As 2013 dwindles down to a precious few -- a precious few plays and musicals, that is -- it is time to compile our list of the ten best of the year. This year, happily, has no less than fifteen that more than qualify for the ten best; fifteen that I would happily return to for another visit. These plays and musicals were so good that it is only slightly disquieting to note that only two of the ten were in Broadway houses. And they were both revivals. But in making my list and checking it twice, I keep coming up with only two productions on what they used to call the Main Stem. No matter, though, given the overall quality. Here they are, in approximate though not exact order of favoriteness.
Mark Rylance, as Olivia with porcelain-doll cheeks, glides across the stage as if he is propelled on a cushion of air. This entire Twelfth Night, from Shakespeare's Globe in London, is frothy, floating and full of high fun. Played in tandem with Richard III, both with authentical all-male casts, Twelfth Night ranks all possible superlatives, with Rylance, Samuel Barnett (as Viola) and Stephen Fry (as Malvolio) topping the list. Place it on a lofty level with Peter Brook's 1971 Midsummer Night's Dream.
Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron took Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir and transformed it into as stunning, touching and moving a new musical as we've seen in years. Under the direction of Sam Gold and filled with an astonishing cast enveloped in an astonishing physical production, this Public Theater offering followed two other equally exciting and similarly new-style musicals this year. Of course, the subject matter is too specialized to move to Broadway; at least, that's what they said about A Chorus Line, which premiered on the very same stage in 1975. Look forFun Home to conquer hearts on Broadway and everywhere.
Richard Nelson's Apple Family quadrilogy ended with Regular Singing on November 22, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Those of you who have seen the first three installments know that the date was not coincidental, not to the Apples.) The plays -- written and directed by Nelson at the Public over the last four years, built around the (mostly) same cast of actors, and performed in rep -- are now gone. They will surely enjoy a future life across the country, either individually or in tandem. In the meanwhile, WNET --our local PBS station -- is filming the Apple Family Plays onstage with the astounding Public cast, so that we can all watch them again repeatedly.
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
A slender slice of War and Peace, told in period language with period garb but accompanied by contemporary technopop music that scans the centuries and somehow speaks equally to fans of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and Spring Awakening. Is it any wonder that the outrageously unconventional Great Comet -- performed in a pseudo-Tzarist café -- has entranced audiences? Thank composer/author Dave Malloy, whose work throughout delights and surprises; director Rachel Chavkin and her design team; and a remarkable, previously little-known cast headed by Phillipa Soo as the ill-fated young Natasha.
BUYER AND CELLAR
A play about an out-of-work actor who takes a job in a one-person shopping mall in Barbra Streisand's basement? Playwright Jonathan Tolins and actor Michael Urie have taken a one-joke idea that sounds too flimsy for anyone other than the Streisand-besotted and somehow come up with a play that's uproariously funny and warmly human. Buyer and Cellar is a delectable treat and Mr. Urie is not to be missed. Be kind to yourself and head to the Barrow Street Theatre.
HERE LIES LOVE
Songwriters David Byrne and Fatman Slim joined director Alex Timbers to give us a poperetta about Imelda Marcos, the infamous shoe lady from Manila. Or, rather, the First Lady of the Philippines until her husband was forced from power in 1986. Presented as a multi-media extravaganza, the audience was cast as the mob, standing in the middle of the playing space trying to dodge the scenery and the actors. Consider it a contemporary counterpart to Evita -- only more involving, more gripping, and with a stronger score. Look for Here Lies Love to resurface sometime next year, as soon as they can find a suitable space in which to transplant it.
A KID LIKE JAKE
Daniel Pearle starts his play like a typical upper-crust Manhattan comedy about getting your kid in the right nursery school, a topic which allows plenty of room for sharp jests. With the audience having a high old time, things suddenly turn chilling when it becomes clear that four-year-old Jake (an offstage character) unambiguously identifies with Cinderella and that it might well be more than a passing phase. Three weeks after seeing this provocative play from the folks at Lincoln Center Theater, the suburban sister of a friend announced that she had just discovered --to her astonishment -- that her son was a kid like Jake. "What can I do," she asked, "but fully support him?"
SMALL ENGINE REPAIR
Playwright John Pollono takes us to a rundown repair shop in New Hampshire for a morality comedy/drama/thriller about men, honor, family, retribution, and violent revenge. Pollono, who also plays the central character in a cast of four, keeps us guessing and sometimes squirming until he pulls out all the stops. He caps his brisk play with not one but three twists, the last startling enough -- and rewarding enough -- to gain our cheers.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
Tennessee Williams' much-produced classic is given a new look by director John Tiffany and designers Bob Crowley and Natasha Katz, the trio from Once. They manage to make Williams speak to us in a new and stunning way. So much so that this decidedly familiar play --with Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith -- seems as if it is altogether new, unfolding amidst a pool of liquid memory.
THE EXPLORER'S CLUB
Funny counts for something, doesn't it? Nell Benjamin's comedy about chauvinistic 19th century English explorers coping with a female scientist in their midst is an offbeat choice for our list, but it was the most deliciously daffy farce of the year. Director Marc Bruni helped with a raft of Marxian sight gags -- Harpo, not Karl -- that whipped up laugh upon laugh. The Manhattan Theatre Club scored twin knockouts by offering another excellent play simultaneously, the gripping Choir Boy.
Honorable Mention: Wynton Marsalis' After Midnight, Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare in the Park, the Ian McKellen/Patrick Stewart No Man's Land, the CSC Passion, Mark Rylance's Richard III, Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays