In 2008 I lived out of a suitcase — and loved it. I reviewed 114 plays and musicals for the Journal, half in New York City and half elsewhere. I went to 14 different states (plus the District of Columbia) in search of good theater, and found it everywhere from California to Vermont. Though Broadway had much to offer in 2008 — it usually does — most of the best shows that I saw in the year just past were far from Times Square.
Give Broadway its due: It brought us, among other good things, Raúl Esparza in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and Frank Langella in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” a pair of uneven revivals that were redeemed by the bravura performances of their stars — and, in the case of “A Man for All Seasons,” by the equally exciting acting of Patrick Page as Henry VIII. But you didn’t have to fly to New York to see Mr. Page strut his stuff, for he also appeared in “The Pleasure of His Company,” a delightfully old-fashioned drawing-room comedy from 1958 that was revived to rousing effect by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Such plays are rarely to be seen on Broadway nowadays, but they remain staple items in the repertories of regional theater companies that have a proper appreciation of the permanent value of civilized, well-crafted entertainment.
The best Shakespeare productions in America are also to be found outside of Manhattan. Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project, for instance, put on a superb version of “The Tempest” that was staged by Patrick Swanson in the style of a 19th-century magic show. The richly eloquent Prospero was Alvin Epstein, an octogenarian trouper who made his stage debut in 1945, appeared on Broadway a decade later in the New York premiere of “Waiting for Godot” and shows no signs of slowing down. No less magical — if considerably bloodier — was the production of “Macbeth” jointly staged by Teller (the silent partner of Penn & Teller) and Aaron Posner, which opened at Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J., then traveled to the Folger Theatre in Washington. Unabashedly melodramatic and staggeringly effective, this “Macbeth” deserves to be seen throughout America.
My list of first-class revivals also includes several modern plays, none seen on Broadway and all graced by dynamic star turns. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey gave us Bonnie J. Monte’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois, made Tennessee Williams’s doomed heroine fully believable for the first time in my playgoing life. Friendly Fire’s Off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet,” with Daniel J. Travanti and Tessa Klein, made devastating sense out of a play that I’d long thought second-rate. And Chicago’s Shattered Globe Theatre, working out of a dingy walk-up theater whose air conditioning was on the blink, gave a vibrant performance of Shelagh Delaney’s rarely seen “A Taste of Honey” that left me in no possible doubt of the play’s enduring viability. The angry, gawky energy with which Helen Sadler played Jo, Ms. Delaney’s working-class protagonist, was enthralling to behold.
The summer festival circuit brought us Gus Kaikkonen’s no-nonsense production of “Our Town,” performed by the Peterborough Players in the New Hampshire town that was the real-life model for Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners. James Whitmore was peppery and unsentimental as the Stage Manager, an approach well suited to Mr. Kaikkonen’s staging, which was full of comic energy and light on the pathos. Among outdoor productions, I was especially impressed by the American Players Theatre’s fizzy, operetta-like rendering of “Widowers’ Houses,” George Bernard Shaw’s first play, performed in the company’s hilltop amphitheatre in Spring Green, Wis., Frank Lloyd Wright’s hometown. Stimulatingly directed and impeccably cast, it was as good as any Shaw production I’ve seen in New York.
The incidental music for “Widowers’ Houses” was composed by Joshua Schmidt, who also wrote the score for one of the two most interesting new musicals that I saw in 2008. “Adding Machine,” a Chicago-to-Off-Broadway transfer, is a brainy techno-minimalist chamber musical whose near-arrogant sophistication was bracing. I also liked Stew’s “Passing Strange,” a regional musical that made it to Broadway by installments (it started out at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, then transferred to New York’s Public Theater). Neither show was perfect, but both dared to take chances in a season when nearly everyone else in the musical-comedy business played it super-safe.
The best musicals that I saw in 2008, however, were a pair of small-scale revivals. Charles Newell’s up-close-and-personal “Carousel,” which originated at Chicago’s Court Theatre, then moved to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, was a deeply creative rethinking of a show that many (myself included) find to be a bit on the gooey side. And Adam Guettel’s new chamber version of “The Light in the Piazza,” staged with intelligence and grace by Steve Stettler at Vermont’s Weston Playhouse, is arguably superior to the full-scale version that was seen on Broadway in 2005.
Impressive new plays, unlike memorable new musicals, were far easier to find. Two of the smartest shows of the year had their premieres Off Broadway, David Ives’s “New Jerusalem” by the Classic Stage Company and Brooke Berman’s “Hunting and Gathering” by Primary Stages, while Hollywood’s tiny but tremendously accomplished Fountain Theatre had the privilege of presenting the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s “Victory.”
All of which brings us to the top of the heap:
• The best young playwright of 2008 was Itamar Moses, whose “Back Back Back,” a conversation piece about three major-league baseball players who become entangled in a web of betrayal, runs through Jan. 7 at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. It also presented Mr. Moses’s “The Four of Us,” the poignant, ingeniously told tale of two ambitious young writers, earlier this year. Factor in the excellent West Coast revival of “Bach in Leipzig” by Shakespeare Santa Cruz and you’ll get the idea: Mr. Moses, though he’s only 31, is well on the way to becoming a key figure in American theater.
• As for the most promising young actor, Zoe Kazan is the easiest of calls. She was seen twice on Broadway, in William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” and Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” giving passionate, deeply considered performances for which the word “charismatic,” though overworked, is inescapable. It can only be a matter of time before the prodigiously gifted Ms. Kazan becomes a name-above-the-title stage actor.
• What about the best shows on Broadway? Musically speaking, it was ” Gypsy” all the way. The Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Jerome Robbins 1959 docudrama about Gypsy Rose Lee and her Mama Rose is rightly regarded as one of the half-dozen greatest musicals of the 20th century, and this revival, directed by Mr. Laurents, was a major theatrical event in its own right. Not only is Patti LuPone the Mama Rose of our time, but the rest of the cast was up to her formidably high standards. Haven’t seen it yet? “Gypsy” closes on Jan. 11, so do the hustle.
• Among straight plays, the Primary Stages/Lincoln Center Theatre transfer of Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” goes to the head of the class, both for Mr. Foote’s wickedly funny portrayal of a greedy Texas family and for the brilliant acting of the ensemble cast. This is the show that I now recommend to out-of-town friends who ask me what to see when visiting New York.
• The best drama company of 2008, on the other hand, is to be found not in New York but Glencoe, the Chicago suburb to which I traveled twice this year in order to see Writers’ Theatre, a small but dazzling troupe that performs in a 108-seat house of unrivaled intimacy. James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” staged by Rick Snyder, was one of the strongest revivals that I saw in 2008, while William Inge’s “Picnic,” directed by David Cromer, was the show of the year, a production more than worth traveling halfway across the country to see. Everything about “Picnic” — Mr. Cromer’s rapt staging, Jack Magaw’s you-are-there set, the disarmingly natural performances of Hillary Clemens, Hanna Dworkin and Bridgette Pechman — was beyond praise.
The National Endowment for the Arts recently issued a report claiming that the number of Americans who attend at least one nonmusical play each year dropped to 21 million in 2008 from 25 million in 1992. Nobody knows why that number is falling, but judging by the fruitful results of my coast-to-coast travels, those four million Americans are missing out on something wonderful.