It was the worst of years; it was the best of years. I’ve never felt as much frustration and agony while theatergoing as I did during 2012–13, nor such a strong feeling that the theater was on the verge of collapse. So was the world around it: Explosions, massacres, hurricanes, and economic upheavals didn’t create an optimal atmosphere in which to contemplate stories of human interaction played out onstage.
And yet such stories seemed to be thriving. All year long, between seizures of frustration and portents of impending doom, the theater kept giving me a wonderful time at—of all things—new plays. Exciting, subtle, verbally inventive, emotionally resonant, intellectually provocative new American plays. For a bonus, they were often sympathetically and skillfully directed, with acting frequently sublime.
Quality in those latter categories was a familiar tale. New York has gotten used to possessing a substantial roster of directors who can apply their craft with a magic touch, and an enormous phalanx of actors gifted enough to surpass any repertory company’s dreams without blinking. But the arrival of squadrons of exciting plays is something new. Yes, every year brings one or two; an unusually good year might bring five. But mostly critics writhe while they watch first-class direction and transcendent acting squandered on thin, tiny, vague, trivial, half-thought-out, needless plays—the kind that make you think the producer’s e-mail correspondence with the author’s agent might contain more substance than the script.
This year was different, especially Off-Broadway. There were a few duds, now mercifully faded from memory. And there were, as always, many less-than-great works. But even those often carried an exceptional sense of adventure, edging onto dangerous ground and, at least intermittently, finding sharp expression for new and troubling aspects of contemporary life. But the better plays won out not only by their superior quality but by their sheer number. Usually, when the Obie Awards judges convene for their final voting meeting, we pore over a list of five or six plays, of which I might feel enthusiasm for three at most. This year, I walked in mulling over a list of a dozen plays I could take seriously—a dozen!—at least eight of which I would have willingly supported for Best Play. (We give multiple playwriting awards; the Best Play designation, shared this year by two writers, comes with a small cash prize.) And if Broadway shows were eligible for Obies, I could have added three more to the list.
This was a moment of incalculable rarity for me, since I’m famous as the critic who “never likes anything.” Actually, I like a great many things, but I often see their shortcomings and like them with reservations. This year, the scripts’ shortcomings were fewer, their levels of accomplishment higher. The bumper crop made choosing among them no easy task. Laura Marks’s Bethany, Tanya Barfield’s The Call, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, Annie Baker’s The Flick, Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome, Sam Shepard’s Heartless, Kirsten Greenidge’s Luck of the Irish, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, and those Broadway ringers, Mamet’s The Anarchist (as a script), Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, and Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance. Quite an impressive roll call.
Notice, too, that this glittering list traverses generations, genders, regions, and ethnic groups. It veers tonally from giddy comedy, through painful tragicomedy, into the stark and dark. Dramaturgically, it has no inhibiting qualms. The constantly metamorphosing context that so alters Heartless, a late work by a mature master, finds an echo in wildly dissimilar creations by writers who came along well after Shepard: in the character meltdown that turns the serial killers of Grimly Handsome into the cops pursuing them, or in the wacky, haunted-by-predecessors consciousness that keeps the characters of Vanya and Sonia . . . lapsing into and out of the behavior of their Chekhovian namesakes.
Even the seemingly strictest naturalism turns out to have, in our unreliable time, a false bottom: the elliptical tidbits of contradictory data that keep you from learning the full story of The Assembled Parties, the cinematic allusions that send the movie-loving youngsters of The Flick mentally adrift in a world beyond their seedy, grubby workplace. These and many similar moments revealed the year’s best plays as magical works, full of secret doors through which every straightforward event opened out onto unexpected vistas. Our theater, where the overexplained and the crudely oversimplified have too often seemed to reign, became a place of mystery again. The factual point at issue in Luck of the Irish turned out not to be at issue; the drama was in the characters’ heads. The hearty neighbors of Detroit, the sympathetic lover of Bethany, the kindly nurse and sincere Mormon proselytizer of The Whale—all ultimately showed themselves to be something other than they appeared.
This eerie instability, so widely shared, was less a demonstration of today’s changing theatrical aesthetic than a thematic statement about American life. For we do not know any longer who we are or what context we inhabit. We have been so bruised as a society, so bludgeoned economically by our greedy corporate owners, so lied to by politicians, so badgered by the mass media, that we have forgotten what links us to America, or to each other. In all these plays, family is either absent or a source of disjunction, not connection. Our national tradition, historic or literary, is only a passing mention or a fading memory. The sense of ethical principle and the compassionate impulse that once enabled Americans to reach across the barriers has shriveled under the heat of our time’s tremendous pressures.
And so writers now apparently desire, more than they did a decade or two ago, to tell stories through the theater, to help us perceive how the inhabitants of a civil society connect, and the dangers that strike when they forget how to do so. For some time now, scripted plays have been looked down on by academia and the avant-garde. The text as company assemblage or directorial opportunity has been exalted. But the playwrights, awaiting their chance, have learned to adapt their strategies to slip past the theoreticians’ schematic rubrics. While they waited, American society crumbled. Now, when it needs them, they step forward. They take their tactics from today, their rigor from the great modernists of a century ago, and their cue from their precursor Gertrude Stein, who said, “A landscape is such a natural setting for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays.”