Brief Encounter, The Scottsboro Boys, Fences and many other high-profile productions provided playgoers with some thrilling moments in 2010. But at the end of each year I like to devote my personal top ten list to some of New York theatre's lesser-known achievements, as a reminder of the enormous wealth of talent in this town that can provide just as much theatrical magic in a church basement as it can on a Broadway stage. So here, in no particular order, are 2010's Ten Memorable Moments You Might Have Missed:
The phrase "Savage Love" took on a new meaning when the Off-Broadway musical, The Kid, chronicled the details of sex columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry's adventures in adopting a baby. Jeannine Frumess played the homeless birth mother with beautifully understated pathos and composer Andy Monroe and lyricist Jack Lechner provided her with a song about her everyday life asking for spare change that was so stark in its simplicity, with such sad matter-of-factness in Frumess' performance that the moment was truly chilling.
Perhaps not content with merely being the best comic actress on the New York stage, Jan Maxwell refreshed her dramatic chops a with a riveting, edge of your seat performance in John Doyle's senses-tingling production of Arthur Kopit's 1978 drama, Wings, which begins with the moment that her character suddenly suffers a stroke. Through internal speeches performed while sitting in a chair, Maxwell responded with the confused and crazed ferocity of a wild animal suddenly caged, lashing out anger and fear that could not be communicated by her still and silent body. It was the year's premiere acting performance.
The "moment" that made Transport Group's environmental production of The Boys In The Band so memorable was when director Jack Cummings decided to stage the piece in a space made up by designer Sandra Goldmark that placed the audience, as well as the actors, in a stylish late 1960s Manhattan apartment. Dane Laffrey used no stage lights and achieved interesting and natural effects utilizing normal household fixtures. The set-up not only allowed playgoers to picture themselves as guests at the party, but also allowed them to clearly see the reactions of their fellow audience members, a daring move for a play that some have called hopelessly dated and filled with offensive negative depictions of homosexuals.
The 3rd Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular was, as expected, loaded with quirky holiday goodness, but the routine that really floored me was an Edward Albee-ish take on Santa and Mrs. Claus performed by Lorinda Lisitza and Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams. Though no actual dialogue from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was used, the cruelty of their inebriated confrontation riotously brought to mind a frosty variation of George and Martha.
Tina McKissick, an actress with no previous New York stage credits whose resume consists primarily of work as a film and television stunt double, let loose with one of the funniest performances of the year in When Joey Married Bobby. Playing a Southern belle Republican organizing an elaborate wedding for her gay son while securing her chances of being named "Christian of the Year" by mounting a glitzy Christmas pageant ("Swaddling cloth is just Hebrew for Donna Karen."), McKissick brought to mind the old-school brand of broad physical and verbal comedy grounded in realism, best exemplified by the likes of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett. Most hilarious was a grand entrance made while relishing her own appearance in a rainbow-themed hoop-skirted gown; a moment reminiscent of Ms. Burnett's entrance as Scarlett O'Hara in Bob Mackie's classic curtain-rod creation.
That old master of camp, Everett Quinton, got Devil Boys From Beyond off to a brilliant start as a housewife from Lizard Lick, Florida (a community plagued by generations of inbreeding) who, in a state of panic, tells of her encounter with visitors from outer space. Quinton's maddening insistence, "I am not insane," elongating syllables to bring out overdramatic color, gloriously recalled the Ridiculous Theatre Company's style of celebrating the grotesque.
Lawrence Wright's solo piece about the Gaza conflict, The Human Scale, was filled with disturbingly violent video images but one moment which seemed so absurd that you'd think it was just a bad SNL comedy sketch showed the, perhaps, 10-year-old hostess of a children's television program telling viewers how her loveable bunny friend (an adult in a furry costume lying dead on a bed) was martyred in the struggle for freedom and that they should be willing to do the same whenever the moment arrives.
"Let's publish." Some would call those words heroic. Others would call them treasonous. Uttered by Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham on the seventeenth of June in 1971, those words changed the relationship between the federal government and the free press. When Kathryn Meisle, playing Graham, uttered those words in Top Secret: The Battle For The Pentagon Papers, the audience I attended with erupted with cheers and applause for this real-life moment of bravery that brought down the most powerful person in the world.
Members of the Freedom Party, who protested outside Broadway performances of The Scottsboro Boys, passed out flyers that asked, "Where is the song and dance musical about gas chambers?" Well, if they had ventured Off-Broadway this year they would have found it in Signs of Life, Peter Ullian, Len Schiff and Joel Derfner's musical drama about the Theresienstadt concentration camp; the Nazi's "City For The Jews," which was intended to appear as a safe and nurturing artist colony when inspected by the Red Cross. A musical-within-the-musical scene had Jewish prisoners, under the threat of being sent to the death camp of Auschwitz, partaking in a merry theatrical jamboree. With so many still under the impression that adding song and dance can only trivialize serious issues, it was a daring move for the creators of this ambitious musical.
And if those Freedom Party protesters had a problem with what was taking place inside the Lyceum, they would have gone berserk over Branden Jacob-Jenkens' Neighbors, the play I'll make no hesitation in naming my choice as the best of 2010. His story of a black college professor who is disgusted by his new neighbors, the Crow family - Mammy, her children Jim, Sambo and Topsy and their uncle Zip Coon - is filled with enough shocking and memorable moments to fill half of this list, including the performance of vulgar blackface comedy routines that used to tickle white audiences but are difficult to watch today. In the breathtaking final scene, the playwright lays out a history of black entertainers in America for us to decide if their mainstream appeal comes from a virtual blackface that gives white audiences the same pleasure that the greasy kind did one hundred years ago. In a year loaded with high-profile plays and musicals about American race relations, this limited run workshop production presented by the Public LAB fearlessly explored the most dangerously emotional territory.
So those are my picks for 2010. Please feel free to share yours.
Top photo of Jan Maxwell in Wings by Joan Marcus.
Bottom photo of Jeff Riberdy and Everett Quinton in Devil Boys From Beyond by Carol Rosegg.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.