Best theater of 2023

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Best theater of 2023
Jessica Chastain and Arian Moayed in “A Doll’s House” at the Hudson Theater in New York, Feb. 28, 2023. Many of the plays and musicals that resonated this year deftly married elements of drama and comedy. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

NEW YORK, NY.- Year of the Dramedy

If 2023 was a tragedy in the world, on New York stages it was a dramedy year, highlighted not only by serious plays with great jokes, but also by flat-out comedies with dark underpinnings. And although not all 10 shows (and various bonuses) on my mostly chronological list below fit that mongrel category, even the gravest of them seem to have gotten the memo that theater should not be a bore or a drag. It should thrill you into thought or, as the case may be, solace. — JESSE GREEN

‘Love’ by Alexander Zeldin

On the cold February night I saw “Love,” New York City was teeming with people in need of warm places to be. That was also the case inside the Park Avenue Armory, which had been reconfigured to represent a temporary facility for people without homes. Its residents included an unemployed man in his 50s, his barely-holding-on mother, a pregnant woman, two refugees — and us. Seated adjacent to the facility’s dingy common room, we became, in the playwright’s own staging, fellow residents. But if the others eyed us like we might steal a precious sandwich, we could blithely leave when the play was over. Or not so blithely: Even heading home, with my heart retuned to tiny heartbreaks instead of huge ones, I had to wonder why it was easier to engage the subject of homelessness inside the Armory than on Park Avenue.

'A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen

A chair and a door — and a riveting star — were all it took to make a nearly 150-year-old drama set in Norway come fully alive in New York City today. True, the chair rotated mysteriously for 20 minutes before the dialogue began. Nor did it hurt that the star sitting on it, like an angry bird in a giant cuckoo clock, was Jessica Chastain. And yes, the famous door through which her Nora walked out of her marriage and into a new life was a staging marvel in Jamie Lloyd’s surgically precise Broadway production. But finer than all that was the chilling fact that Ibsen’s text, as adapted by Amy Herzog, sounded as if it had been written yesterday — and could still be transpiring in real life tomorrow.

‘How to Defend Yourself’ by Liliana Padilla

After a classmate is raped by fraternity bros, two sorority sisters organize a self-defense club. And though they aren’t great teachers, a great deal is learned by the other young women (and two would-be male allies) who attend intermittently over the course of several weeks. The New York Theater Workshop audience, too, learned a great deal, as the questions bedeviling so many relationships — the complexity of consent and the meaning of control — played out before us in this perfectly timed hot-button play. But what gave the production its poetic gravitas was a gasp-inducing coda, gorgeously staged by the playwright along with Rachel Chavkin and Steph Paul, in which the culture of sexual violence was traced to a source you could never again regard as innocent.

‘Primary Trust’ by Eboni Booth

It’s sometimes true that an actor is great in a not-great play. But it seemed to me that William Jackson Harper, giving one of the year’s best performances, both dignified and deep, achieved it because of — not despite — the material, quiet and apparently whimsical though it was. In this Roundabout Theater Company production, directed by Knud Adams, he played a lonely clerk in a ragged suburb whose best friend turns out to be imaginary but whose sadness is all too real. Twee as that sounds, the glory of both the writing and acting was in letting us experience the character’s sadness and, even more, the hard work behind his efforts to stay afloat in a painful world.

‘The Comeuppance’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

As in many reunion dramas, the 20-years-later get-together of some Catholic school classmates in this compelling, sometimes terrifying new play included an uninvited guest. Well, really two, if you count the supernatural one: a psychopomp, or collector of souls of the recently dead. The struggle for maturity that’s the stuff of such stories, though hilariously enacted in Eric Ting’s staging for the Signature Theater, became something existential in this bigger, chillier “Big Chill,” as “the age of poor choices seeking their consequences” pointed toward the ultimate graduation.

‘Just for Us’ by Alex Edelman

“A Jew walks into a Nazi bar” might have been the start of a standup routine for the comedian Alex Edelman. Instead, the story of his infiltrating a white supremacist meeting in Queens became an urgent one-man Broadway show, one of the most thoughtful (and troubling) explorations of antisemitism in a year that offered too much relevant material. Despite its three-jokes-per-minute, rabbi-on-Ritalin aesthetic — the show was directed by Adam Brace, with Alex Timbers as creative consultant — it eventually revealed itself as a consideration of the central Jewish value of empathy. Is it unconditional? Do even the hateful deserve it? Do we?

