2011's best: Plays took center stage

1. WAR HORSE (ongoing, Lincoln Center Theater) An

1. WAR HORSE (ongoing, Lincoln Center Theater)

An awe-inspiring yet simple extravaganza about, for starters, a boy, a horse, the horrors of war and the wonders of theatrical imagination. The creatures created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa feel more real -- and more quietly eloquent -- than most characters we think we know in plays.

(Credit: National Theatre)

Here's the news about the year. "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" may have gotten the most headlines -- OK, the most headlines of all the shows together for maybe the last 11 years.

But the deeper story is a low-flying trend, one that really hit me as I was putting together my top 10 plus one for the year. That is, the difference this year is that plays, mostly new American plays, are changing the temperature right now on Broadway.

Playwrights who have worked forever Off-Broadway and in regional theaters have been welcomed into the commercial theater as never before -- at least in my conscious lifetime. Most producers are convinced that they can't take a chance on a new play without a star or four to attract cautious customers. This may be right. But for the most part, star casting has been anything but a stunt.

Whatever. I can't remember a time when plays -- new ones, revivals and British transfers -- outnumbered musicals on my list by eight to two. (Number 11, brief runs of musical showcases for Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Hugh Jackman, doesn't count. And we'll consider "Once," a terrific new Off-Broadway musical, a highlight for next year when it almost certainly transfers to Broadway.)

Of course, the two musicals that have captured America's attention are not easily ignored. One is the Spider thing, which has not generally made the kind of news that producers want but keeps packing in the customers. The other is "The Book of Mormon," that nasty and lovable scamp of a show by the irreverent grown-up boys responsible for "South Park." Broadway hasn't had a hit with this demographic heft since "The Producers" in 2001.

In fact, it was Mel Brooks' blockbuster that began the then-controversial practice of premium seats -- a form of legal scalping that had producers suddenly charging $480 for a decent place in the house. What's taken off in earnest this year is what's called dynamic pricing. Like airlines -- which everyone loves so much -- Broadway now raises and lowers the prices according to demand.

If you have a premium or merely a good seat to "Mormon," "The Lion King," "Wicked" or Hugh Jackman's show, you may be sitting next to someone who has paid much less, or much more, for an identical seat. Prices change week to week, even day by day, depending on the demand.

So even though attendance is down a bit this year, the stratospheric prices for these hit shows are creating those record grosses.

But enough about the marketplace, which feels as separate from regular theatergoers as the 1 percent is from the 99. Let's talk about all the substantial plays, so many that I regret having to leave several of them off my list. Right now, in addition to the three below, we have the star-making performance by Nina Arianda, with Hugh Dancy in David Ives' edgy erotic romp, "Venus in Fur."

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett are making sparky fistfuls of chemistry in "The Mountaintop," Katori Hall's powerfully unpredictable drama about the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Alan Rickman is making would-be novelists shake as the imperious writing teacher in Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar." Lydia R. Diamond's "Stick Fly" explores family drama among privileged blacks. And in "Chinglish," David Henry Hwang finds pithy comedy in miscommunication between an American salesman and the Chinese. They might not all find enough audience to survive the winter, but their very presence is bold.

And another thing. In 2008, Daniel Radcliffe got seriously adult -- and naked -- in "Equus." Since April, he has been delightfully singing and dancing in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." So what does this gifted fellow have to do to get a Tony nomination in this town? Write a play?

1. WAR HORSE (ongoing, Lincoln Center Theater)

An awe-inspiring yet simple extravaganza about, for starters, a boy, a horse, the horrors of war and the wonders of theatrical imagination. The creatures created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa feel more real -- and more quietly eloquent -- than most characters we think we know in plays.

