In describing the DC theatre scene to friends around the country, I emphasize the depth and diversity of the offerings here. That point is brought home each year when I look back on the season, particularly the new and original works which debuted in the DC area.
Here is my list of favorite news plays that debuted in the DC area in 2009-2010. So you won’t beat me up even more than usual for my omissions, let me recap my rules from last year.
- I do not include musicals or one man shows (sorry, Zero Hour and Buckminster Fuller) since I regard both categories as different animals.
- I do not include works adapted from other works, such as books (alas, no My Name is Asher Lev) or movies (The Graduate is not eligible for this honor roll).
- I do not include new translations of older works (though I truly admired Orestes, A Tragic Romp).
What I am looking for are the imaginative, original works from playwrights who will keep the world of theatre vital and relevant. These are works that can and should ripple across the country.
Two final important caveats. First, I am evaluating these works as they appear on the page, not the stage, so I do not reward or penalize them for the quality of the local production. Second, as much as I wish I could, I do not see everything that plays in the DC.
(1) August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (Kennedy Center)
This dysfunctional family story is an amazing achievement. Tracy Letts holds our attention for three and a half hours with a mixture of carefully layered drama and black humor. The brutal matriarch Violet Weston battles tragedy, addiction, and cancer in ways that cause lots of collateral damage among the members her extended family. Richly deserving of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Away, the success of August: Osage County is a reminder that great writing can overcome commercial fears.
(2) Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (Woolly Mammoth Theatre)
Playwright Bruce Norris tackles racial issues with a fascinating two part drama revolving around the same home in a changing neighborhood. In 1959 a family that is feeling ostracized after the tragic suicide of their Korean War veteran son decides to sell their home in a segregated neighborhood to a black family. Efforts by the neighbors to change their mind result in hilarious awkward racial humor. Act two fast forwards to 2009 where a young white yuppie couple plans to buy the home in a now crumbling yet gentrifying neighborhood. When it turns out they want to tear down the house to build their little McMansion over the protest of a black couple, the politically incorrect humor becomes more raucous and destructive. Clybourne Park is a witty, fascinating drama that exposes racial attitudes from a variety of angles and demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in resolving these issues.
(3) Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck (Bay Theatre)
While watching Mauritius on Broadway in 2007 I remember wondering which area theatre would be smart enough to present it first. Props to Bay Theatre for recognizing the crackling drama that arises from fighting over extremely valuable stamps (vintage 1847 from the island nation Mauritius, hence the title). All of the characters have their own agendas as they seek to achieve their goals while avoiding being the victim of a con job. Theresa Rebeck’s play is reminiscent of David Mamet’s better works in the sharp dialogue and the realistic depictions of flawed characters. If you missed it, pray for another area production of Mauritius soon.
(4) Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg (1st Stage)
The media frenzy accompanying the decision of Julia Roberts to make her 2006 Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain overshadowed the merits of Richard Greenberg’s gentle little gem of a play. It is one of those rare plays for adults about adults who are struggling with life’s mysteries and challenges. The first act about the adult children of a famous architect and his business partner sets up the mystery that leads us back in time for act two. The answers are not as important as the intimacy of watching the characters go through their personal struggles. The relationships feel real and the writing is sophisticated without being theatrically showy.
(5) Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons (Round House Theatre)
A confrontation over art and race powers Permanent Collection, the highlight of Round House Theatre’s season. In a drama based upon a real life event involving the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, a conflict ensues when an African American foundation head proposes to add some African art pieces to a museum. The museum’s Director of Education opposes the move as inconsistent with the vision and will of the original collector. This dispute escalates as the two men resort to racial politics when neither can bend or compromise. Through these two characters, each both admirable and flawed, playwright Thomas Gibbons presents a compelling example of the need for real dialogue and understanding.
(6) Reasons to be Pretty by Neil LaBute (Studio Theatre)
Reasons to be Pretty is the third in Neil LaBute’s trilogy of plays about appearance. While it may not have the shock value of The Shape of Things or Fat Pig, it is one of his most accessible and touching works. To be sure, it has LaBute’s trademark brutal humor and characters that are at times insensitive and shallow. A whithering opening blast from a woman to her lover after hearing him describe her face as “plain” sets the stage for a study of love and friendship among two mismatched couples. Yet before Reasons to be Pretty is over, you feel a sense of identity and sympathy for most of these struggling young adults.
(7) Eclipsed by Danai Gurira (Woolly Mammoth Theatre)
Eclipsed is the story of the “wives” of a rebel war lord in Liberia circa 2003. The play convincing evokes the desperate locale of the story and the fight for emotional survival among the women. They cling to whatever is necessary to maintain their dignity, be it one’s relative position in the hierarchy of the officer’s favoritism or a sense of beauty from a used wig or dress or even taking on a military role. The play can be surprisingly funny at times, but the story (based upon interviews conducted in Africa by playwright Danai Gurira) carries an emotional wallop. Woolly Mammoth set a high bar for the theatre season by opening with the world premiere of Eclipsed.
(8) New Jerusalem by David Ives (Theatre J)
Theatre excels at presenting the power of ideas and New Jerusalem is a prime example. Set in Amsterdam during the Inquisition, the ideas of the young intellectual Baruch Spinoza pose a challenge to the existing order. Called upon to testify before the community, Spinoza must defend his rational theology at the risk of excommunication and exile. The interrogation carries the suspense of a courtroom drama. That drama is enhanced by the love for Spinoza held both by a conflicted head rabbit and a Christian woman. Playwright David Ives has created an imaginative piece full of heady philsophical and personal dilemmas that make New Jerusalem interesting for a broad audience.
(9) Wittenberg by David Davolos (Rep Stage)
Wittenberg just made its world premiere in Philadelphia in 2008 but already this rollicking intellectual comedy is spreading across the land. Young Hamlet is torn between two university professors, the uptight monk Martin Luther who teaches theology and the more relaxed, cooler Dr. Faustus who is intrigued by the new discipline psychology. Like any less than enthusiastic university student, Hamlet spends also time in bars and playing tennis. It is hard to convey the sheer joy of this extremely literate play, but David Davalos puts philosophy and pop culture in a blender that produces a terrific theatrical smoothie. It is difficult to recall a more entertaining and farcical new comedy this year than Wittenberg unless it could be . . .
(10) Hysteria by Terry Johnson (Rep Stage)
Rep Stage had back-to-back comedic home runs last fall with Wittenberg and then Hysteria. While Hysteria is barely within my new range (it won the 1994 Olivier Award for best new comedy), it would grieve me to omit such an inspired work. British playwright Terry Johnson constructs the farce with precision, incorporating all of the hoary old conventional gags (mistaken identity, partially clothed characters, closets large enough to hold two, etc.). What makes the work special is the decision to use a 1938 meeting between an elderly Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali as the launching point, and to splice in sequences both dramatic and dreamy. The play achieves a poignancy that elevates Hysteria over routine farces.
(11) Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins (Ford’s Theatre)
Susannah is a song collector from the Library of Congress who scours prisons looking for traditional slave songs passed down through the generations. She finds what she was looking for in Pearl, and audiences found more than expected in Black Pearl Sings! Playwright Frank Higgins invokes a host of themes, including issues of cultural heritage and personal responsibility, while building a nice relationship story between the two women. Moreover, his script has a nice sense of historical place and authenticity. Add on some authentic music and you have a very special work of theatre.
(12) The Golden Age by Terrence McNally (Kennedy Center)
Terrence McNally’s The Golden Age presents an imaginary backstage view of opening night for Bellini’s final opera, I Puritani (“The Puritans”). The fragile composer worries about the success of the piece and muses about the importance of heart. Meanwhile, his cast members are mostly consumed by more prosaic concerns of ego and insecurity. The conversations and the characters are interesting and McNally’s famed love of opera serves him well, even if the new show was not the must-see ticket of the other two Kennedy Center productions of his works, The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class.
(13) That Face by Polly Stenham (Studio 2ndStage)
Playwright Polly Stenham writes with a fresh and audacious voice. That Face, written when she was just 19, created a sensation when it debuted in London in 2007. The story revolves around an extremely dysfunctional family that went further downhill when father Hugh left his wife Martha and moved away to marry an Asian woman. Daughter Mia is in boarding school missing her father and acting out by actions such as nearly killing a fellow student during a hazing ritual. Son Henry has droped out of school to take care of his mentally disturbed mother. This family is the classic train wreck—awful to watch but you can’t seem to turn away from them.
(14) The Pull of Negative Gravity by Jonathan Lichtenstein (Welders Theatre Company)
This touching play about a returning Iraq veteran was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004. Since that time the scope of the casualties has continued to grow, along with a growing appreciation for the mental anguish felt by battle-scarred men and women and the people who love them. The Pull of Negative Gravity illustrates the damages and costs of war not only on the injured soldier, but also his mother, his girlfriend, and his guilt-stricken brother. It is a heart-breaking drama that reminds of us of the impacts of war on the homefront.
(15) The Four of Us by Itamar Moses (Theater J)
It is not easy to make a two person play work, but playwright Itamar Moses is successful for most of the way in this story of two friends achieving different levels of professional success. The ability of a struggling playwright to hear his friend has just gotten a two million dollar advance on his first novel is the heart of the story. The Four of Us moves smoothly back and forth in time and we see how their friendship forms and fractures. While the play may last a little long, at its best The Four of Us can be a sweet memory play that explores the friendship dynamic with a bundle of laughs.
(16) Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond (Arena Stage)
The gathering of a black upper class African American family at Martha’s Vineyard offers a different setting for an exploration of social issues and personal relationships. Playwright Linda R. Diamond creates some interesting and distinctive characters, and she has a wonderful ear for dialogue. While the larger story and the big family secret may not be totally successful, many of the smaller scenes are lots of fun, especially when she lets the characters go all out in family fights. The mixture of drama and comedy holds your attention and occasionally even provokes your thoughts.
Honorable Mentions: Girl from Gdansk (Keegan Theatre), Gruesome Playground Injuries (Woolly Mammoth), In Darfur (Theatre J), In the Red and Brown Water (Studio Theatre), Mikveh (Theatre J), Sixty Miles to Silver Lake (Studio 2ndStage), The Quality of Life (Arena Stage), Trumpery (Olney Theatre).
This year’s voting will be done by active subscribers to the DCTS newsletter. If you are interested in receiving the invitation, the deadline for signing up is midnight, August 18, 2010. The voting begins August 20, 2010.