Best Theater of 2022

Best Theater of 2022 | Unforgettable Experiences

Jesse Green

A Year That Kept on Singing, With or Without the Music

Musicals are exceedingly difficult; they not only have to ace all their disparate elements but also shuffle them perfectly. Perhaps that’s why they’re so thrilling when they succeed — and why I’ve included so few on my Top 10 lists over the years.

And if “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” as Walter Pater wrote, what can poor songless plays hope to achieve?

But this year, something felt different. Among the 10 titles I recall with fondness and alarm below, a record five are musicals and the others behave as if they were. (One is even named for an instrument.) Listed chronologically, and followed by another 11 plays that have stuck with me, they reflect what I hope we will come to see as a time of awakening, which is always a time for singing.

‘Intimate Apparel’ by Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage

The January opening of this gripping new piece of music theater — Gordon, the composer, calls it an “operacal” — set the tone for a year in which words kept leaping into lyrics. Adapted by Nottage from her 2004 play of the same name, “Intimate Apparel” might have seemed an unlikely vehicle for that; its main character, a modest seamstress in early-20th-century New York, even says (or rather sings), “My life ain’t really worthy of words.” But Nottage proved her wrong, paring the play to its expressive core, as the Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Bartlett Sher, gave her full voice. (Read our review of “Intimate Apparel” and our interview with Gordon.)

‘Oratorio for Living Things’ by Heather Christian

At Ars Nova’s Greenwich House theater, 100 audience members sat tightly packed among six instrumentalists and 12 singers in a small, steep, egg-shaped bowl designed by Kristen Robinson to experience a 90-minute earthquake. That was Christian’s rapturous, profound and mysterious music-theater work about our place in history, our place in the universe. It didn’t matter that the words were sometimes gnomic, almost private; the production, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, highlighted thematic cohesion and theatricality even without a traditional story, taking risks to get as close to spirituality as a contemporary theater piece dares. (Read our review of “Oratorio for Living Things” and our interview with Christian.)

Ángel Lozada in Ars Nova’s production of “Oratorio for Living Things.” Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ by Edmond Rostand

Rostand’s 1897 verse drama has been adapted into at least four musicals, but none has equaled the musicality that floods every minute of Martin Crimp’s contemporized version, as seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. I don’t mean just the rap and beatbox interludes punctuating the familiar story of a love triangle among a kept woman, a himbo soldier and a disfigured poet — who, as performed by James McAvoy, was disfigured only in his imagination. But in Jamie Lloyd’s heart-racing production, even spoken soliloquies felt like impromptu arias; with his neck-tingling burr, McAvoy was ravishing. (Read our review of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and our interview with McAvoy.)

‘A Strange Loop’ by Michael R. Jackson

The daring of “A Strange Loop” — a musical about a Black gay man writing a musical about a Black gay man writing a musical — was evident in its 2018 Off Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons. With its meta high jinks and emotional heft, its stark architecture involving just one character and a chorus of his multifarious thoughts, it has rightly been called radical in both form and content. But what will most likely make it last, as its excellent Broadway transfer suggested, are its stagecraft (Stephen Brackett directed) and its songcraft. Rarely have the innovations of Jackson’s idols — from Joni Mitchell to Stephen Sondheim — been repurposed so reverently and irreverently at once. (Read our review of “A Strange Loop” and our profile of Jackson.)

‘A Case for the Existence of God’ by Samuel D. Hunter

For some writers it’s not words themselves that sing but the forces that repress and release them. In Hunter’s plays, the resulting sound is often a moan, as he explores a post-boom, existential vastness in which emotional and economic collapse are conjoined. In his most recent heartbreaker, directed exquisitely by David Cromer for the Signature Theater, two men, a mortgage broker and his woeful client, have in common the sorrow of losing custody of a child. The question is: What is the purpose of a sadness you can share but not escape? The answer, delivered in a surprising and overwhelming epilogue, proved more beautiful than tragedy usually allows. (Read our review of “A Case for the Existence of God” and our profile of Hunter.)

‘Wedding Band’ by Alice Childress

The restoration of Childress (1912-94) to her rightful place as a major American playwright took another step forward when Theater for a New Audience presented, for the first time in a major New York production since its 1972 debut, this blazing, upsetting, necessary work for today. Like her “Trouble in Mind,” “Wedding Band” dramatizes racism not as an anomaly but as a chronic condition — in this case exemplified by the troubled relationship between a Black woman and a white man who in the South Carolina of 1918 cannot marry. But Awoye Timpo’s impassioned production was also about the miscegenation of America itself, a marriage still far from happy more than 100 years later. (Read our review of “Wedding Band” and our feature on “Trouble in Mind.”)

