The Decade's Best Theater

From undervalued plays and underfunded companies, 10 years of freewheeling joy

I hate 10-best lists, and this column won't include one. Trying to list everything that was great in the New York theater over the past decade, and then sweating to squeeze a mingy string of 10 items from it, would be futile as well as exhausting. Of course our theater touched on greatness between 2000 and 2009; otherwise people would have given up on it long before. Just as obviously, it lapsed, often, into the mediocre, the third-rate, and the sheerly miserable: Every great city's theater does that in every decade. One way we measure greatness is by its distance from the dismal points below.

The greatest thing to happen in New York theater, this past decade, was foreign, unrecapturable, and only here on brief visits to Brooklyn. Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) sent three last productions by Ingmar Bergman to BAM: Strindberg's Ghost Sonata, Schiller's Mary Stuart, and Bergman's own adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts—all lightning-bolt lessons in directing, in acting, in clarity of conception and cogency of image. Even the luckiest theatergoer gets few such occasions in a lifetime.

For me, consequently, the '90s and the aughts, as I call this past decade, will always be the time when Ingmar Bergman saved my job. I wasted so much of those years enduring theater that made me wish I were somewhere else; at Bergman's productions, I sat riveted, secure in the hands of a master even when I took violent exception to his choices. He infused these familiar plays with such new, invigorating life that I now see them in terms of Bergman's actors, Bergman's conceptions, Bergman's stage images. When this man whom I had never met died in 2007, I felt that both the theater and I had lost a protector, a mentor, and a friend.

Scandinavian saviors: Ingmar Bergman's production of Ibsen's Ghosts, at BAM
Stephanie Berger
Scandinavian saviors: Ingmar Bergman's production of Ibsen's Ghosts, at BAM

The superb acting company of the Dramaten, the institution that gave Bergman's genius its opportunity, pointed up the gigantic absence that remains the worst thing about New York theater in this century: the lack of a great company regularly producing works of classic stature. In earlier decades, Circle in the Square fulfilled that function ploddingly, but at least not shamefully; Lincoln Center Theater barely glances at it. The Roundabout, commanding far greater resources than most nonprofits, stands as the decade's most consistently miserable artistic failure—a theater without purpose, sensibility, or aesthetic integrity. It doesn't destroy everything it touches: Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and a few play revivals save it some shards of credibility. But as the current Bye Bye Birdie shows, this company can always sink a little further. Let the next decade bring a real theater to replace it.

The small groups that struggle Off- and Off-Off Broadway to sustain some semblance of our tradition battled bravely, often achieving modest success; the Pearl, exploring unexpected byways (Farquhar's Constant Couple, Williams's Vieux Carré), sometimes achieved more. The company that risked most and achieved most was Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). Admission: I was intermittently employed there. But that had no bearing on their productions of Granville Barker's Waste, Gilbert's Engaged, or Bond's Saved, or on the best Shakespeare New York saw in the decade, poetically alive and vividly contemporary: Darko Tresnjak's Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham, and David Esbjornson's Hamlet with Christian Camargo.

Invaluably, TFANA also produced Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders, signaling another of the decade's key developments: African-American women spoke out, in playwriting loud and clear. Besides Kennedy and Nottage, who trumped Intimate Apparel with Fabulation and Ruined, the strong presences included Suzan-Lori Parks, Kia Corthron, Eisa Davis, and Tracey Scott Wilson. Not every play each wrote was a "best," but taken together, they constitute a powerful creative phalanx.

Naturally, we also saw some great playwriting not by women of color. On Broadway, as in most decades, the better plays drew mixed receptions and shaky ticket sales. Broadway's affluent patrons want a party, not a creative disruption of their preset thought patterns. The Goat, Take Me Out, Gem of the Ocean, I Am My Own Wife, Well, Dividing the Estate, and Mamet's current Race—four of the seven, note, began Off-Broadway—will prove their staying power in future decades, even if pre-anointed imports from London, Dublin, or Chicago made more Broadway noise in this one.

Even Off-Broadway, where new plays are the main thing, the decade showed severe constriction. Flavor-of-the-month writers, draped in TV credits and enhancement money, cropped up on season schedules with dismaying frequency. Still, there was exciting work in plenty; to itemize it all would take another column. Instead, I'll list some of the decade's more unjustly underrated scripts: Keith Bunin's The Credeaux Canvas, Neal Bell's Spatter Pattern, John Guare's A Few Stout Individuals, Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives, Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know, Julia Cho's Durango, Peter Parnell's Trumpery.

Add your more obvious selection of hits, including ensemble-created works like Tectonic Theater's Laramie Project and the Danai GuriraNikkole Salter In the Continuum, and you'll see that the aughts weren't short on good writing. The issue is how alertly we respond to it. Add, too, that the advent of fresh, unpredictable troupes like Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Theater of a Two-Headed Calf brightened our experimental wing. Looking back, we may yet call these palmy days, when the talk-causing Downtown events ranged from Taylor Mac's five-hour epic, The Lily's Revenge, to David Greenspan's modest 45-minute solo gem, The Argument.

That freedom to stretch or shrink made the decade's musical theater a far livelier place than it had been for years. The Producers broke the spell of late-20th-century earnestness; suddenly, musicals had permission to be fun again—to parody, to mock, or even to be dead serious if they chose. If the results weren't exactly pantheon-ready, the freewheeling joy they brought more than compensated. Urinetown, Avenue Q, [title of show], Grey Gardens, Next to Normal, Passing Strange, Coraline—all, in their varied ways, kept the musical's irreverent spirit jumping. Note, again, that they all began Off-Broadway and moved up, except for the puzzlingly undervalued Coraline, but then had to struggle against Broadway's money-bound realities.

Money, being our culture's central value, is our theater's permanent heartache. Under the Bush presidency's evil shadow, greed became a fixation in the arts; its reverberations still plague us as we straggle up out of the economic crater Republican looters dug for us. The decade's dollar crunch hurt theaters; Broadway's spiraling ticket prices maimed exactly the audience that theaters need for meaningful survival. Fighting and sacrificing to be heard, our artists achieved at least enough to justify these paragraphs, leaving touchstones for the grim time ahead. Though lacking a Bergman, we start over again with willing hearts, equipped to remember and hope, as well as to ache.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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