Revelatory new revivals of “A Raisin in the Sun” and “How I Learned to Drive” graced the stage, but the real news this year were all the wonderful new plays and musicals. TheWrap critic Robert Hofler picks the very best.
10. “Fat Ham,” by James Ijames (Off Broadway’s Public Theater)
“Hamlet” is updated to a family barbeque in the contemporary American South. Most brilliant is how Shakespeare’s play within a play is transformed into a diabolical game of charades. Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play will return to the New York stage, opening on Broadway in the spring.
9. “Which Way to the Stage,” by Ana Nogueira (Off Broadway’s MCC Theatre)
The year’s funniest play was ignored by the critics, who too often overlook comedies. Nogueira profiled a stagedoor Johnny (Max Jenkins) and Jane (Sas Goldberg) who launch into a delirious debate on drag in the theater that is long overdue. Can women also do female drag? You bet.
8. “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson (Broadway)
It’s difficult to say which is more amazing: that Jackson wrote the book, the lyrics and the music; or that he wrote about an overweight Black queer who loves musicals. Whatever his massive achievement, he has a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony to show for it. Can’t wait for his next one, “White Girl in Danger,” coming to Off Broadway in spring 2023.
7. “Kimberly Akimbo,” David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori (Broadway)
Tesori’s music both grounds and expands Lindsay-Abaire’s original play about a teenage girl (Victoria Clark) with Methuselah syndrome who must also cope with an absolutely terrible family. In a novel switch from the usual Broadway sugar and sap of today’s musicals, those relatives never improve. They remain rivetingly terrible.
6. “Intimate Apparel,” by Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon (Off Broadway’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)
Here was another play, by Nottage, that revelled in the musical treatment, by Gordon. Gorgeous are the songs sung by the fantasy lover (Justin Austin) of a New York seamstress (Kearstin Piper Brown) as he writes to her from his job working on the Panama Canal. The opera added a scene only talked about in the play: The trip to the gambling den has all the power of a similar scene in Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame.” The Met Opera staged “The Hours” this year, but the real opera news was “Intimate Apparel,” which also deserves a full orchestra.
5. “Hangmen,” by Martin McDonagh (Broadway)
Since Old Blighty had stopped hanging criminals, an ex-executioner (David Threlfal) has grown a tad bored running a local pub. Does he have one more good job in him? McDonagh used Grand Guignol effects to expose the banality of evil.
4. “Ain’t No ‘Mo,” by Jordan E. Cooper (Broadway)
Black citizens are offered a one-way ticket to Africa on an airplane piloted by Barack Obama. Cooper also played Peaches, the loudest mouth flight-ticket checker ever to ruin your trip. While a transracial character (Shannon Malesky) almost steals the show, Cooper knows precisely when to pull out the comfortable cushion of comedy during this very disturbing trip.
3. “A Case for the Existence of God,” by Samuel D. Hunter (Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons)
The very good news is that God is never mentioned in this two-hander about a man (Will Brill) and his visit to a loan broker (Kyle Beltran). Like everyone else on the planet, the two men search for meaning and order in life, but find it only for brief moments. And even then, they might not know it when they see it.
2. “Epiphany,” by Brian Watkins (Off Broadway’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)
“Epiphany” is definitely a better title than “The Dead.” Watching Watkins’s play is also a lot more fun than reading James Joyce’s short story. The beauty of “Epiphany” is how it grows from being a “Dinner at Eight” comedy to something that Joyce himself would have recognized and embraced.
1. “Downstate,” by Bruce Norris (Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons)
The playwright could only have weighted our sympathies more by writing about a halfway house for MAGA Republicans who are election deniers. Instead, he wrote about sex offenders who live in a church-sponsored house that is more prison than home. The least of these men’s problems is that monitor locked to their ankle. Norris is very equal opportunity. The victims, the offenders and the cops all get their share of devastating one-line zingers.