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2011's best: Plays took center stage

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?

--LINDA WINER

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