Friday, January 7, 2022

Top New York Theater of 2021

My Favorite NYC Theater Shows of 2021 

Seven Deadly Sins (c) Matthew Murphy

Even with only five months of in-person theater in the year of 2021 (with the last month making national news because of the overwhelming impact of the omicron variant of Covid-19 on Broadway shows), there was enough good work by the vibrant New York theater community that cries out to be remembered at year’s end.  Here are 8 shows that stood out for me. 

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord (c) Joan Marcus

8. “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” New York Theatre Workshop 

Too soon. That was my one complaint about this enjoyable and exuberant one-woman show by Kristina Wong, a performance comedian. If you couldn’t gather from the title (or the title of her longest running show, “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), she has a quirky view on modern life, “Sweatshop Overlord” centering on the pandemic and her self-appointed task of sewing masks at the height of their need. She drafted a whole coterie of social media friends and strangers known as the Auntie Sewing Squad to do the same. How Wong (no relation) kept her energy up during the run of the show will be her and director Chey Yew’s secret. 

Seven Deadly Sins (c) Matthew Murphy

7. “Seven Deadly Sins,” Tectonic Theater Project

The first 2021 theater show I saw in New York wasn’t inside a theater at all. Playwrights Ngozi Anyanwu, Thomas Bradshaw, MJ Kaufman, Moisés Kaufman, Jeffrey Lahoste, Ming Peiffer and Bess Wohl each wrote a 10-minute play based on one of the seven sins and they were performed in empty storefront windows in the Meatpacking District, with the audience moving to each play, and the resilient actors performing each play six times a night. Not all the plays were great, (special shoutout to "Drag Race's" Shuga Cain as Purgatory's Mistress of Ceremonies) but as a welcome back to theater this past summer, it was just the thing for an audience deprived of in-person theater for 17 months. 

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (c) Joan Marcus

6. “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Signature Theatre Company 

Director Taibi Magar has expanded Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” to include five racially diverse actors performing the intense story of L.A. more explosive racial tensions in 1992, highlighted by the Rodney King beating by police and the riots after they were found innocent. The actors were all strong and their recreation of that period in time was both sympathetic and angry. The similarities to our current situation were easily made and equally depressing. 

The Alchemist, a Comedy (c) Carol Rossegg

5. “The Alchemist, a comedy,” Red Bull Theater 

One of the funniest shows of the season, the Red Bull Theater pulls off the incredible feat of putting on a farce about a pandemic during a pandemic. With some of the best comedic actors in New York, this adaptation of the Ben Jonson play by Jeffrey Hatcher was nonsensical, goofy and director Jesse Berger gave audiences a chance to forget the current situation for 90 blessed minutes. 

The Streets of New York (c) Carol Rosegg

4. “The Streets of New York,” Irish Repertory Theatre (until January 30, 2022) 

Charlotte Moore’s reverential adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s melodrama was a joy to watch. Set in the mid-1800s in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood, it tells the story of a group of Manhattan families living in poverty after an economic panic, even though the banks themselves thrived. This musical (yes, it’s a musical) was the perfect Christmas present and is one of two shows on the list that’s still running. Don’t miss it. 

Letters of Suresh (c) Joan Marcus

3. “Letters of Suresh,” Second Stage Theatre 

Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s newest play continues a story he started in “Animals Out of Paper,” where he tells the story of a young man named Suresh who starts a relationship with a Japanese priest through a theatrical prism of origami. “Letters of Suresh” starts off awkwardly as it tries to keep its monologue structure, even with a cast of four, but once Joseph’s play (as beautifully directed by May Adrales) gets going, it’s engrossing and ultimately very moving. Joseph wrote one of my recent favorite plays, “Guards at the Taj,” as well as “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo” (which was Robin Williams’ only Broadway play in 2011), and while “Letters” may be a minor work in comparison to those plays, I found this one quite poignant. 

Merry Wives (c) Joan Marcus

2. “Merry Wives” Shakespeare in the Park/Public Theater 

Yes, this is not pure Shakespeare.  Playwright Jocelyn Bioh adds a lot of her own dialogue and sass to the play, which would usually bother me, but she does it with such love and care of the character, transporting them from Windsor to South Harlem via a visionary palate by director Saheem Ali.  If you missed it in Central Park, catch the documentary, "Reopening Night" about the making of the show on HBO Max to at least get a taste of this memorable and enjoyable production. 

Kimberly Akimbo (c) Ahron R. Foster

1. “Kimberly Akimbo,” Atlantic Theater Company 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s own adaptation of his 2001 play into a musical with the prolific composer Jeanine Tesori is probably the funniest musical in recent memory. Considering the show centers on a teenage girl with a rare genetic disorder (making her look like the superb Victoria Clark) and the main action of the play is the planning of a felony crime, it shouldn’t be this fun, but it is. As directed by Jessica Stone, it would be a shame if this delightful production doesn’t have an afterlife in New York after the current run ends on January 15.

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