like watching an impending train wreck. Horrified though you may be, you cannot turn away from this powerful work by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Winner of the 2007 Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Play, Blackbird offers a memorable confrontation with turbulent shifting emotions that never hits a false note. It is one of the best and most intense two-character dramas that I have ever seen.
5) Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (2003), Round House Theatre
Sarah Ruhl is one of the most original playwrights working today and Eurydice illustrates her distinctive strengths. This poetic reimagining of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a surreal adventure where the emotions of the characters move the story more than an eventful plot. Eurydice makes artful use of language to evoke light humor while delving into the wistful relationships of the characters. The play is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere.
6) Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley (2001), Keegan Theatre
Elizabeth Rex uses a historically factual situation, that Queen Elizabeth I ordered Shakespeare’s acting company to perform for her the night before the execution of a man believed to be her former lover, as a platform for this fascinating speculative drama. The Queen is challenged by a dying actor with nothing to lose in lively conversations about love, duty, gender, and sexuality (in that era male actors still played female roles). The late Canadian playwright Timothy Findley produced this masterpiece the year before his own death and his passion lives on in Elizabeth Rex.
7) Radio Golf by August Wilson (2005), Studio Theatre
It may seem sacrilegious that the final play in August Wilson’s acclaimed Pittsburgh cycle only appears at #7 on my list, but that fact just emphasizes what a great theatre year we’ve had. Radio Golf’s story of a successful African American businessman entering politics has special resonance in light of our election of the first African American President. While it may not be on a par with Wilson’s greatest plays, Radio Golf is a witty and modern look at the intersection of politics, big business, and race in American society. It is also one of Wilson’s funniest and most accessible plays, even if it turns a little preachy and relies upon a slightly unbelievable character crisis.
8) Heroes by Gerard Sibleyras (2002), translation by Tom Stoppard (2005), Metro Stage
This story of three WWI veterans plotting to escape from a Parisian veterans’ home in 1959 is an utterly charming masterpiece of character comedy. French playwright Gerard Sibleyras creates such well-defined characters that many of the laughs come from anticipating their distinctive reactions to each other. Although I don’t read French, I suspect Tom Stoppard made some clever contributions to the witty script as well.
9) Woman and Scarecrow by Marina Carr (2006), Solas Nua
Playwright Marina Carr is known for her award-winning plays about the tragedies of rural Irish domestic life. Woman and Scarecrow is the story of a woman on her deathbed looking back with remorse on a hard, passionless life that included giving birth eight times. Carr’s skill at using poetic language and dark humor, as well as her inventive use of the Scarecrow character, makes a bleak story absorbing and memorable.
10) The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall by Sam Forman (2009), Theater J
Comedy writing is deceptively difficult, so The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall would deserve a spot on my list just for being the funniest show that I saw this year. Yet this story of a librettist hoping to get the rights for a musical theatrical adaptation of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” offers so much more. The hilarious satire of show business is nicely balanced by warm relationship humor, all while paying affectionate tribute to the Woodman’s most honored film. Sam Forman proves that the skills developed in the film-TV world can translate to theatre and makes me wish more writers would take a similar plunge.
11) The Accident by Hillel Mitelpunkt (2003), translated by David Berkoff and adapted by Ari Roth (2009), Theater J
The Accident is the most morally intriguing play of the year. After some upper middle class Israelis accidentally run over a Chinese guest work and flee the scene, the resulting repercussions threaten their friendships and their marriages. Israeli playwright Hillel Mitelpunkt has created a taut and gripping work with a distinctive sense of place, yet Theater J’s adept English language adaptation feels real to American audiences. While The Accident may teeter on the edge of melodrama, the dilemma that the characters face leaves audiences worldwide wondering how they would react in a similar crisis.
12) Antebellum by Robert O’Hara (2008), Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Woolly Mammoth had another great season of smart and provocative new works, but Antebellum is the one that stuck with me the most. The way that the story of a Jewish family in Atlanta preparing for the 1939 premiere of Gone With the Wind and the story of a prisoner in a German concentration camp came together was jaw-droppingly successful. Antebellum is an original and compelling work even if it went a little awry in the second act. It is amazing that it took years for Robert O’Hara to find a theatre that would produce this play and I give major props to Woolly Mammoth for giving Antebellum its world premiere.
13) Dead City by Sheila Callaghan (2006), Rorschach Theatre
Sheila Callaghan’s Dead City is a witty and lyrical adventure through Manhattan inspired by James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Her fresh voice turns this tale of a woman’s emotional awakening into a vibrant and fascinating journey. Callaghan has the skill and the confidence to use a variety of tools to mix the real and surreal, while always advancing the story. Dead City has a fluid theatricality that deeply involves the audience in the world that Callaghan creates.
14) Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (2008), Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Boom, an apocalyptic tale set in a graduate student’s laboratory, has one of the most imaginative setups of any play this year. It’s part science fiction fantasy, part romantic comedy, and all fun. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s dialogue is smart and the story is clever, even if the characters aren’t deeply rounded. Based upon this work, Nachtrieb is a young playwright with enormous potential.
15) The Receptionist by Adam Bock (2007), Studio Theatre
The Receptionist is the most successful post-9/11 play that I have seen. Canadian playwright Adam Bock takes a mundane office setting and gives it a devastating Orwellian twist to illustrate the dangers that can result from an overly zealous approach to homeland security. This indirect approach is far more intriguing than the more heavy-handed attempts of other playwrights to warn of similar perils. It’s a small work, but a powerful one.
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So, where did I get it right and what did I wrongfully underrate or omit? Which play would you strike from the list to make room for your favorite? Feel free to have at me like a demented group of eight year-olds with a party piñata. I expect some massive disagreements with my ratings; however, we can all agree that 2008-2009 was a terrific year for new plays in the DC region.
Favorite Musicals, Performances and Performer of the Year by Joel Markowitz
Best Plays and Performances by Tim Treanor
Don’t forget to vote for the Audience Choice Awards