Originally published on December 9, 2019 by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal (The Best Theater of 2019: Little to Sing About, Plenty to Praise).
While this year’s musical scene was underwhelming, new plays, revivals and first-class talent gave theatergoers lots to enjoy.
On Broadway and across America, it’s the same old story: Large-scale musicals are in a long-term slump. I saw only two new musicals of quality, “Hadestown” and “Soft Power,” this past year, and both of them were distinctly unconventional small-scale productions (although “Hadestown,” like “The Band’s Visit” and “Fun Home” before it, did manage to make it to Broadway for a successful run). Too many of the rest were jukebox biomusicals and no-but-I-saw-the-movie commodity shows, none of which had much of anything to offer beyond expensive light amusement for the tourist trade.
Of distinguished new plays, by contrast, there were plenty. Foremost among them were two Broadway transfers, James Graham’s “Ink” (which originated in London) and Tracy Letts’s “Linda Vista” (first seen at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company), and three off-Broadway shows, John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” Kate Hamill’s stage version of “Little Women” and Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared.”
Equally memorable was the roster of first-class revivals, both in and out of New York. I was especially impressed by Signature Theatre’s off-Broadway Lynn Nottage Residency, which presented two of Ms. Nottage’s sharp-witted comedies, “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” and “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” No less fine, though, were the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” directed by Jack O’Brien and featuring a superlative cast led by Annette Bening and Tracy Letts; Second Stage’s “Dying City,” in which Christopher Shinn, the play’s author, made a sure-footed directing debut that bodes very well for the future; Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” mounted off Broadway by Keen Company and directed by Jonathan Silverstein with his customary delicacy and grace; and N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” staged with the utmost sensitivity by Bonnie J. Monte at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and featuring the poignant acting of Monette Magrath. In addition, two outstanding musical revivals caught my eye: “Once,” directed by Travis Greisler at Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse, and “Next to Normal,” directed by David Cromer at Writers Theatre of Glencoe, Ill.
Ms. Bening, Mr. Letts and Ms. Magrath were not the only actors whose performances in 2019 will stick with me. I have similarly vivid memories of Ian Barford, who was brutally, comprehensively convincing as the self-righteous misanthrope at the center of “Linda Vista”; Jeffrey Bean and Maryann Plunkett, who were heartbreakingly true to life in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s off-Broadway revivals of Conor McPherson’s “Dublin Carol” and Seán O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock”; Bertie Carvel, who was outrageously vital as (yes) Rupert Murdoch in “Ink”; and April Matthis, who gave a star-making performance in the title role of the Roundabout’s off-Broadway premiere of Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone. ”
Now, the best of the best:
• Best performances in a play. Maurice Jones replaced Raúl Esparza to colossal effect in Barbara Gaines’s Chicago Shakespeare production of “Hamlet.” As for Annette Miller’s performance in Shakespeare & Company’s Massachusetts production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” it was every bit as good as Elaine May’s justly celebrated star turn in last year’s Broadway revival.
• Best performances in a musical. No contest here: Ali Stroker in “Oklahoma!” and Sarah Stiles in “Tootsie” stole their otherwise unsatisfying shows.
• Best supporting cast. Glenda Jackson’s gender-bending Broadway “King Lear” sported a trio of indelible supporting performances by Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel and John Douglas Thompson that more than made up for the sundry defects of Sam Gold’s prosy modern-dress staging.
• Best revival of a modern play. Michael Wilson’s Signature Theatre staging of Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta” did complete justice to Foote’s gentle study of what happens to a believer in the American dream when he awakens to the inescapable sorrows of real life.
• Best revival of a musical. Jenn Thompson directed a fetching pair of regional shows, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Woods” (which was that company’s very first musical—more, please!) and Goodspeed Musicals’ “The Music Man” in Connecticut, that led me to wonder, by no means for the first time, why Broadway has yet to take note of Ms. Thompson. Nobody in America is staging better revivals of classic musicals.
• Best classical production. David Staller and the Gingold Theatrical Group nailed it for the second year in a row with another insufficiently appreciated play by George Bernard Shaw, this time a small-scale off-Broadway staging of “Caesar and Cleopatra” that brought a rarely seen show to persuasive life.
• Best new play.“Toni Stone,” Lydia R. Diamond’s biographical play about the first black woman ever to play big-league pro baseball introduces you to a world about which most of us know nothing—the Negro Leagues, in which Jackie Robinson got his start—and does so in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. I expect to see it produced throughout America in 2020.
• Best new musical. I don’t know when I last saw a musical as smart—and as touching—as “Soft Power,” in which David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori reflect on the comparative merits of Chinese and American culture.
• Company of the year. New York’s Irish Repertory Theater sealed its claim to consistent excellence with a “Seán O’Casey Season” that included powerful stagings of three O’Casey plays set in Dublin, “Juno and the Paycock,” “The Plough and the Stars” and “The Shadow of a Gunman,” along with readings of his other works.
• Artist of the year. David Auburn wore three hats in 2019. Not only did he adapt Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” for Chicago’s Court Theatre and direct Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” for Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Group, but his own “Proof” was given a strong revival by Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. Is any other American theater artist capable of such widely varied achievements?
—Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic