When it comes to the world of Broadway Theatre, a lot of the buzz and money stem from that of the musical. I am not going to lie when I say that musicals are always something that I have loved and enjoy being a part of…and anyone that knows me would not be surprised by that statement. However, the art form of the musical is in something of a crisis…at least if you strictly view it from the perspective of Broadway. Every now and then, we get an original piece with an original score but the landscape is being dominated by musicals that are based off of films or, worse, jukebox/bio musicals that tell a story set to the music of an artist/musician/band…whether it is a random story or the life/lives of the artist(s) in question.
In the last few years, I have become more engrossed and interested in seeing straight plays more so than the musicals that have come through…and that isn’t to say I never had an interest in them. I often read the text of plays frequently and have had many evolving favorites over the years. It isn’t as common for most theatre people to sit down and rattle of several of their favorite plays in the same way that many will rattle off musicals. So, considering I did a favorite musicals list already, it seemed obvious that the next step would be to tackle my favorite plays. Much like that list, the key word is “favorite” rather than what I feel is “the best”…although some of these would undoubtedly match up on both lists.
And since I feel like classical plays from the Greeks or Shakespeare, for example, are in a class of their own in some ways, I am going to keep this list focusing more on plays from the 19th Century to the present. With that, I give you the following list:
#25-Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet)
-In many ways, you could say Mamet is this era’s Tennessee Williams if only for the fact that he was once a glorified and worshipped playwright…and now, even though his newer works are still frequently produced, the quality has dipped dramatically. It also must be said that his more conservative political views certainly make him something of a pariah to some in the theatre community. Regardless, early Mamet material was quite electrifying and I do think that this particular play represents his best work.
#24-Oslo (J.T. Rogers)
-This was one particular playwright that I had no knowledge of prior to seeing OSLO. I think what really impressed me about his particular piece was that it dealt with what could be seen as a stuffy topic (lots of talking and negotiating related to the peace treaty between Rabin and Arafat) and, to add further to this, was driven by lots of expositional monologues told by Jennifer Ehle’s character Mona. The final result was a very sterling piece of work that, despite its long running time and interesting structure that allowed for a shorter first act and a longer second act (quite unusual), contained great performances from its ensemble and an almost cinematic direction by Bartlett Sher. I will be curious to see how it end up translating to screen as they are intending to adapt it.
#23-Beyond the Horizon (Eugene O’Neill)
-I feel like this early O’Neill tragedy is often forgotten about when discussing his canon even though he did with the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1920. I discovered it in college my freshman year when my Acting Professor Jeffrey Ingman assigned me the play and then my given partner and I were to choose a scene from it. The main premise of the piece is that two brothers, Andrew and Robert, both have affection for a young girl named Ruth. She marries Andrew, but seems to have taking a liking to Robert…and her desires seem to consume any form of compassion she may have for anyone. I remember being struck by how simplistic it was, and yet, it felt so immensely tragic. To this day, I’ve been curious and anxious to revisit it as an actor.
#22-The Flick (Annie Baker)
-A three hour play that takes place in a run-down movie theatre and is basically just three young people talking about movies and life with a random handjob thrown in for good measure….and somehow, it becomes mesmerizing. A more recent effort and another winner of the Pulitzer Prize, THE FLICK was one of the best examples of realism I have seen performed onstage. The popular saying goes that SEINFELD was “a show about nothing”, but I think something like THE FLICK takes that to a whole new level. Also, it must be noted, that even with its long running time and simplistic plot, it is hard to find anything you’d be pressed to take out of the piece to speed it along. It just exists as it is and we should be grateful for that.
#21-Six Degrees of Separation (John Guare)
-Recently revived on Broadway starring Allison Janney as Ouisa, this play is more famous due to the fact that it was adapted into a 1993 film starring the original Broadway Ouisa, Stockard Channing. While hosting a dinner party, a young black man named Paul appears at the doorstep of Ouisa and her husband Flan’s home, battered and bloodied…but he claims that he is not only a friend of their Ivy League children but also that he is the son of Sidney Poitier. SPOILER ALERT: He is not…and after that is discovered, their lives seem to remain focused on his presence since he entered their lives. Guare has always been such an eclectic writer and for some reason, this was the particular show that I found to be both the most accessible while attaining his usual quirky appeal.
#20-King Charles III (Mike Bartlett)
-British playwright Mike Bartlett had been something of a brash writer whose plays included such blunt titles as BULL and COCK….so it could be said that a play about the Royal Family written in iambic pentameter would be something of an unusual departure for him. It is still fairly subversive in its own way as it is set in an alternate reality where Queen Elizabeth II has passed away and her son Charles is finally in the position to take the throne. However, his family has other things in mind…particularly his son Prince William, who has his wife Kate Middleton, in pure Lady Macbeth mode; out to get Charles to abdicate the throne and having him pass the torch to William. To add to the Shakespearean atmosphere, we also have the ghost of Princess Diana popping up throughout the proceedings.
