By: Darryl Reilly
The best show of the year played for three weeks in a small East Village theater. She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind was a program consisting of a short play and two one-acts by the Black writer Eulalie Spence (1894–1981). Ms. Spence was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote a series of dramatic works in the 1920’s, several of which received awards from Black literary magazines and at playwrighting contests. These were performed by a small theater company in a Harlem public library. Due to that era’s racism and sexism, Spence’s career did not progess in the mainstream commercial theater industry. “Eulalie Spence was the most influential force in my life” said the Public Theater’s founder Joseph Papp who was a high school English student of hers.
Blending humor with pathos, She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind’s three plays are a valuable and affirmative document of the past Black American experience and a testament to Eulalie Spence’s prowess as an unheralded dramatist. The show was presented by the noble New York City-based theater company the Metropolitan Playhouse, which sadly disbanded this year. Alas, the production did not transfer or lead to a renewed appreciation of Spence by contemporary cultural arbiters. My criteria for inclusion in this subjective annual numerical roundup are those shows which initially impressed me and that have stayed on my mind.
The best new American play of the year was Rebecca Gilman’s Swing State which was presented Off-Broadway by Audible. Ms. Gilman offered a searing drama which subtly, yet forcefully captured life in the United States in the ongoing epoch of Donald Trump. He, the pandemic and the opioid epidemic were all dramatically referenced.
Wade McCollum’s phenomenal performance in the exhilarating biographical solo show with music, Make Me Gorgeous! is among the most spectacular to be experienced currently on the New York stage. This affective extravaganza dramatizes the eventful life of American gay fringe figure Kenneth Marlowe (1926-1990), and is playing now through December 31.
Two vivid personal Off-Off-Broadway works by New York theater artistes stood out this year. When Your Soulmate Dies was Steve Krantz’s wrenching yet often humorous solo show about the death of his wife, Naimah Hassan in 2022. This dynamic couple were the Stiller and Meara-style comedy team, Epstein and Hassan: The Black and The Jew; they performed in a variety of New York City venues over decades without major recognition. In Life is a One-Act Play at the Theater for the New City, Bina Sharif and her husband Kevin Mitchell Martin, uproariously portrayed locked-down roommates in her insightful play about New York City society during the pandemic. Ms. Sharif is an under-lauded venerable New York City-based playwright, and her thoughtful work contained hilarious shades of Ionesco, Beckett and Albee.
On Broadway there were several superior revivals, two were most striking. Jessica Chastain’s awesome performance as Nora, director Jamie Lloyd’s riveting modern production, Amy Herzog’s pointed adaptation and a coup de théâtre finale, all made this stark production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a stimulating and memorable event. Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan starred in an absorbing presentation of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 play of ideas, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window; it beautifully depicted old-time passionate crusading Greenwich Village idealists.
Three brilliant actors portrayed multiple characters in an entrancing stripped-down faithful theatricalization of Dostoevsky’s classic 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. It was presented as part of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s second annual Phoenix Festival: Live Arts in Nyack; it will have a Manhattan engagement in January 2024.
Out of the Box Theatre Company was founded in 2006; their mission statement includes, “To feature working professionals at their peak and in their prime: seasoned actors, directors and designers primarily past 50 years of age,” and “To present new interpretations of period plays and contemporary classics: works written in the last century and earlier.” This company’s Off-Off-Broadway presentations at the Upper West Side Bernie Wohl Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center are perpetual delights; they are New York City’s most unsung troupe. Racially diverse experienced performers are given the opportunity to appear in inspired productions of long unseen classics. This year Noël Coward’s 1925 marital comedy Fallen Angels was given a spirited revival; it was matched by a fizzy revisiting of W. Somerset Maugham’s scintillating 1926 social comedy The Constant Wife.
In time for Halloween at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, was the vivacious Charlotte Booker’s exuberant self-written solo show with music, Elsa Lanchester: She’s Alive! It was a nostalgic pleasure due to Ms. Booker’s immense artistry which reclaimed that marvelous performer.
2023 was also a year of personal milestones. I published my first theater review in December 2013. TheaterScene.org was launched in July 2022, and so celebrated its first year of existence. It was uplifting and gratifying to have been readmitted to the Drama Desk this year based on my reviews for this new outlet, and for my writing to be included on Show Score and Broadway Stars.
Forging ahead, TheaterScene.org will continue to discover the new and champion the independent. Riveting trans performer Josephine Simple’s beguiling solo performance art show, This Show is My Funeral played for four performances at a Brooklyn art gallery in 2023; it was covered by TheaterScene.org.
Links to reviews: