10 Best Theater of 2017

Not an easy year for me to make my selections; few outstanding shows, though several pretty good ones. Enough, at least, for me to participate in the inevitable year-end pastime:

1. Come From Away  The grass-roots success of the Broadway year. A couple of theater unknowns from Canada (Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a husband-wife team who wrote the book, music and lyrics) came up with this charming, heartfelt and deftly staged musical about the town in Newfoundland that hosted all the stranded planes on 9/11. Much better, to my mind, than the other small-town-invaded-by-outsiders musical from this year (see No. 10 below),

2. Groundhog Day. I saw it twice, loved it twice, and actually voted to give it the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best musical. (No one else agreed.) Based on the Bill Murray movie about a weatherman forced to live the same day over and over again, this Brit-born musical captured all of the film’s humor, seriousness and narrative complexity — an ambitious show that set a high bar and cleared it. Yet it closed early, and obviously failed to connect with audiences. Maybe a little too ambitious.

3. On the Shore of the Wide World  British playwright Simon Stephens can be brilliant (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) or prosaic (Heisenberg). He was on top of his game in this astringent, quietly gripping look at a family in the north of England who have trouble communicating across the generations — and within them.

4. Marvin’s Room.  Scott McPherson’s 1990 play about a family coping with illness could have been a routine disease-of-the-week drama. But last summer’s Broadway revival, directed by Anne Kaufman for the Roundabout Theater Company, made a good case for this layered, clear-eyed family drama as an underappreciated gem.

5. Miss Saigon. Who’s going to rave about a revival of a big Broadway musical from the now-discredited Brit-pop era that the critics didn’t much like the first time around? Me! Schonberg and Boublil’s Vietnam-era reworking of Madame Butterfly is perhaps the closest the Broadway musical has ever come to grand opera, and last spring’s revival was nearly as exciting as the original. Only the famous helicopter landing fell a little flat.

6. Mary Jane.  A beleaguered single mother has to deal with various caregivers, doctors and well-meaning friends as she copes with a severely disabled two-year-old. Amy Herzog (4000 Miles) plunges us into her predicament with both dry-eyed detachment and enormous empathy.

7. The Wolves.  Sarah DeLappe’s off-Broadway play about a girls’ soccer team (still running at Lincoln Center) gets a big lift from the inventive, kinetic direction of Lila Neugebauer, who turns the girls’ stretching routines into synchronized performance art, and their meandering dialogue into a Robert Altman movie for the teen set.

8. Once on This Island.  The new Broadway revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical folk tale, set in the French Antilles, pushes its Caribbean magic realism a little hard. But it’s still a lovely, flavorful production of a very good show.

9. Evening at the Talk House—Wallace Shawn’s play, about a nostalgic reunion of old theater colleagues, starts out as a New Yorker casual and winds up as a dystopian nightmare. This quietly alarming black comedy had a brief off-Broadway run last winter, but was largely, strangely ignored.

10. The Band’s Visit. No one is ignoring Broadway’s latest hit musical, which got the kind of rave reviews that My Fair Lady might have envied. Based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian band stranded in the wrong Israeli town, it’s a modest, sweet little show — overpraised, to be sure, but just good enough to make my list.

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