Brittany Bradford and Thomas Sadoski in “Wedding Band,” a Theater for a New Audience production.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

‘Into the Woods’ by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

New York and the world have seen innumerable revivals of this careful-what-you-wish-for fairy-tale musical from 1997. Yet none of them have felt as apt as the one that opened on Broadway this summer, after a brief May run as part of the invaluable Encores! series. Apt because with the Covid pandemic still taking a toll, the show’s theme of caring about community resounded. But also because Lear DeBessonet’s marvelously cast production (and as it kept extending, recast and recast) systematically returned the familiar story to its specifics, bringing out the human comedy within the tragedy, and vice versa. (Read our review of “Into the Woods” and our article about the show’s puppetry.)

‘The Piano Lesson’ by August Wilson

No American playwright storms the line between speech and music as insistently as Wilson, whose 10-play cycle about 20th-century Black life sometimes seems like a single great oratorio in disguise. In “The Piano Lesson,” the disguise is off, as the drama turns on the heirloom instrument of the title, blessed but also haunted by its carvings of a family’s enslaved ancestors. Among the highlights of LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Broadway revival, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks and the spellbinding John David Washington, were the sequences in which joy and pain boiled over into rhythmic dialogue and flat-out song. They reminded us why music is so effective as theater: It’s literally enchanting. (Read our review of “The Piano Lesson” and our article about LaTanya Richardson Jackson.)

‘Topdog/Underdog’ by Suzan-Lori Parks

That Parks is a musician (vocals, guitar, harmonica) comes as no surprise if you’ve seen any of her plays. Some feel like jazz, some like symphonies. From its opening beats, “Topdog/Underdog” is a relentless rap: percussive, playful, braggadocious, baleful. That’s not decoration; it’s built into the story of Booth, a would-be three-card-monte hustler practicing his spiel, and his brother, Lincoln, who gets paid to impersonate his presidential namesake. In Kenny Leon’s Broadway revival, starring the brilliantly paired Corey Hawkins as Lincoln and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Booth, the tragedy felt as inevitable as the final cadence of a song. (Read our review of “Topdog/Underdog” and our interview with the cast.)

‘Kimberly Akimbo’ by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire

The year closed, as it opened, with an unlikely musical translation, in this case turning Lindsay-Abaire’s fine, sad yet whimsical play, first produced in 2001, into an even richer musical. With main characters including the 15-year-old Kimberly, whose genetic condition makes her look like a woman in her 60s, and Seth, a schoolmate so nerdy his best friend is his tuba, it was not an obvious candidate for song. Yet in Kimberly’s profound longings and Seth’s mania for wordplay, Tesori (music) and Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics) found the makings of one of the most beautiful, unexpected scores of the season, to which Jessica Stone’s Broadway staging, a transfer from the Atlantic Theater, gave lovely, low-key expression. And Victoria Clark’s performance as the hopeless yet hopeful Kimberly made us feel somehow that her song was ours. (Read our review of “Kimberly Akimbo” and our interview with the creative team.)

Also Noted

Three plays that I included on previous Top 10 lists — “Cost of Living” by Martyna Majok in 2017, “Downstate” by Bruce Norris in 2018 and “Fat Ham” by James Ijames in 2021 — proved their worth, and even built on it, in restagings this year. Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” and Bess Wohl’s “Camp Siegfried” were imperfect but important works that framed historical antisemitism in social terms (in the Stoppard) and emotional ones (in the Wohl). The Black-led “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway, starring Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke, opened a rich new line of inquiry into that classic, as Robert O’Hara’s Covid-era gloss did for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In an unfunny year, Bryna Turner’s “At the Wedding,” a nuptials-with-an-ex-to-grind comedy, gave the brilliant Mary Wiseman a worthy vehicle. “English,” by Sanaz Toossi, about Iranians learning a new and often inhospitable language, was a very nearly perfect miniature; “The Minutes,” by Tracy Letts, about the atrocities buried in American bureaucracy, was the opposite — messy, maximalist — but just as meaningful. And finally, in a year that offered so much music in language, the splendid revival of “American Buffalo,” starring Laurence Fishburne and the blistering Sam Rockwell, can’t be ignored, much as one may wish to ignore its author.

23 Unforgettable Experiences

The revival of “1776” opens with the cast arriving onstage in rehearsal room wear and then suddenly adjusting their attire to resemble members of the Continental Congress. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Otherworldly portrayals. Powerhouse ensembles. Inventive stagings. These are among the pleasures of theatergoing. And below are some of the theatrical events and moments from the past year that resonated with our critics and editors.

An uncompromising performance

Why seek out another revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” when we had a revelatory one, starring Glenda Jackson, so recently? For one thing, the play, a kind of Cubist portrait of a woman’s life, rewards repeat encounters from different angles. But the big news in this 2021 Stratford Festival production, which began streaming this October on Stratfest@Home (and will remain available through Oct. 16, 2023), is the performance of Martha Henry, one of Canada’s greatest classical actors, as the dying woman at its center. A softer take than Jackson’s — anyone’s would be — it is nevertheless diamond-hard in its acceptance of fate. Indeed, 12 days after the stage run ended, Henry died, at age 83. In every moment you feel her intention to leave the world uncompromised, her nerve and wit blazing. JESSE GREEN

Pandemic as backdrop

Robert O’Hara’s update of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” made shrewd sense of the Tyrone family’s implosion: Lockdown! On a Minetta Lane Theater stage strewn with hand sanitizer, discarded masks and half-opened Amazon delivery boxes, Elizabeth Marvel, as Mary, fell apart grandly, while Bill Camp offered a wickedly funny James Tyrone — self-absorbed, self-flagellating, but more than anything, colossally bored. SCOTT HELLER

Tragicomic excellence

Bryna Smith’s comedy “At the Wedding” already had smart, biting dialogue, but it was Mary Wiseman, playing a hard-drinking smartass named Carlo in the Lincoln Center production, who electrified this show and brought it to a whole new level of tragicomic excellence. Wiseman, as a woman caught in the particular hell that is an ex’s wedding, delivered each line with the same kind of quick-draw rapier wit and erosive sense of self-worth as Natasha Lyonne’s character in “Russian Doll.” (Like Lyonne, she even has wild red hair.) Wiseman underscored the comic performance with such a pervasive sense of vulnerability that Carlo always came across as real and relatable. MAYA PHILLIPS

Best Hades not in ‘Hadestown’

Word that the cult musical “The Life” would get a run courtesy of City Center’s Encores! series led fans to ask: Who would play the magnetic, threatening pimp Memphis, the role that earned Chuck Cooper a 1997 Tony Award for the show’s original Broadway production? The sculpted Antwayn Hopper and his otherworldly bass-baritone — especially in “My Way or the Highway,” the character’s signature song — was the thrilling answer. He was the standout in a production that otherwise strained under updating. P.S.: His red carpet action during the awards season campaign for the musical “A Strange Loop,” where he played one of those pesky Thoughts, wasn’t shabby, either. SCOTT HELLER

Unexpected use of blood

The making of a nation is so rarely a peaceful process. The story of any land is written, in part, in blood. The ecstatic final moments of Tracy Letts’s Broadway play “The Minutes,” set at a city council meeting in a Midwestern enclave and directed by Anna D. Shapiro, acknowledges America’s savage origins. After more than an hour, the parliamentary procedure and discussion of the Big Cherry Heritage Festival gives way to a different kind of rite, a blood ritual literalizing the violent ways in which those in power maintain it. The scene is a travesty, a terrible joke. That’s how the conquered must feel about our nation’s history, too. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Domesticated dino

The baby dinosaur in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Skin of Our Teeth” is a sweetheart, domesticated as a dog. And in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s visually extravagant Broadway production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, he was a puppet so enormous that he counted as one of the show’s several spectacles. When he and his mammoth pal — also a puppet, also designed by James Ortiz — came in from a ferocious cold snap to warm up in their human family’s living room, they were an endearing sight, wreaking benevolent havoc on the houseplants. Then the animals were ordered back outside, into the Ice Age, and the dinosaur gave a backward glance touched with innocence and doom — a more emotionally immediate argument about climate change than a thousand position papers. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Human bulldozer

I don’t remember the specifics of Sam Rockwell’s role in the Broadway revival of “American Buffalo” as much as I remember its atmosphere. Rockwell’s performance had an unbridled force: When he stepped onstage as the foul-mouthed Teach visiting a friend’s junk shop, he virtually bulldozed his way through the space. Embodying the theatrical show of masculinity that the playwright David Mamet is fascinated with here, Rockwell’s Teach moved with violent energy, rapidly pacing while picking things up and putting them down, all the while cursing so freely that the expletives seemed like a new kind of English dialect. MAYA PHILLIPS

Phillipa Soo, second from right, in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” The rotating cast also included, foreground from left: Sara Bareilles, Brian D’Arcy James and Julia Lester.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Team work as a lifeline

