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THE BEST (AND THE WORST) OF 2009

If you’re keeping track, last year at this time, there was much moaning and hand-wringing over the simple fact that no less than 14 Broadway shows were going to be closing by the end of January 2009. The naysayers were predicting Broadway was going straight down the toilet, that audiences were going to dwindle down to nothing, and tumbleweeds would be soon rolling down Broadway. Well, not so fast……

Obviously, the Broadway theater survived yet another year, and not only did it survive, but new shows started piling in, and GLORY BE-people flocked to all these wonderful shows! Some, of course, weren’t so wonderful; some were off-Broadway-and some of them weren’t very wonderful either-but here we stand a year later-the theater continues on as it always has-and some truly beautiful things made up the year in theater 2009. For instance……

There were 3 absolutely terrific musical revivals in 2009, and 2 of them will continue joyously into the new decade. “Hair” remains solid and strong at the Martin Beck Theatre and “Finian’s Rainbow” plays on at the St. James. Sadly, the musical “Ragtime” wasn’t able to drum up enough business to stay afloat, and that’s a pity. In fact, that’s a downright shame. The failure of both “Ragtime” and the wonderful revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” should point up the fact there are serious problems with the way shows are both marketed and financed in this town-and that some fresh producing blood is sorely needed in the business of show. And we’ll leave that at that.

My absolute favorite theater piece in NYC this year has been extended twice and is in the middle of that second extension-AND is the happiest surprise of the year. It’s playing in a teeny-tiny space on West 42nd Street at Playwrights Horizons, it has 5 actors and no real set-in fact, its set is a rehearsal room. But its heart is HUGE, its love and throbbing humanity are enormous, and its actors are glorious. It is called “Circle, Mirror, Transformation”, and it should be the frontrunner for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Miss it at your peril.

In that same space, a few months earlier, was a play called “Next Fall”, which was also a limited run, which was also quite wonderful, and happily- will be moving to Broadway into one of its more intimate spaces early in 2010. It should be around awhile once it opens, but go anyway-these days, long runs are never a sure thing. But this should be as close as it gets.

Outside of NYC, the best play AND the best performance of 2010 respectively, were Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” starring Mark Rylance at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was thrilling, epic theater, and well served by Mr. Rylance, who gave and will continue to give, one of the most frighteningly glorious stage performances I’ve ever had the joy to witness. They say it arrives here in the Fall of 2010-let’s all pray fervently that be the case.

A new musical called “Happiness” was unjustly dismissed by the critics when it opened last spring over at Lincoln Center, and I have to state again-they were dead wrong. Susan Stroman made magic with this lovely little confection-and I surely wish it returns in some form or other sometime soon.

The 3 part “Norman Conquests” ran into the summer over there at Circle In The Square, and if you got to see all three plays in one day, as I did, you got to see marathon theater of the kind NYC just doesn’t pull off anymore. Oh, for the good old days of “Nicholas Nickleby”.

“Reasons to be pretty” was one of my favorite plays of 2009, and also unjustly struggled to find its audience. But it was Neil LaBute at his astringent, stinging best-and it featured a bravura performance by Thomas Sadoski-a performance that I still think should have won the Tony Award.

Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer lit up the stage in the revival of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart”-two more performances that were deserving of the Tony.

There were two productions of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2009 that must be mentioned. The better, exquisite one staged by Liv Ullman and starring Cate Blanchett was electrifying theater-three hours of pure energy captured onstage. It served as a reminder of how great a play this is-too often dished up in mediocre productions-as was the case of the Donmar Warehouse production in London this past summer, in which director Rob Ashford found it necessary to populate the stage not only with Williams’ characters-but with the heretofore unseen characters Blanche DuBoise normally just speaks of. Here they drifted through as figments of poor, drunken Blanche’s imagination-and that whirring sound one could hear throughout the proceedings was the sound of poor Tennessee spinning in his grave.

Mention must also be made of Simon Russell Beale in the Bridge Project’s “A Winter’s Tale”, John Douglas Thompson and Ned Eisenberg in a magnificent “Othello”, David Cromer’s breathtaking take on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, Lorenzo Pisoni’s autobiographical “Humor Abuse”, Lincoln Center’s “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone”, and the absolutely lovely “Twelfth Night” in Central Park this summer.

I’ve saved the worst for last. The next time someone wants to mount a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”, may it look NOTHING like the hopelessly lifesucking debacle that was the off-Broadway revival staged by….oh, why name names? YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.