2. THE BOOK OF MORMON (ongoing, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.)

It may be one joke, but the joke is fantastically well done by this jubilant, dirty-talking, irreverent yet surprisingly sweet-hearted hit musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the heat-seeking rascals of "South Park") and Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"). The show has the wit of an irreverent satirical cartoon, the self-delighted shock value of a naughty schoolboy and a pretty amazing affection for the golden age of musical theater.

3. OTHER DESERT CITIES (ongoing, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.)

This dazzling new play by Jon Robin Baitz is to theater what a movie-movie is to film -- a gripping, satisfying, boldly conventional family drama that embraces prickly, gut-conflicted people with unexpected tenderness. The play, directed with hot acid by Joe Mantello with an impeccable cast, is even more powerful than it was last winter at Lincoln Center Theater's Off-Broadway space.

4. FOLLIES (through Jan. 22, Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway)

Until this rich and wrenching revival, I always thought Stephen Sondheim's haunting monument to musical-theater nostalgia worked better as a concert of blazingly theatrical songs than a staged play. (Don't send angry letters; I wasn't around for the 1971 original.) Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines are marvelous as two unhappily married couples, just a few of the former stars, chorines and suitors who return to a follies theater the night before it is turned into a parking lot. Sondheim honors and satirizes the illusions of the American dream while pointing the direction for musical theater's future.

5. THE ---- WITH THE HAT (closed)

Stephen Adly Guirgis' dark comedy was crazy-mad in love with nonstop language (much unprintable) and with its screwed-up, hotheaded, odd-hearted urban characters. With a different title, would this exuberantly staged thrill ride about working-class couples and all sorts of addictions be running still? I'd like to see it again right now.

6. THE NORMAL HEART (closed, beginning a national tour in the spring)

Larry Kramer's furious 1985 AIDS drama always was a shock to the system, an alarm siren against national indifference to the mysterious disease destroying gay men. As this 25th-anniversary revival showed, however, it is also an emotionally devastating piece of intimate theater.

7. SONS OF THE PROPHET (through Jan. 1, Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.)

This major new play by gifted young playwright Stephen Karam takes us to a world both exotic and familiar with elegance and the kind of humor that understands how perilously we all linger near the emotional abyss. A Lebanese-American family with distant links to Kahlil Gibran, self-help poet of "The Prophet," lives with its own special problems and the everyday crises of bigotry and ambition in rust-belt Pennsylvania. Peter DuBois' lean production, which includes a harrowing performance by Joanna Gleason as an unraveling publisher, is terrific.

8. GOOD PEOPLE (closed)

Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") combined his sober and his painful lunatic sides in this stealthily gripping tragicomedy set in blue-collar South Boston. Frances McDormand was unforgettable as a woman stuck struggling in the old neighborhood who encounters the old boyfriend who made it out.

9. BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO (closed)

Every year, it seems I have one production that breaks my heart by not being appreciated enough. Rajiv Joseph's 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, which ran too briefly on Broadway last spring, is the first play I've seen to deal with our 21st century wars in a serious, yet wildly theatrical way. Robin Williams was splendid, playing shrewdly against his antic image as the ghost of a mangy tiger haunting the first Iraq War in this surreal, cruel, darkly entertaining story about the nature of all us beasts.

10. JERUSALEM (closed)

The 2010-11 season practically belonged to unstoppably virtuosic British actor Mark Rylance. Last winter, he was the outrageous boor in "La BĂȘte" then, in the spring, he played an uncontainable life force who lives in a trailer in the Old English woods. I was never convinced that the visceral, gorgeously written, sprawling play was really more profound than the bawdy stirrings of a '60s Renaissance fair. But Rylance made it transformative.

11. PATTI AND MANDY AND HUGH, TOO ("An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin" through Jan. 13, Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.; "Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway," through Jan. 1, Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.)

Jackman is setting Broadway hearts and ticket prices aflame with his singing, dancing, high-voltage nightclub act. LuPone and Patinkin are at the top of their big game in this glorious musical-theater concert. Neither holiday offering is strictly a Broadway show, but that's just fine for now.

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