On the Tuesday in early May when I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Jamie Lloyd’s stunning “Cyrano de Bergerac” for the fourth time, its star, James McAvoy, was off his game. Nothing flagrant, but Cyrano’s laughs weren’t landing; his usually exquisite poignancy was not in evidence. It’s only human to have a bad day at work; happens to all of us. What made the performance so moving, and memorable, was watching the rest of that powerhouse company step up, steadying and buoying McAvoy. Evelyn Miller as Roxane, Michele Austin as Leila, Adam Best as Le Bret — they were like lifelines in their scenes with Cyrano. I went back to see it once more, by the way, and McAvoy smashed it, left me dazed. They all did. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Flaw-filled finale

A dark comedy about a dark childhood, “The Bedwetter,” Sarah Silverman’s autobiographical musical at the Atlantic Theater Company with songs by Adam Schlesinger, spends two acts detailing Sarah’s bleak tweendom: lothario dad, depressed mom, dead shrink, pill habit, all floating on an ocean of urinary incontinence. In the closing number, Sarah finally owns her imperfections. Her family and friends join her onstage to own theirs, too, singing, “Everybody’s got a story/ Every story should be told/ The shame you carry like a ton of bricks is really worth its weight in gold.” If not exactly a happy ending, it’s a generous admission that we’re all flawed and that it’s those flaws that make us human. Later on, the flaws might even make for a good standup set. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Zoe Glick as Sarah, about to do her first standup routine, in the final scene of “The Bedwetter.” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Small miracles

On its surface, Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Case for the Existence of God” seemed simple, with its two characters seated in one confining office cubicle. But in the deft hands of the director David Cromer, the transitions that showed time passing — and a friendship tentatively blossoming — were almost invisibly signaled by the scrolling of a desktop computer screen. The year’s most subtle piece of stagecraft. SCOTT HELLER

Award show glory

The human voice can be a thrill ride. Sometimes it lifts you up and lands you gently in a slightly new place. Other times, though, it grabs you by the neck and carries you far away — which is the feeling I got when listening to Joaquina Kalukango sing “Burn It Down” at the Tony Awards in June. (She won, of course: best actress in a musical.) I’d thrilled to her performance of the song before, at the climax of “Paradise Square,” but sung without the context of that problematic show, the glory was all hers, not the character’s, as she held us tight in a melody that just kept rising until you thought it could rise no further. It did. JESSE GREEN

A snowy ‘Epiphany’

It can be difficult to emotionally connect to a play whose main currency is ideas. And yet when I think back to Brian Watkins’s “Epiphany” at Lincoln Center, what I remember best aren’t the heady concepts but my emotional reaction to the final scene in the play, also an adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Joyce’s beloved short story ends with an elegant description of snowfall that subtly expands into a vast existential statement. In “Epiphany,” the snowstorm we saw raging outside the windows of John Lee Beatty’s exquisite imagining of a luxe, antique home eventually comes inside. Snow falling inside a living room as the hours creep onward? Ethereal. MAYA PHILLIPS

Tribute to the red, white and blue

The outdoor Independence Day revue masterminded by the director Tina Landau on Little Island delivered two particularly glorious moments, both from Judy Kuhn. The first was “Dear Theodosia,” from “Hamilton,” where the singer achieved aching intimacy against a setting of boats crisscrossing the Hudson at dusk. But the coup de grâce was a cover of Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country,” which ended with the quietly seething lines “We could build the dream with love/And I got fury in my soul/Fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal” — a mix of anger and hope that should be familiar to many Americans. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Multiple personalities

By now we know that Phillipa Soo is a gift to the musical theater. But this year she showed more sides to her talent than ever, including a flair for comedy: as the haughty “warrior queen” Inez Milholland in “Suffs” at the Public Theater; as the starchy Sarah Brown, loosening up under the sway of her real-life husband Steven Pasquale (as Sky Masterson) in “Guys and Dolls” at the Kennedy Center; and as the adorably frantic Cinderella in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” I’ve never heard “On the Steps of the Palace” done better. Coming in 2023: a trip to another palace, as Guinevere in “Camelot.” SCOTT HELLER

Grounded naturalism

Kara Young doesn’t do any role by halves, and as Viola this summer in the Classical Theater of Harlem’s “Twelfth Night,” she was breathtaking instantly. Fresh from her Tony Award nomination for Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” she stepped into Shakespeare with an extraordinarily grounded naturalism. Shipwrecked at play’s start, Viola arrives on the shore of Illyria convinced that her brother, Sebastian, has died at sea. It’s a setup often treated as a simple plot device, with no depth of feeling to underpin it. But in Carl Cofield’s production, Young entered bereft and shivering. That brief, understated glimpse of anguish was all we needed to believe in the siblings’ bond — and get a little choked up when, this being a comedy, they were reunited at the end. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