#19-I Am My Own Wife (Doug Wright)
-Another Pulitzer Prize winner, although I feel like what I really love about this piece is the fact that it is a one-man show in which an actor gets the chance to play upwards of 30+ characters throughout the evening and it is a DAUNTING task to say the least. It is based on the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, who had killed her father as a child and managed to live through both the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin living as a transgender woman. In this role, Jefferson Mays won one of the most deserving Tony Awards ever and became an idol of mine.
#18-Three Tall Women (Edward Albee)
-It appeared that from the late 70s up through the early 90s that Edward Albee hit a slump that was going to put him in the same boat that I referred to earlier regarding Williams and Mamet: a highly prolific and respected writer who can’t seem to drum up the fire and passion of his earlier works…the only difference is that Albee overcame that and then some. THREE TALL WOMEN netted him yet another Pulitzer Prize and it also acted as a play that gave three women a chance to play such delicious roles. The creative spark came alive within him again and with it, we got one of his most indelible works.
#17-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
-I have to admit that I sort of have a personal affection for some of Williams’ somewhat forgotten efforts (at least in terms of his earlier work) like THE ROSE TATTOO or SUMMER & SMOKE, but there is no denying that CAT is easily the pinnacle of domestic dramas and family dysfunction. Set on the plantation of the Pollitt family, the cast of characters are incredibly vivid and vibrant…particularly that of the bombastic portrayal of Big Daddy that was immortalized by Burl Ives.
#16-The Goat: or Who is Sylvia? (Edward Albee)
-Albee is back and he gave us a true firecracker of a show that I still love was able to make it to Broadway…and win the Tony at that! In THE GOAT, a middle-aged architect named Martin causes a huge riff in his family when he admits he is in love with someone else…a goat. His wife Stevie, an absolutely cynical and deliciously hilarious role that was played to perfection on Broadway by the underrated Mercedes Ruehl, is obviously not too thrilled…and it certainly isn’t going over well for their sensitive, gay teenaged son Billy. I feel like THE GOAT is a play that needs to be read (or seen if you are lucky enough) to get the full tragicomic experience…so that is all I will say regarding this one.
#15-Noises Off (Michael Frayn)
-Farces or comedic plays are often looked down upon by many. They may be liked, but some don’t acknowledge them as “high art”. If there was a “high art” when it comes to farce, there is no doubt in my mind that the title belong to NOISES OFF. Structured in three acts as a play within a play, act one is a rehearsal, act two is a performance where we see the action from backstage, and then act three is us watching an actual performance going horrifically…and hilariously…wrong. You do need a very vibrant cast of people and a solid director to make it work to its fullest potential, but for the true set-up and the hilarious dialogue and repetitive motifs, Frayn delivered a masterwork in terms of slapstick comedy…and I almost forgot, I have to leave the sardines.
#14-4.48 Psychosis (Sarah Kane)
-And now for something completely different. Sarah Kane was a promising playwright who caused quite the stir in the 90s, particularly with her unbelievably brutal and bleak play BLASTED. This particular play that I single out here deals with a “character” who suffers from clinical depression, which Kane herself suffered from and it led to her suicide in 1999, a year and a half before it got its official premiere in London. It is definitely the most abstract play on this list as it doesn’t take on any kind of cohesive structure or setting throughout the evening and doesn’t even have a true set character. It is a series of 24 sections that have varied styles of dialogue that range from naturalistic to poetic to oddly abstract. When I was in college, I remember having to read BLASTED in a Text Analysis class, but it was when hearing about 4.48 PSYCHOSIS that I became enthralled by the abstract tragedy that Kane was able to put onto paper.
#13-A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller)
-When it comes to the legends of the playwriting world, I would say that one of the names on the list that I don’t have any real passionate opinion about would be Arthur Miller. Gasp! I know…so sacrilegious. I certainly do admire and respect plays like DEATH OF A SALESMAN or THE CRUCIBLE and even some of his more forgotten efforts like THE RIDE DOWN MT. MORGAN, but for me, I have always found BRIDGE to be my favorite of his works. Also, I had the privilege of seeing the recent revival directed by the avant-garde Ivo van Hove, who stripped the show down to its barest essentials. The results showed that the text and characters held up remarkably well and even cast the show on an even higher level of esteem than I had for it previously.