‘Infinite Life’ by Annie Baker

One of the characters is reading George Eliot, another a self-help book, another a mystery. But the real mystery is how a story about women reading, sleeping, chatting and dealing with pain became one of the most compelling plays of the year, in James Macdonald’s production for Atlantic Theater Company. Of course, unlikely setups for powerful drama are an Annie Baker trademark, but in considering the uses of suffering (if any) and of desire (if any) she took her technique to what must surely be its logical and triumphant limit — until next time.

‘Purlie Victorious’ by Ossie Davis

Ossie Davis’ 1961 comedy is about two thefts: one petty and one — the theft of the freedom of generations of Black Americans — definitely not. Welding the hilarious farce of the first to a sense of fierce outrage over the second was a risk Davis pulled off beautifully, as this season’s nigh-perfect revival, unaccountably its first on Broadway, demonstrated. Directed by Kenny Leon, it also gave its stars great, rangy roles to chew: Leslie Odom Jr. as the wolfish Purlie, a preacher who becomes, in essence, a prosecutor; and Kara Young, usually seen in dramas, as a daffy yokel finding the sweet spot where Lucille Ball meets Moms Mabley.

‘Jaja’s African Hair Braiding’ by Jocelyn Bioh

On a blistering day in the summer of 2019, at a salon in Harlem, five women style the braids, cornrows, twists and bobs of seven customers. Their workplace cross talk and byplay are both hilarious, making this Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by Whitney White, a kind of “Cheers” for today and a comic highlight of the season. But as in Jocelyn Bioh’s earlier plays, which cleverly weave African concerns into familiar American forms, this one built its welcome laughs on the back of a serious subject: the great opportunities and grave perils of immigration.

‘Stereophonic’ by David Adjmi

Five musicians not unlike the members of Fleetwood Mac circa 1976 come together with two engineers to make what will turn out to be an epochal album. In the process, they unmake themselves. And though “Stereophonic,” in Daniel Aukin’s thrilling production for Playwrights Horizons, delivers enormous pleasure from that soap opera setup — and the spot-on songs by Will Butler — it’s a much deeper work than other behind-the-scenes, making-of dramedies. Under cover of jokes and the expert polyphony of the overlapping dialogue, David Adjmi leads us to a story about the disaster of maleness, and thus of mating, behind the pop-rock revolution of the period. Spoiler alert: The revolution is ongoing.

Sondheim forever

Most of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals were marginal financial successes or outright flops in their original productions. But in this second post-Sondheim year, it’s been hit after hit. First, in the spring, came Thomas Kail’s ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. (Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster take over in February.) This was no “Teeny Todd” but the huge, real thing.

Then, in the fall, came the gleaming Broadway transfer of “Merrily We Roll Along” from New York Theater Workshop. After what seemed like zillions of attempts by many hands to fix that 1981 show, the director Maria Friedman figured it out, locating its long-lost core in Jonathan Groff’s mesmerizing, furious performance. (He’d make a great Sweeney.)

Finally, and least expectedly, “Here We Are,” Sondheim’s final effort, left incomplete at his death in November 2021, showed up at the Shed with a clever book by David Ives and an impossibly chic production directed by Joe Mantello. Its wit, its openness to everything and its ageless invention (one song rhymes “Lamborghinis” with “vodkatinis”) made “Here We Are” a worthy send-off to Sondheim — and, like “Sweeney” and “Merrily,” a tough ticket despite jaw-dropping prices. It’s almost as if we don’t want him gone.

Also noted

Shows you don’t love may yet feature indelible performances. Among them this year, for me, were Dianne Wiest as Meryl Kowalski, larcenous scene stealer and would-be star, in “Scene Partners”; Miriam Silverman as Mavis, a hipster in her own mind, in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”; Jordan Donica as Lancelot, a lion ripping huge bites of dramatic flesh (and song) with his teeth, in “Camelot”; and Jodie Comer as Tessa Ensler, a ferocious barrister victimized by the law, in “Prima Facie.”

There are also shows you love so much you can hardly imagine them recast — until they brilliantly are. Case in point this year was Ruthie Ann Miles as a crafty, heartbroken Margaret in the Encores! production of “The Light in the Piazza.”

A successful recasting of another type was David Korins’ transformation of the Broadway Theater into a Studio 54-era disco for “Here Lies Love,” which gave audiences a literally moving experience. Moving in more emotional terms was the score’s final song, “God Draws Straight,” which transformed the show into something with heart after 90 minutes of irony.

The book of the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical “Harmony,” about a German singing group undone by antisemitism in the 1930s, felt discordant. But the vocal arrangements, by Manilow and John O’Neill, were sublime.

