By Karen Isaacs
Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites
Come from Away
In 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.
The Band’s Visit
David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.
I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!
My runner-up Musicals
Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.
Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.
My Top Plays
The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.
I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.
Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones. It featured another terrific ensemble cast.
A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.
This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.
The Little Foxes
I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.
In the runner-up category, I’d include
Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney. I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.
Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.
The Home Place
It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.
The Man from Nebraska
Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.
By Karen Isaacs
Reed Barney and Annette O’Toole are giving a master class in acting at Second Stage in Tracy Lett’s play Man from Nebraska.
Birney plays Ken, a middle-aged insurance agent whose life has been conventional to say the least. His life is centered around his wife, his business and the Baptist church. He has seldom gone beyond Nebraska and in his long married life, he and his wife have rarely been apart.
The Sunday routine is driving to church, church, lunch and visiting his mother in a nursing home. But that evening something happens. He wakes up and runs to the bathroom where he breaks out in sobs. His wife is terrified — is he having a heart attack? A stroke? Is it OK?
The problem he says is that he no longer believes in God. He isn’t sure when and where his faith left him, but it has. His wife cannot understand it at all, particularly when he says he no longer understands the stars.
Ken struggles to make sense of his feelings. Finally their minister suggests he takes some books and go way by himself; perhaps the separateness and the time to relax will help him regain his faith.
He takes the pastor up on the suggestion but carries it much farther than the pastor expected. Ken goes to London where he had been stationed in the Air Force. And he stays much longer than the week or so the pastor anticipated.
Act two switches between Ken’s experiences in London and his wife at home. Her daughter offers to move in with her or have her stay with the family. But Nancy stays alone almost isolating herself until the pastor again urges her to get out.
She is at loss — she expected to be a wife forever, and that she and her husband would be in lock step until death did them part. Now she is alone and confused.
Ken, meanwhile, seems almost equally lost. But slowly his Midwest reserve begins to melt. He chats up the bartender in the hotel bar; he begins drinking salty dogs (it’s not clear if he never drank or hasn’t in a long while). He has an encounter with an American businesswoman who he had met on the plane but it goes nowhere for reasons you should discover in the play. But when the bartender tells him she has only been listening to him because he tips well and that she is fed up with his problems, he follows her. He is soon in her flat that she shares with her boyfriend, a sculptor.
As his stay extends — to more than six weeks, he may not spend a lot of time thinking about his faith but he is opening his mind to new ideas. Meanwhile, his daughter is extremely angry with him, and the pastor’s father tries to court Nancy.
He returns home when he learns of his mother’s death. He is changed in ways we don’t really know, but his thinking is totally different. When his daughter says that her husband says that he (Ken) will go to Hell, Ken replies that then the husband is a fool.
The ending is tension filled and nearly heartbreaking. But I won’t spoil the last minutes.
This is a play where more is said by silence and expressions than by words. These Midwesterners aren’t talkative people and what they do say is often trivial. Yet we are given a total picture of this man and his life and his wife’s as well. Yet the silence doesn’t become pretentious as Pinter sometimes does. It seems natural for these characters.
Lett has shown us a world and lives that may not be our own, but that we know well. These are the people who do what is expected, follow the rules and live the lives they are expected to live. But what happens if they begin to question those lives and those rules? What if they begin to wonder as in the Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”
Lett doesn’t offer easy answers and we don’t know what actually Ken has discovered. His reserve remains intact. But we know his life and his wife’s will be different — perhaps more open, more questioning or more adventuresome.
David Cromer has directed this play with a deft hand; he never over emphasizes what is going on; he lets his actors present this world to us. The first act has numerous short scenes – often mostly silence – and the changes in props are handled invisibly. Although I understood why Cromer did, it was still disconcerting when late in the play, the stage crew was very visible changing the set and props.
The scenic design by Takeshi Kata works well – including the cloud like structure that hangs in the back and with lighting of Keith Parham can be many things.
But what makes this play so moving is the performances of the entire cast, but particularly Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole. They don’t have to say a word to let us into their emotions. Neither strikes a false note. I just sat and marveled at their expertise.
The rest of the cast rises to the bar set by these two. From Annika Boras as their judgmental daughter to William Ragsdale as Parson Todd to Nana Mensah as the bartender and Max Gordon Moore has her boyfriend and the others – all are excellent.
Man from Nebraska is an unsettling play but also a very touching one. Please make an effort to see the extraordinary performances.
It is at 2nd Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street through March 26. Tickets are available at 2nd Stage.