#12–Fences (August Wilson)
-I don’t think I could stress how much I truly love August Wilson. His 10-play series that is commonly referred to as “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is absolutely fantastic with only maybe 2 of the plays not fully matching the magnificent grace of the other 8. In terms of Broadway, Wilson only had MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (one of my favorites of his) in terms of exposure, but it was FENCES that got him the admiration and his first Pulitzer. I don’t even want to really go into the plotline of FENCES, even though it isn’t anything abstract or difficult to explain, but I will say that the Maxon family (Troy, Rose, and Cory) are fantastic characters and particularly Rose gets to deliver one of the best monologues of all time as she responds to her husband’s ludicrous excuse for committing adultery and fathering a child with his mistress.
#11-Zoo Story (Edward Albee)
–In what could be called the play that put Albee on the map, ZOO STORY is an intense and peculiar piece that is driven by Jerry, a rather disillusioned man who is desperate for human connection and tries to get it from Peter, a wealthy and repressed family man. It takes place in Central Park as the two sit on a bench, but when Jerry’s behavior is about to scare Peter off, Jerry decides to challenge him further. The less said about ZOO STORY the better…it is another piece that you need to read (OR SEE!) to really appreciate.
#10-Miss Julie (August Strindberg)
-This one of the oldest plays on my list (although another selection will beat it by roughly a deacde) and it has always had something of an effect on me as I tend to love domestic tragedies as a genre. Miss Julie has an affair with a senior servant named Jean that escalates into pure despair. In many ways, this particular play shares a similarity with another classic piece that is coming up soon…except this one has a woman who is presumably giving into the pressures of another man; the other play I mention is the opposite…and even the door that the character shuts will mirror that of the other play as well.
#9-Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard)
–With a recent production of the play GARY, which takes place after the bloody events of TITUS ANDRONICUS or even something like WICKED, which takes two supporting characters from THE WIZARD OF OZ and shows us their lives before intertwining with that famous film’s timeline, I think the best example of this kind of genre/structure has to be R&G ARE DEAD…and that is quite remarkable considering it is taking from what may be in contention for being the most famous and revered play of all time, HAMLET. Stoppard has gone on to write many other classics of varying styles and has proved to be quite the remarkable writer, but this play will always hold a special place in my heart.
#8-Copenhagen (Michael Frayn)
-The same man that gave us NOISES OFF gave us this play that revolves around three people sitting in some form of an afterlife talking about why a particular person came to Copenhagen. The people in question are physicist Neil Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and another physicist, Werner Heisenberg.It is Margrethe that starts off the play: “Why did he (Heisenberg) come to Copenhagen?”…and then the rest of the play shows us various representations of debating and rejecting theories as to why this meeting originally occurred …which had been about the moral dilemma of constructing an atom bomb. It pulled off the win for Best Play at the Tonys over DIRTY BLONDE and the first Broadway incarnation of Sam Shepard’s legendary TRUE WEST, both great in their own right, but something about COPENHAGEN’s dreamlike and cold state has always stayed with me.
#7-Angels in America (Tony Kushner)
–A typical but very well deserved selection. While I do tend to prefer the MILLENIUM APPROACHES portion to that of PERESTROKIA, the whole 7+ hour event is easily worth the long day spent at the theatre. I almost feel like I don’t even need to say much about this particular show. I feel like its presence in the theatre world is gigantic and monumental and that basically every character in the show would be a dream for any actor to have a chance to play whether it be Roy or Louis or Prior or Harper and so on…
#6-A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen)
-This will be the oldest play to be included on my list, and it is definitely the more feminist take on MISS JULIE in that Jean told Julie the only way out is to kill herself, which leads her to close the door presumably to slice her wrists with a razor. In A DOLL’S HOUSE, Nora stands up to her husband Torvald by leaving him and her slamming the door behind her in resilience has to be one of the most iconic endings in the world of theatre. Much like ROSENCRANTZ, this show led to a play call A DOLL’S HOUSE PART II, a new sequel written recently by Lucas Hnath which shows what happened to Nora and Torvaldin the decade following her departure.
#5-The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams)
–I’ve never really understood why I love GLASS MENAGERIE the most out of Williams’ work, but I have always been drawn to it more. Also, this was the play that truly began his career and I suppose it could be said that a lot of the autobiographical elements from his own life are what gave it such a strong emotional core. It is set up as a memory play told by Tom, who is remembering his overbearing mother Amanda who is trying to set up her emotionally fragile and handicapped (with a limp due to a bout of polio) daughter up with a gentleman caller, which doesn’t end too well. Laura, and especially Amanda, are fantastic characters for women to play…and it is no surprise that we frequently see revivals time and time again.
