With the Audience Choice Awards nominations being announced soon, it is a good time to consider and honor my favorite contemporary plays which debuted in the Washington area during the 2010-2011 season just ended. While I enjoy fine productions of Shakespeare, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and the other great playwrights, new works are important for keeping theatre fresh.
For those of you who have read this article in years past, the same rules apply. I only honor relatively new original plays (no new translations or adaptations), and I do not consider musicals or one-man shows (different animals). I try to review the playwright’s work without letting the quality of the local performance impact my rating (although almost all of these performances were superlative). Finally, I don’t see everything (e.g., every tongue confess at Arena Stage sold out on me).
Here are the new works that excited me:
(13) Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam (Rep Stage)
While there have been a few new plays whose plots involve the Internet (dark play, or stories for boys comes to mind), I am still surprised that such an important social invention seems insufficiently explored. Speech and Debate is a dark comedy in which three high school students learn about an adult using the internet to seek a sex partner and how they choose to use the information. It is a provocative and uncomfortable work that hits close to home in depicting how today’s teenagers feel, especially in a world where adults don’t understand them.
(12) Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara (Woolly Mammoth Theatre)
Is there any more audacious playwright in America than Robert O’Hara when it comes to addressing racial and sexual issues? After his success with the dramatic and surprising Antebellum, O’Hara demonstrates a wicked sense of humor with the connected vignettes that comprise Bootycandy. While I normally like my plays with a little bit more formal structure, there are some sequences in Bootycandy that I will long remember.
(11) Farragut North by Beau Willimon (Olney Theatre Center)
While Farragut North is particular fun for political junkies (like me), this story of an ambitious young political aide in the pressure cooker of a Presidential race is entertaining for all. Watching a group of aggressive, self-serving schemers who only make selective use of virtue is like watching a shark tank. Thanks to the playwright’s experience in the real world (including serving as an Iowa campaign worker for Howard Dean in the 2004 campaign), the drama has convincing verisimilitude. The George Clooney movie version coming out later this year (retitled “The Ides of March”) should introduce a far wider audience to the dramatic fun of political intrigue.
(10) Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts (Studio Theatre)
While Superior Donuts lacked the edge of the Tony-winning August: Osage County, Tracy Letts scored another winner with this gentle relationship comedy that deftly touches on racial and generational differences. Not only is the relationship between the burn-out shop owner and the aspiring young African American writer warm and funny, the neighborhood eccentrics are also appealing. While the play is a tad predictable, the ability of Letts to provide social commentary through interesting characters and humorous dialogue make him a playwright to celebrate.
(9) Penelope by Enda Walsh (Druid Theatre Company at Studio Theatre)
Studio Theatre’s “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival” gave us a fine introduction to the playwright, but Penelope is my favorite of the three plays presented. No description of this dark comedy can suffice, but it involves four suitors of Ulysses’ wife waiting in an empty swimming pool clad in sadly revealing swimsuits and dingy robes. As they wait for her choice or possible death if Ulysses returns from war, they contemplate their mortality and other serious topics. Somehow the work transcends the comedy and the setting to achieve a mythological grandeur all its own.
(8) In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl (Woolly Mammoth Theatre)
Sarah Ruhl is an amazingly talented and versatile playwright (locally produced works include Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Eurydice, The Clean House, Passion Play). In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is an entertaining satire on Victorian sexual mores that works on multiple levels. While it has moments of daring hilarity, it also is balanced by bittersweet moments and finely drawn female characters dealing with their own concerns that go beyond “hysteria.”
(7) Venus in Fur by David Ives (Studio Theatre)
While Venus in Fur is advertised as “90 minutes of good, kinky fun” (a New York Times quote from the off-Broadway run), the play is much more. Venus in Fur is a cat and mouse game between the two characters, an initially controlling adapter/director of a classic erotic novel and the young actress he is auditioning. The power dynamics shift during the course of their interaction between fiction and reality while toying with the audience as well. The play should gain even more fans when it makes its Broadway debut this fall.
(6) The Clockmaker by Stephen Massicotte (Hub Theatre)
Hub Theatre is quietly selecting and performing consistently high quality theatre as illustrated by The Clockmaker. It is a smart and stylish work that springs from a Kafka-esque beginning to a metaphysical murder mystery concerning memory, romance, and second chances. Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte won the 2009 award for Best New Play at a Calgary festival and it is easy to see why. Rarely does a play juggle so many themes so skillfully.
(5) Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler (Theater J)
Because I so admire this play and I did not see the prior area production by Active Cultures Theatre in Maryland, I am making an exception to my rule by including it in my list of outstanding DC debut plays. Photograph 51 is the true story of Dr. Rosalind Franklin and the race for both scientific discovery and fame by unraveling the mystery of the structure of the DNA molecule. It is a rare example of an absorbing play set in the realm of science, one that personalizes the intellectual characters and conjures up the academic laboratory environment. The story lives on as a continuing debate over whether Dr. Franklin was wrongfully denied adequate credit for her role in one of the most famous discoveries of the twentieth century.
(4) Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker (Studio Theatre)
A motley assortment of Vermont characters attending an evening course in “Adult Creative Drama” provides an unexpected theatrical treat. Baker’s Obie Award winning play skillfully explores the group dynamics of the class with humor and honesty. As we learn more about the backgrounds and needs of the characters, we cannot help caring about each individual and rooting for their personal progress. It is both a touching and funny work.
(3) Ruined by Lynn Nottage (Arena Stage)
Ruined won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (among other awards) and the story of the characters in an African brothel has plenty of drama. It is an absorbing and powerful play that effectively portrays Mama Nadi’s efforts to preserve a little peaceful oasis in the midst of a violent civil war. The stories of these women, crafted from interviews with actual victims in war-torn Africa, bring us close to the uncomfortable realities that exist in too many parts of the world.
(2) Return to Haifa by Boaz Gaon (Theater J)
Once again, I am going to bend my own rules to honor an outstanding play. While Return to Haifa is an adaptation of a novella, I’m going to assume that this play adds much to the basic story of a Palestinian couple who return to their former home. They then find out that their long lost son survived, was adopted by an Israeli couple who survived the Holocaust, and now serves in the Israeli Army. While the story sounds melodramatic, the play manages to be both heart-rending and believable. It is one of the best examples of a story that seeks to explain and bridge opposing cultures you can experience.
(1) Black Watch by Gregory Burke (National Theatre of Scotland at Sidney Harman Hall)
Black Watch is another play drawn from interviews with contemporary figures. One reason why I give it the edge over Ruined and Return to Haifa is that there seem to be more successful plays about war refugees than about the other victims of war, the ordinary men called upon to fight. Black Watch is an outstanding piece of social theatre that makes shows the human costs imposed upon these soldiers without ever feeling heavy-handed. The play is raw, realistic, and funny, and has a robust sense of energy that is rare in contemporary theatre.
Those are my choices. What are yours?