Thursday, January 03, 2008

Top 10 of 2007

It's time once again for Little Jimmy's Take-It-Or-Leave-It Top Ten Plays of the Year.

To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive of doing a list this time around. Not because I didn't see enough plays (my self-made criteria was at least 31 productions, which I more than fulfilled), nor because I didn't see a number of very good plays (I did). In my estimation, 2007 was an excellent year for plays and I had a good selection to choose from for my annual "cream of the crop."

No. The reason why I was a bit apprehensive is because, despite having seen more plays in '07 than in '06 or '05, I missed out on possibly 99% of the most talked-about and well-regarded shows of the year (I'll talk about this more shortly). Granted, this has never bothered me before, but for some reason it did this time 'round.

I'm not 100% sure why this is. Perhaps because the longer I do this, the more compelled I am to "step up the game." In some ways, I believe I am (I'm seeing more shows each year and keeping better track of what I'm seeing). But at the same time, when I look at the number of shows I've missed, I wince.

I also noticed that there's a lot of nepotism in this year's list: of the 10 shows on this year's list, four were made by good friends of mine. Two of the 10 were made by friendly acquaintances. Which leaves four on the list made by people I didn't know personally.

Then again, I ultimately said, "feh." With the thousands of shows going up in the New York area alone in the calendar year, there really is no way to be a comprehensive playgoer (as opposed to a movie that can be seen on DVD after its initial release, once a play closes, the production is gone).

Also, let's face it: I have some pretty gosh-darned talented friends who shouldn't be punished simply because they know me. (After all, isn't knowing me punishment enough?)

(This is also one of the reasons why I originally started doing this annual list: to give kudos and recognition to some shows that might have otherwise passed the radar of some mainstream outlets; to congratulate the makers of plays that deserved much more recognition than they might have received.)

So, what high profile and oft-talked about shows did I miss in 2007? Seriously, folks, there were a lot. In terms of the big shows that were the talk of the town this past year, I did not see Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, Blackbird, Peter and Jerry, The Coast of Utopia, August: Osage County or Rock 'n' Roll. I also missed the much talked-about Off-off/indie shows such as Riding the Bull, 12th Night of the Living Dead, David Johnston's The Oresteia and Departures.

So remember, these are not the ten best plays produced in 2007, these are the ten best plays I saw in 2007 (kind of a given, I know, but I figure it's something worth repeating).

For those interested, the final tally of productions I saw in 2007 ended up to be 49 plays (compared to the 41 plays I saw in 2006): nearly a play a week. Of the 49 plays I saw in 2007, I only saw one Broadway show, nine Off-Broadway shows and 39 Off-off-Broadway shows. My final tally for the top ten: one Broadway, one Off-Broadway and eight Off-off-Broadway.

I ended up seeing two shows this year (Mac Rogers' Hail Satan and Qui Nguyen's Living Dead in Denmark) that were on previous "Best of" lists. You will notice that they are not on this year's "best of" list. Does this mean that they don't live up to repeat viewings or compare to newer efforts? No. I just took it as a given that, as wonderful as it was to see these shows again, they wouldn't be eligible for the list this time 'round.

(Not that it matters; you'll notice that both of these fuckers got on the list regardless.)

Okay, enough dicking around. Here, in ascending order, the ten best plays I saw in 2007:

10. The Dirty Talk
(Spare Change Productions, written by Michael Puzzo, directed by Padriac Lillis, at Center Stage)

Two men stranded in a cabin during a torrential downpour, The Dirty Talk (which is featured in Plays and Playwrights 2006) is an excellent example of character development and storytelling: The fun of the play is slowly and steadily finding out who these men are, what their connection is and why they're stranded in the cabin. Michael Puzzo's script takes its time in filling the audience in as to what's going on. And Sidney Williams and Kevin Cristaldi are perfectly cast as the odd couple stranded in the woods.

9. A Guy Adrift in the Universe
(Four Chairs Theatre, by Larry Kunofsky, directed by Jacob Krueger, at Roy Arias Studios & Theatres)

Martin Denton described the play this way: "Imagine Larry David and Thornton Wilder collaborating on a re-do of Our Town." I don't think I could have put it better. A Guy is born, lives his life and then dies, all in the span of about an hour and a half. Simultaneously unsentimental and touching, A Guy Adrift in the Universe is a unique and honest view of Life (capital L) and Humanity. Writer Larry Kunofsky and director Jacob Krueger reveal humanity as an incredibly whiny, selfish and insufferable race, but suggest that these may be endearing and sympathetic qualities.

8. An Interview With the Author
(Blue Coyote/Pretentious Festival, written by Matthew Freeman, directed by Kyle Ancowitz, at the Brick Theatre)

Writer/performer Matthew Freeman interviews himself in a Q&A session that starts out ultra-congratulatory then becomes very, very up-close-and-personal, perhaps even too up-close-and-personal for the author. An insightful look at what goes on in the mind of a critically-acclaimed Off-off Broadway playwright and delivering exactly what it promises, An Interview With the Author was one of the funniest plays I saw in 2007.