And although there’s not much competition for the best flying transportation on Broadway, if there were, the winner, totally retiring memories of the “Miss Saigon” helicopter and the title character of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” would be the DeLorean DMC in “Back to the Future.” It was a special effect that, for once, was special, in an otherwise Chevy Nova kind of show.


Power ballad No. 1

“Independently Owned” is the “Shucked” showstopper that helped Alex Newell snag a Tony Award, but my favorite number in the show is the wronged-man solo, “Somebody Will,” which revealed the adorably doofy Andrew Durand as a full-throated, tears-in-your-beer balladeer. The musical’s composers, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, are already reliable country music hit makers; Nashville should give this one a spin, too. — SCOTT HELLER

Power ballad No. 2

Jennifer Simard + high diva attitude + zombified dancers + a killer arrangement of “Toxic” = reason alone to have seen “Once Upon a One More Time” during its too-brief Broadway run. All praise to the show’s marketing team (and YouTube) for allowing us to watch it many more times. — SCOTT HELLER

Exit Nora, into the world

Nora Helmer walking out on her controlling husband and their little ones was shocking behavior — and jolting drama — in 1879, when Henrik Ibsen’s classic was new. Her famous door slam doesn’t carry the same charge now. Yet the director Jamie Lloyd found an equally jaw-dropping exit for Jessica Chastain’s Nora in his austerely chic Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House.” At the Hudson Theater, Soutra Gilmour’s set hid a surprise in plain sight. During the climactic moment, a giant load-in door in the upstage wall slowly rose like a curtain onto West 45th Street, which pulsated with color and life. Then Nora stepped through the opening, into the world, no slam required. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

A collective flinch at ‘Jaja’s’

Whether exchanging knowing looks or exploiting one another’s weaknesses, the stylists and salon-goers in Jocelyn Bioh’s “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” shared the sort of synergy inherent to a single living organism. The most vivid example: when a trifling husband (played by Michael Oloyede) asked God to strike him down in an obvious lie to his wife (Nana Mensah). Like a startled squid in water, the women recoiled in unison expecting the lord to do as he was told. It was darkly comedic proof of a fierce, collective instinct. — NAVEEN KUMAR

Little Man, high-flying kicks

How vicariously cathartic to watch a boy nicknamed Little Man beat down bullies in “Poor Yella Rednecks,” at Manhattan Theater Club. But what really made the brawl memorable is that Little Man is portrayed by a puppet (mostly handled by Jon Norman Schneider), allowing for the kind of gravity-defying flying kicks and slow-motion strikes that gives the show a hilariously cartoonish vibe. But it somehow also imbues Little Man with humanity. Credit the playwright, Qui Nguyen, who also designed the fight choreography. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Apocalyptic clownery

Some of this year’s best clowning took place in the scorched, postapocalyptic world of Samuel Beckett’s bleakly funny “Endgame,” in a first-rate staging by the Irish Repertory Theater. Its cramped, brick-laden set featured a troupe of four splendidly paired-off character actors whose commitment to the absurdity underlined the play’s futility: Bill Irwin and his wildly swinging limbs were the perfect foil to John Douglas Thompson’s straight man, whose petty commands bellowed through the narrow space with a tyrannical boom; and, popping out of trash cans to reminisce on better times, Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes brought a sweet, humble nostalgia to the tragic folly. — JUAN A. RAMÍREZ

An unforced revelation

Anne E. Thompson’s understated performance as Dani, a rookie cop patrolling the boonies, crept up slowly like a colt finding her hind legs. In one of several hairpin turns in Rebecca Gilman’s “Swing State” at the Minetta Lane Theater, a conversation that began as a distress call from Ryan, Dani’s former high school classmate (Bubba Weiler), softened into a sweet flirtation before she elicited a confession as easily as picking a flower. (I was not the only one who gasped.) Often the most unassuming character onstage is the one to watch. — NAVEEN KUMAR

An actress is going to act

In “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” Thomas Bradshaw’s Chekhov adaptation, Parker Posey’s portrayal of Irene deftly toed the line between satire, affection and melancholia. But what I remember most is the laugh, which Posey’s Irene used as a weapon to defuse someone’s plastic-surgery joke, deploying it with performative archness — as if Irene watched herself laugh. Yet it still felt natural. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Fool’s errand

A seemingly innocuous remark — “Maybe I’ll take the dog for a walk” — grows into a terrifying incantation near the end of “The Best We Could (a family tragedy),” Emily Feldman’s stealth gut punch of a play, for Manhattan Theater Club. From the start we learn of the bond between Frank Wood, as an unemployed scientist and unhappy family man, and his late, loyal canine companion. A cross-country journey with his daughter (Aya Cash) to adopt a replacement certainly has its bumps. But only in the final minutes do we realize, under Daniel Aukin’s sure-handed direction and in Wood’s tremulous performance, where this road trip has been going. — SCOTT HELLER

A self-defense dream ballet

Every element in New York Theater Workshop’s production of “How to Defend Yourself,” Liliana Padilla’s exploration of the fuzziness of consent, came together in its final sequence: a sort of dream ballet rewinding from a college kegger to a pool party to a young child’s playground birthday. The stunningly lit scene seemed to play in slow motion, peeling back years of learned social behaviors to evoke the both terrifying and exciting possibilities of tenderness, sex, danger, and passion. — JUAN A. RAMÍREZ

Midnight snack, Take 1

It sounds slightly deranged to credit Anton Chekhov with having written one of the best scenes of sexual and romantic tension in the canon, but he did: in “Uncle Vanya,” whose Sonya and Astrov have a middle-of-the-night tête-à-tête over cheese in the dining room, exchanging confidences, igniting hopes. Her hopes, mainly, because she’s the hardworking young farmer with the yearslong crush on him, and he’s the heavy-drinking doctor who doesn’t think of her that way. But in Jack Serio’s staging in a Manhattan loft, Marin Ireland’s Sonya and Will Brill’s Astrov touched off the audience’s hopes, too, even if we knew they’d come to nothing. Heads bent close in the candlelight, speaking sotto voce, they made an almost rom-com pair. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Midnight snack, Take 2

In Simon Stephens’ “Vanya,” a funny, sexy tragicomedy that ran in London’s West End this fall, Andrew Scott performed all the parts. He gave a beautifully calibrated, split-focus tension to the yearning chat between Sonia and the tree-planting doctor she adores, whom Stephens has renamed Michael. On the one hand, Scott as the nervous Sonia, for whom the conversation is a treasured memory in the making; on the other, Scott as the sozzled Michael, careless enough to call her “my love,” in Scott’s irresistible Irish lilt. “You have the gentlest voice,” Sonia tells him. And sure, hers is very similar. Still, it’s true. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Pinch-hitter no more

I can’t say I knew the name Joy Woods back in April, so when she was announced as a last-minute replacement on the roster of singers for MCC Theater’s annual Miscast benefit concert, I felt a little let down. Not any more! Her quiet-storm medley of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady” (arranged by Will Van Dyke) was the evening’s revelation, keeping her fully in step with a starry lineup that included Ben Platt, LaChanze and Josh Groban. Now her name seems to be on everyone’s lips, with roles in “Little Shop of Horrors,” “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and, next spring, “The Notebook” on Broadway. — SCOTT HELLER

Expert scene chewing

Two actors really went to town in their utter rejection of verisimilitude this year, single-handedly spicing up their respective Broadway shows. In “The Cottage,” Alex Moffat delivered a gonzo Expressionist-by-way-of-Plastic Man performance in which merely lighting up a cigarette became a full-fledged event. In “Back to the Future: The Musical,” Hugh Coles was a standout as George McFly, taking what Crispin Glover did in the original movie and amping it up into an arch marvel of manic stylization. In “Put Your Mind to It,” he paradoxically suggested George’s stiff demeanor with loose limbs that defied the laws of biomechanics. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Purring Rodgers & Hart renditions

Elizabeth Stanley, so skilled at bringing out a pop song’s emotional core, exposed the giddy carnal drive behind “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in a gala presentation of “Pal Joey” at New York City Center. In full bedroom afterglow, her devil-may-care performance peppered scatting and swinging jazz vocals through the song’s racier lyrics. (The ones thanking god she can be oversexed again.) Also voluptuous was Aisha Jackson’s aching “My Funny Valentine,” made into a torch anthem through Daryl Waters’ despairing orchestrations. Jackson richly moaned through love’s irresistible betrayal, revealing an erotic trembling in the Rodgers & Hart classic. — JUAN A. RAMÍREZ

The jukebox hits a wicked note

“Once Upon a One More Time,” a fairy-tale mashup powered by the hits of Britney Spears and skin-deep feminism, delivered the form’s most profane needle drop. Cinderella (Briga Heelan) was slumped over the hearth, with her haughty stepsisters (Amy Hillner Larsen and Tess Soltau) glowering down at her, when rapid-fire beats blared through the Marquis Theater. “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti?” Their command was obvious: “You better work, bitch.” — NAVEEN KUMAR

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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