Trending Off-Broadway

Water By the Spoonful - photo by Richard Termine

Anyone else notice a few striking similarities between Water by the Spoonful and The Great God PanI know I’m late to the game with these Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons productions, both recently closed, but if they left any impression (and they probably did), you might recall these shared traits:

1. MOSAIC STORYTELLING
Rather than lead their audiences on clear, linear journeys, playwrights Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water) and Amy Herzog (Pan) opted for patchwork approaches. Many of their characters don’t intersect, instead leading concurrent narratives that only reflect each other in not entirely obvious ways. In both plays, this approach added to the texture and scale of the worlds represented, even if it left some theatergoers a little miffed.

2. GREENERY!
Designer Neil Patel (Water) let plants grow rampant over his boxy set, as did Mark Wendland (Pan) for his. (Wendland used photos of plants rather than imitations of the real thing.) In both productions, this jungle/forest feel suggested both beauty and a hint of menace. And that wasn’t all: Both sets also had a segmented, collage-y thing going, a visual representation that “mosaic storytelling.”

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Water by the Spoonful, photo by Richard Termine

Great God Pan Playwrights Horizons

The Great God Pan

3. TONE
Water and Pan shared a style very much in vogue these days, that is, the quiet rhythm of everyday melancholia. And even when the volume turned up, the plays never strayed from this indie-film ethos, all quiet sadness and heartache.
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Of course, in terms of story and theme, these plays were quite different… Addiction and the internet were the stuff of Water, while memory and abuse was Pan’s focus. Still, when two of New York’s most acclaimed playwrights share at least this much, it might be time to pull out… oh yeah… the hashtag:

#trending, #offbroadway, #goodplays… you know what I’m talking about…

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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
NO MORE FOCACCIA? — Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine
DRAMATIC, END OF PLAY SET CHANGE

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Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

The Grandma Plays

Call Grandma!

That’s the parting impulse you’re likely to feel after two new off-Broadway plays, The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) and 4000 Miles (Lincoln Center Theatre). Like that old chestnut Our Town, these plays key into the transcendent power of everyday and regular family love. They are about The Big Themes, and they’re sure to send you to your phone: I love you, Grandma!

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, accesses this pathos through a parade of actors who alternate as various members of one family; characters “grow old” as progressively aged performers assume the parts. It’s a terrifically moving device that highlights both the impermanence of everything and the comforting continuity of reproduction. The “story” is nothing more than the inevitable drama in a potpourri of family dinners, but the collective impact of all that “ordinary” is, well, extraordinary.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is more formally straightforward but no less emotionally potent. In it, college-aged Leo sets up camp in his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village pad. A youthful shot of scruff in a menagerie of fogeyism, he is in mourning for newly-deceased friend. The “4000 miles” of the title refer to a bike trip Leo has made, but they might as well signify the distance between Leo and Vera, a distance narrowed by scene after scene of awkwardness, frustration, then leisure and love.

Family drama really is the driving force of so many great American plays, and these writers continue that tradition in new, exciting ways. As the reviewers say, they’ve written something for everyone: You, Grandma, and everyone in between.

photo of The Big Meal by Joan Marcus

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