7. The Magic of Mrs. Crowling
(Horse Trade/Royal Circus, written by Brian Silliman, directed by Abe Goldfarb, at the Horse Trade Kraine Theatre)

Simultaneously a satire of fantasy books and stories and a defense of them, The Magic of Mrs. Crowling is a deceptively candid play about grief and the degree to which people use fantasy and escapism to deal with grief and loss. This was an incredibly funny, touching and honest show.

6. Talk Radio
(Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel and JAM Theatricals, by Eric Bogosian, directed by Robert Falls, at the Longacre Theater)

Many critics have called Live Schreiber the greatest actor of his generation. Now having finally seen him perform live, I see what all the fuss is about. And when Mr. Schreiber, playing shock jock Barry Champlain, yells, "Your fear, your own lives, have become your entertainment," I can't say I find this concept dated or passé.

5. Macbeth Without Words
(Piper McKenzie Productions/Pretentious Festival, written by William Shakespeare, adapted & directed by Jeff Lewonczyk, at the Brick Theatre)

Exactly what the title promises: a performance of William Shakespeare's tragedy about the overly ambitious usurping Scottish king who gets his comeuppance, with nary a line spoken. Jeff Lewonczyk expertly adapted and directed an all-movement pantomime performance of Macbeth that was both lucid and mesmerizing. This was great fun.

4. Gutenberg! The Musical!
(UCB Theatre, written by Scott Brown & Anthony King, directed by Alex Timbers, at The Actors' Playhouse)

This "backer's audition" for an incomplete musical about the inventor of the printing press was absolutely hilarious. Despite a bunch of ironic humor throughout, there's such a sweet, un-ironic humanity to its main characters, aspiring Broadway musical writers Bud and Doug, that made me excited for them to get their very silly play off the ground. I left the theatre smiling.

3. Men of Steel
(Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Robert Ross Parker, at Center Stage)

Well, hey. Is it even remotely a surprise that a Vampire Cowboys show is on this list? What can I say? Every year Robert, Qui & Co. top themselves, and 2007 was no exception. Men of Steel, easily Qui's most ambitious Vampire Cowboy script to-date, is about comic book superheroes getting into serious moral and legal troubles. Fun and engaging from start to finish, especially for us geeks who have such a fondness for superhero comics. Even for those who have never read a Spider-Man comic or played with a Star Wars action figure or even owned a LEGO set, this was (is) a great show.

2. Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road)
(Temporary Distortion, written & directed by Kenneth Collins, at The Chocolate Factory)

Temporary Distortion's deconstructionist take on the modern American road movie is a captivating, hypnotic and mesmerizing work of art, easily one of the best plays I've seen this year. I've never seen anything like this on the stage. Sure, I've seen plays that utilize non-linear storytelling, mixed- and multi-media. I've also seen works that act more as installation pieces than conventional "plays" before. But I've never seen something that employs all these methods that is so compelling, so haunting, so thoroughly absorbing. I loved this show.

And the best play I saw in 2007 was...

1. Universal Robots
(Gideon Productions, written & directed by Mac Rogers, at manhattantheatresource)

On one hand, many of you may be rolling your eyes over me choosing a play written and directed by a frequent Nosedive collaborator. The rest of you, however, have actually seen this brilliant play and know exactly what I'm talking about. This bare bones production of Mac's epic script about robots taking over humanity reminded me of the ways theatre can surpass film in terms of scope, storytelling and conveying ideas. Part science fiction, part political allegory, part thriller, part redemptive tragedy, part spiritual parable and part historical fiction run amok, Universal Robots brings so many ideas to the table and examines them all thoroughly. This was, without any doubt, the best play I saw this past year.

So let's bring on 2008!

Ready for the New Year,

James "Diaper Boy" Comtois

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Blogger Goose said...

Aw, it is now officially new year's with James' top ten going up. And, everytime I read it, I remember the same New Year's resolution - go see more shows. Thank you Mr. Comtois.

And, I am doing better - I think this is the first year that I saw 2 of your top ten and worked on one!

2:50 PM  
Blogger Martin Denton said...

Great list! May I add that your #1 pick -- definitely also on my top ten list for the year as well -- is going to be published in "Plays and Playwrights 2008," available next month.

9:36 AM  
Blogger David Johnston said...

I loved Freeman's "Interview." Used to sit behind the curtain at the Brick and just try to not giggle before I went on for my five lines. Thanks for including it.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, my pleasure, David! Yeah, it was hilarious. Everyone did a great job with it.

And again, many apologies for missing The Oresteia. I heard nothing but great things about that show.

12:41 PM  
Blogger jengordonthomas said...

welcome back and happy new year, comtois! mac is well deserving of your top spot. and we look forward to doing UR again. also looking forward to your next-up!

3:42 PM  
Blogger macrogers said...

Holy Crap! Thanks James! I know you see a huge number of shows, so I don't take this lightly at all. I'm really glad you had a good time, and am grateful to you for remembering us.

11:32 PM  
Blogger macrogers said...

Of your list I saw "Interview," "Crowling," and "Gutenberg," and loved them all as well, although I saw the latter in 2003.

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha - your #10 had me set there for a moment. (Michael Puzzo - Godfather fame??)

Interesting how the expression 'dirty talk' can cover quite so many facets though. From the range and depth of this play through to the adult discourse, it just goes to show that communication in any form is what makes day to day so interesting and involving.

11:21 AM  

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