In my annual list of favorite theater, a few awkward questions pop out. First, what does it say about the season's staying power that only three productions are still running? What does it say about new musicals that only one -- "Once" -- makes the list? And how about a year when, unquestionably, the best theater came from previous work from the masters -- Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Clifford Odets?
On the brighter side -- and there is, in fact, a bright side -- eight of my picks are American playwrights in a category long dominated by the English. Better yet, five are actually alive.
The lure of stars appears to have dimmed a bit this year, though the limited run of Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross" recouped its investment this month despite mixed reviews and controversies over its extended preview period. I worry that the empty seats for the extraordinary, universally-praised revival of "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" can be traced to the lack of movie stars on the marquee.
Sticker shock has grown preposterously on Broadway -- with so-called premium seats hovering between $300 and almost $500. Little wonder that Broadway ticket sales topped $1 billion for the third straight year.
Off-Broadway, however, there is very big news in going small. The Signature Theatre has had a remarkable year in its new Frank Gehry-designed complex, with none of the three theaters bigger than 299 seats. And, during the scheduled run of each production, every ticket is $25. Lincoln Center Theater built a 112-seat jewelbox, the Claire Tow Theater, on the roof of the mother ship for its LCT3 series. The plays have been outstanding and the tickets, just $20.
Both the Signature and the Tow are part of another welcoming trend. Each also offers a place for theatergoers to hang out. The Signature has a large homey cafe in the middle of the action. The Tow has a woodsy outdoor deck overlooking the Lincoln Center complex.
For a more grown-up kind of hanging out, we now have 54 Below, the cozy and sophisticated 150-seat supper club in the cellar of the building that houses Studio 54. Owned and designed by Broadway pros, the place offers solo cabaret acts by all kinds of theater people we know, mainly from big shows.
Finally, Gerard Alessandrini's merciless satire, "Forbidden Broadway," is back making fun of all this after a hiatus of three long years. The current show is called "Alive and Kicking," which is how I feel about the treasures -- mostly now memories -- below.
1. EDWARD ALBEE'S WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (through Feb. 24, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.) The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's brilliant 50th anniversary production shifts the balance in Edward Albee's late-night marital evisceration without losing a gasp of emotional terrorism. Instead of playing Martha as a gorgon, Amy Morton goes for subtle power. Meanwhile, Tracy Letts turns husband George from the beta dog to a pit bull. Director Pam MacKinnon delivers a visceral, devastating, deeply human night.
2. DEATH OF A SALESMAN (closed) Director Mike Nichols went back to the original 1949 designs but found devastating new shades in the familiar characters of Arthur Miller's masterwork. With Philip Seymour Hoffman as a younger and lighter Willy Loman and Andrew Garfield as a more delicate Biff, the former quarterback, Nichols' wrenching production honored the legacy while finding a fresh humanity on its own.
3. DISGRACED (closed) This is the best play that you probably never knew was here. Presented in a limited run at Lincoln Center Theater's tiny Claire Tow, Ayad Akhtar's quick-witted and shattering drama builds on the explosive ambivalence about Islam, Judaism and America felt by two upscale Manhattan couples. Aasif Mandvi (best known from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") strips off the protective layers on a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer in this disturbing quartet about a Muslim, a Jew, an African-American and a white woman. Here's hoping some smart producer decides to let everyone in on this important and captivating new work.
4. ONCE (ongoing, Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.) Who could have imagined that last spring's Tony would go to a peculiar and enchanting, heart-tugging romance about a glum but dashing Dublin guitarist, a delightfully solemn pianist from Czechoslovakia, an Irish/Eastern European sensibility and lots of off-center hipster wit? The chamber musical, an expansion of the 2006 indie film, moved from the New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway without losing a moment of its wonderful strangeness.
5. ATHOL FUGARD SEASON (closed) The Signature Theatre's three-play celebration of the work of the great South African playwright/provocateur was everything one could hope it would be -- impeccably and lovingly staged personal stories that reverberate into universal dimensions. More, please.
6 THE PIANO LESSON (through Jan. 13, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directed a stunning production of Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" at the Signature, also has staged August Wilson's 1990 Pulitzer-winning ghost story there as an ensemble treat both haunting and haunted.
7. UNCLE VANYA (closed) Anton Chekhov's 1897 masterwork of mixed emotions has had an unambiguously glorious year -- first with the astonishing Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company, then way downtown at the Soho Rep in Annie Baker's vibrant adaptation. There, audiences sat on stairs around the action, performed close-up with a terrific New York cast -- including, not incidentally, Michael Shannon, the tormented former Prohibition agent in "Boardwalk Empire." (Shannon has been working all over New York theater this year. If you get a chance to see him in anything, I promise you won't be sorry.)
8. CLYBOURNE PARK (closed) Bruce Norris' 2011 Pulitzer-winner slyly contrasts a modest Chicago bungalow, first in the white neighborhood where the black family in "A Raisin in the Sun" prepared to move in 1959 and, 50 years later, where yuppies are gentrifying the ghetto. Pam MacKinnon (see "Virginia Woolf") directed the tragic-comedy with unrepentant, delightful viciousness.
9. THE BEST MAN (closed) Gore Vidal's 1960 campaign melodrama, star-encrusted with a cast including James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, felt as pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our mud-fight to the White House.
10. GOLDEN BOY (through Jan. 20, Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.) The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher stage a bristling 75th anniversary revival of Clifford Odets' drama about a gifted Italian-American kid who gives up his violin for the fame and fortune of prizefighting. This is a pivotal American period piece with a huge, expert cast -- including Seth Numrich as the wayward prodigy and Tony Shalhoub as his massively sweet and complicated immigrant father.
11. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN (closed) Nathan Englander's deeply moving adaptation of his own short story explored the last hours of Yiddish literary stars in a Soviet prison. Director Barry Edelstein and six exquisitely individual actors at the Public Theater created an entire lost world that thrived, momentarily, until Stalin's crackdown on what was demonized as the "Jewish conspiracy in the arts."
12. HURT VILLAGE (closed) Katori Hall, another worthy object of the Signature Theatre's attention, split open the old-fashioned black-family melodrama into a rich, audacious play-with-music-and-dance that turned potential cliches about gentrification hell into something close to tribal psychological touchstones. The play introduced a gifted young actress named Joaquina Kalukango as the scary-wise 13-year-old and let us marvel at the versatility of Tonya Pinkins in one of her many impressive performances this year.
Patti LuPone, Debra Winger and a new David Mamet play called "The Anarchist." What could be bad? Alas, the play.
I'm sorry. No, I'm not. Yes, I am. No, I have a gooey sweet spot for "Annie." When meanie Miss Hannigan swoops down on the girls in the city orphanage to growl, "Did I hear happiness in here?," a little voice in my head always says, uh, yeah.
The absolute worst
"The Performers" -- starring Henry Winkler as an aging porn star -- was not shocking because of the dirty words or the blunt sexuality about the adult film awards in Vegas. It was shocking because it was so idiotic.