A refugee puppet leads the way

On the plaza at Lincoln Center, the 12-foot-tall Little Amal puppet swayed gently to the music as an ensemble serenaded her from a balcony. In front of the closed gates of an amusement-park ride in Coney Island, Brooklyn, she danced wistfully to the wafting notes of a Gershwin tune. At the head of a joyous procession up Central Park West, she bounced with sweet abandon to the brass band trailing after her. Created by Handspring Puppet Company, Amal is a 10-year-old Syrian refugee — a bit hulking for a child, and with her long legs capable of striding at quite a clip. But on her tour of New York as summer turned to fall, grace found her whenever she danced. Free in her body, she was sublime. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Little Amal at Lincoln Center in September. She spent nearly three weeks in the city’s five boroughs taking part in numerous events.

Ambitious theatrical staging

The Belgian collective FC Bergman’s show “300 el x 50 el x 30 el” was incredibly intricate: A camera on a circular rail tracked what happened inside each dwelling of a small village that had been painstakingly built on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. The pinnacle was the ending, when the entire company jumped up and down in unison for what felt like forever. The more it went on, the more exhilarating it was. I still can’t quite figure out why this happened, but maybe it’s that gratuitousness that makes the staging memorable. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Sticking the landing

If you saw her as the Barbra Streisand-obsessed Rachel Berry on “Glee,” you wouldn’t really question that Lea Michele could sing the role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” the 1964 Streisand vehicle. She sang it constantly, and well. You might have wondered, though, what else she could do with her fabulous instrument; the role is not a cantata but an emotional slalom that had ended in wipeouts for many before her. When Michele took over the role in the Broadway revival in September, following Beanie Feldstein, she immediately made it clear that she’d learned enough since her Rachel days about the purposes of singing (and the backlashes of life) to give the role surprising dimension. She didn’t just belt, she’d been belted, and let us hear it. JESSE GREEN

A punishing few seconds

One of the most suspenseful scenes of the year lasts only a few seconds, but they feel like a punishing eternity. In the Broadway production of Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living,” Ani, a quadriplegic double amputee played by Katy Sullivan, is relaxing in a bath. When her estranged husband-turned-caregiver walks away to another room, Ani, left alone, loses her bearings in the tub. She can’t get enough purchase to lift herself out and remains submerged, slowly drowning as the audience powerlessly looks on. Rarely has vulnerability been so depicted so economically and so heartbreakingly. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Best costume party

The cast members of the Broadway revival of “1776,” about two dozen strong, arrive in rehearsal room wear — sneakers, T-shirts, leggings. And then, at some signal, they simultaneously kick off their shoes, pull up their socks and slip on an outer layer, suddenly assuming the breeches and frock coat chic of the members of the Continental Congress. As directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, this preshow routine performs a kind of magic trick. These actors have everything up their sleeves. Now you see them. This opening moment is also a provocation. What, it asks, would America look like now if these bodies — female, nonbinary, Indigenous, of color — had birthed it? ALEXIS SOLOSKI

A complete transformation

Corey Hawkins’s performance as Lincoln in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog” is so transformative that the actor is almost unrecognizable. Hawkins is aged up, and appears bedraggled, hard-pressed for some good luck. For so much of the finely tuned play, Lincoln is the underdog, and Hawkins gives the character the kind of knowing speeches and glances that one would expect of an older brother who has yet to figure out his own life. Seamlessly shifting from lighthearted banter to a heartbreaking wilt, Hawkins deftly lays the emotional groundwork that leads to the play’s big third act twist. MAYA PHILLIPS

A mesmerizing opener: watch him close

Alone in a single-room-occupancy apartment, a man builds a stage from milk crates and cardboard. He’s the designer, the playwright, the director, the star. “Watch me close,” the man demands. “Watch me close now.” And in the opening moments of Suzan-Lori Parks’s brilliant, blistering “Topdog/Underdog,” how could a person do anything else? Yahya Abdul-Mateen II opens the show as Booth, a man teaching himself the three-card monte hustle. His hands falter; his understanding of the swindle is incomplete. But he’s an expert at conning himself and when he rattles off his patter, with such yearning and flair, anyone would fall for his dodge. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

No-holds-barred Hamlet

Lars Eidinger’s performance in “Hamlet” at BAM was so inventively bonkers that it felt like a highlight reel. My favorite moment looked unscripted — the German actor is known to fly off on improvised limbs — but actually wasn’t. Without warning, Eidinger let himself fall forward, without any attempt to break the move, and did a faceplant into a mound of moist dirt. Then he just laid there. The move fully committed to elemental slapstick and yet it also carried all the sadness and powerlessness in the world: What else could Hamlet do? ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

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