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Faves of 2014

The Few Samuel Hunter

Before the deluge of 2015 begins, let’s look at the year just past and note some favorites! I make no claim to “best” (what do you this this is? Buzzfeed?!) but these seven shows spoke and sang to me in ways original, moving, raucous, or surprising.

As for what’s “trending” here, institutional off-Broadway looms large. Though most of these shows didn’t pull in Broadway-sized audiences or paydays, they were no less towering that their Main Stem cousins.

Without further ado, the Faves are…

THE FEW, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Sam Hunter’s intensely moving new play proved that love grows best in little playhouses. The story of three sad sacks and the newspaper that brings them together, this oh-so-small production felt like an oh-so-needed sigh: refreshing, humane, and a little teary.

A DOLL’S HOUSE, at BAM via The Young Vic
A perfect classic presented with all the energy and surprise of a new play. Expert underscoring hit home Ibsen’s chilling, inspiring tale—as did the frantically careening turntable set.

AN OCTOROON, at Soho Rep
You know how so many plays are “funny”? (Read: Not funny.) Well, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest work about racial history in America actually was funny, not to mention disturbing, affecting, and just the right amount of insane. Lucky us, this whirlwind of a play is coming back to NYC in the spring.

BOOTYCANDY, at Playwrights Horizons
I mean, really—how could you not enjoy a play called BOOTYCANDY? Like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright Robert O’Hara here tackles issues of race and America, but to entirely different and original effect. This work was jaw dropping in the true sense: It amazed, but also shocked.

 ALLEGRO, at Classic Stage Company
Director John Doyle had his masterful way with this famous flop by Rogers and Hammerstein. Staging, music and performances coalesced into an evening that stayed with me long after curtain call.

ON THE TOWN, on Broadway
This explosively energetic revival reminds you just how effective dance can be in a Broadway musical. The glorious score—played by a city of an orchestra—was none too shabby, either.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, on Broadway
Who could possible argue with the pure, escapist charm of this perfect comedy? Annaleigh Ashford in particular nails the kooky glee of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarity.

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But what do you think? Anything been egregiously overlooked? Comment below—the Internet needs to know!

Photo of THE FEW by Joan Marcus.

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Nothing to Write Home About

What does a 67-year-old flop musical have to do with a new play from one of New York’s hottest young writers?

Well, not much at first glance. ALLEGRO (the musical, now at CSC) and POCATELLO (the play, now at Playwrights Horizons) are separated by a world of sensibility and execution.

But out of sheer dumb scheduling luck, I happened to catch both of these productions within a few days of each other… and whaddaya know—they’re utterly sympatico and each other in ways that seem deliberate (though of course they’re not). Together, they tell a revealing story about the meaning of home in America, from the early 20th Century right up to today.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO ­is a fascinating fable about the life of an idealistic doctor, “Joe.” After years of low-paid but fulfilling work in the small town where he grew up, Joe moves to Chicago to take on big-name, big-money patients. But most of their needs turn out to be mild, if not silly, and soon Joe longs to practice “real” medicine again. At the end of the show (spoiler!) Joe returns home, where his skills can be of better use.

There’s a clear moral in all of this: A person is at his best and most authentic while at home, away from the frenzy and posturing often found in big city life. In the wonderfully ironic title song, Hammerstein’s frantic city-dwellers sing, “Don’t stop whatever you do/ Do something dizzy and new/ Keep up the hullaballoo!” ALLEGRO wants us to do just the opposite—to stop pointlessly moving, to stay loyal to heritage, and to seek truth over material gain. Home, the show argues, is where this happens best.

“Eddie,” the center of Sam Hunter’s POCATELLO, couldn’t agree more. He’s the manager of an Olive Garden in Pocatello, Idaho, a small town choking with chain stores. Just as his city has lost most of its local character, Eddie has lost any sense of real family: His father is dead, his mother is distant, and his brother is never around.

Despite this, Eddie struggles to build community between customers, his employees, and his family… even if it’s over chewy, unlimited breadsticks. Even if it’s with a tacky “Famiglia Week” promotion. The setting isn’t ideal, but it’s what he’s got to work with.

As POCATELLO unravels the struggles of its humble cast of characters, it indirectly comments the world at large, a world where local connection and loyalty disappeared with independent bookstores and family-owned grocery stores. In ways quiet and unassuming, it argues that America is quickly losing its small towns—and sense of home.

POCATELLO, then, becomes a disheartening postscript to ALLEGRO. Imagine it: If Joe (the doctor) had lived in our time, and had returned home to a town like Pocatello, what would be waiting for him? A place equally soulless to the one he had left, that’s what. A place unlike the rich, life-affirming sanctuary R&H believed small towns to be.

Of course, the characters in POCATELLO aren’t all doomed to isolation, and some are able big connections before the play’s end. But these connections are in spite of the small town environment, not because of it.

A century away from ALLEGRO, POCATELLO answers its urge to “go home.”

The response?

“Home is gone”

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Lead photo (ALLEGRO) by Matthew Murphy; final photo (POCATELLO) by Jeremy Daniel.

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