#4-The Seagull (Anton Chekov)
-I feel like people either love or hate Chekov…and I can distinctively remember reading his plays in college and having it be pretty evenly split down the middle from those who loved his work and those who found him to be a pretentious bore. He is, in many ways, the playwright whose material is often the hardest to produce and get right due to the delicate nature of his text…but when it is done well, it is GLORIOUS and when it is done bad….my freaking god….
This was the first of what would be followed by 3 other plays which are considered to be his defining four works: THREE SISTERS, UNCLE VANYA, and THE CHERRY ORCHARD…all 4 of them are magnificent but I ended up only choosing to single out THE SEAGULL in this case. It does often feel like his most vibrant.
#3-The Piano Lesson (August Wilson)
-The pinnacle of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle has always been THE PIANO LESSON for me. Set during the Great Depression, the primary drama comes from the brother and sister of the family arguing over what to do with the heirloom piano in their home, the former wants to sell it for money to buy the piece of land where their ancestors worked as slaves while the latter wants to keep it for emotional reasons…primarily because the faces of their ancestors are carved on the piano. It led to Wilson’s second Pulitzer win only 3 years after winning for FENCES…two of the most deserving wins I could possibly imagine.
#2-Long Day’s Journey into Night (Eugene O’Neill)
–In terms of family dysfunction, I don’t think you can really top that of the Tyrones. Not only are the dysfunctional, but it is probably dysfunction at its most bleak. It is considered by many, including me, to be the magnum opus of Eugene O’Neill…and it is also semi-autobiographical to the point that after he completed writing it in 1942, he couldn’t bear to let it see the light of day which led to it not being produced until 1956, three years after his death. The biggest drama comes from the mother Mary, who is incredibly bitter with the life she has had with her former actor husband James and has become addicted to morphine; and Edmund, the youngest son who suffers from Tuberculosis. Set in four acts spanning over the course of one day, its massive length may drive some away but I fell in love with it the moment I read it my senior year of high school. It was a true honor for me to be able to see the recent revival with Jessica Lange, who truly did a fantastic job with the role of Mary. I think it must be said that despite O’Neill’s tendency to be known for being overly depressing and bleak, he does have a slight witty streak within him, and with the right director/actors, you can make his work more bearable if you don’t like the constant woe…and this play is no different that way.
#1-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee)
-We arrive at my number one choice, and for those people that have known me for a while, they probably have heard me give this choice several times. Some people can analyze an idea until they are blue in the face, and I probably did better explaining thoughts about several of the plays prior to this…but I honestly don’t know if I can truly say why it is that this has always been my favorite play from the very moment I read it, only for it to be strengthened when I saw it onstage and also the 1966 film which is very faithful to the original Albee text. I think it is easier to see the plot twist coming nowadays, but it still doesn’t compare you for the emotional blowup from Martha, who had spent the evening being a steamroller towards her husband and their young house guests. The married relationship between George and Martha has become synonymous with that of the husband and wife at odds cliché….and the dichotomy of watching them interact with the younger couple, Nick and Honey, is fascinating as these people are watching a truly warped couple in the most vicious evening of “Fun & Games” imaginable. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was not awarded the year this play was first produced and many believed it was because the committee didn’t feel comfortable giving it to a play that had such foul language….that is a shame, to say the least…and it probably gave them more of a push to reward Albee the prize a couple of years later for his more subdued take on couples drinking together called A DELICATE BALANCE, which is very good of course, but it pales next to some of his best efforts.
When drafting this list, I knew a few plays would be definitive selections that I would never question their placement. I also tried to spread the wealth amongst playwrights to try to get a little variety in terms of the writer or the genre or the era in which the plays were first produced. I would say the final result is a list I am happy with…but I will say that there are several other plays I wish that I could acknowledge….I just felt like I should only leave the list at 25 selections. As with any list, I feel like I could change my mind and move things around….but I think it is noticeable based on his frequent appearances that my favorite playwright is the late Edward Albee…and due to that, I featured more of his work and didn’t even acknowledge other plays of his I greatly enjoyed, like TINY ALICE or SEASCAPE or his very surreal THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY. I am also incredibly fond of Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, but ended up singling them out less. Most of the O’Neill canon is worth mentioning while Wilson has his “Pittsburgh Cycle”, which is mostly masterful with only 2 plays that I would consider less remarkable by comparison to the others. I am also a very big fan of Chekov and wanted to be sure to include a couple of his, while I also managed to leave out one playwright who deserved a mention: Lanford Wilson.
So, that is my list…and we shall see what other crazy list I will try to tackle next.
Perhaps: FAVORITE SHOWTUNES