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Highlights "99: Critics' Picks

Ten reviewers, ten points of view, a few hundred productions. What were the year's highlights for our critics? Here are the answers, as they look back on the shows they reviewed for Back Stage: Riches Off-Broadway

It has been a remarkably rich year, largely due to the vigorous Off-Broadway theatre scene. Outstanding pieces have surfaced among the good, bad, and indifferent. Beginning in January with the Miranda Theatre's moving "Book of Wren" to the brilliant "An Experiment with an Air Pump" recently offered at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the road has been strewn with surprises-offbeat works of high quality.

The Irish playwrights made their impact, with an Irish Rep revival of O'Casey's "Shadow of a Gunman" and a similar play by Brian Friel, "Freedom of the City" (Abbey Theatre at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival). Both were strong pieces dealing with Ireland's "time of the troubles." And a new distinctive Irish voice was heard on Broadway with Conor McPherson's "The Weir," a small gem about shared memories.

Roundabout Theatre Company offered two memorable productions, Harold Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes," a strange, haunting work that raised anxiety to a new level. And the all-American "Mineola Twins," Paula Vogel's commentary, managed to be both biting satire and first-rate entertainment (under Joe Mantello's able direction)-and incidentally a tour de force for Swoosie Kurtz (who gives six portrayals in six different wigs). Predictably, Jean Cocteau Repertory had a fine season, topped by Maxwell Anderson's rarely performed "Winterset." Director Eve Adamson created magic with a simple set, impassioned performances, and impeccable staging.

Our three favorites, for all-around writing, production, direction, and design: "The Book of Wren," Miranda's intense feminist drama by Bronwen Davis, directed by Valentina Fratti. Set in primitive times, it gave a sense of immediacy to an exotic tale. "Fully Committed" was a hilarious one-man show, which revealed the formidable talents of writer Becky Mode and actor Mark Setlock as they skewered upscale restaurants. And best of all was "An Experiment With an Air Pump," Shelagh Stephenson's brilliant take on medical ethics. Despite its heavy themes, the play was alive with vibrant characters and confrontational relationships-all unfolding in two different centuries-and flawlessly directed by Doug Hughes.

Author, Author! Ensemble, Ensemble!

By Victor Gluck

I will remember 1999 as the year of the playwright and excellent ensemble productions.

T.S. Eliot's choral drama "The Rock," absent since 1950, proved to be a heady, magical evening in an expressionistic production at the Washington Square United Methodist Church. A dazzling modern-dress performance of "Le Cid" in its American stage debut, directed by wizard Declan Donnellan, made Corneille our contemporary. The Threshold Theater Company's "Caught in the Act" festival at HERE introduced witty unknown tragicomedies by Ferenc Molnar and Arthur Schnitzler.

From the American repertory, the classic Hollywood comedy, Sam and Bella Spewack's "Boy Meets Girl" proved to still be trenchantly funny in a production on Theatre Row. The Mint Theater Company demonstrated that Susan Glaspell's legendary "Alison's House," might be old fashioned, but still packs a wallop in its final act. "Gemini," Albert Innaurato's coming-of-age comedy drama, returned in a wonderful production by Mark Brokow for The Second Stage in its beautiful new home.

Several major American playwrights were not given long engagements, but their new works were of high quality. John Guare began a new direction with "Lake Hollywood," a poignant and moving study of a 50-year marriage, given a superb production by the Signature Theatre Company. One of the big regrets of the year was that Peter Parnell's adaptation of John Irving's novel "The Cider House Rules," a Dickensian epic, was only given a staging of its first half by the Atlantic Theater Company. Frank D. Gilroy returned to Ensemble Studio Theatre with a powerful new play, "Contact With the Enemy," which raised disturbing ethical questions.

The new whiz kids on the block turned out to be Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson who, like their predecessors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, both write and perform their unique material, in "Maybe Baby, It's You."

Internationals Acclaimed

By Phyllis Goldman

Awards to the Next Wave Festival at BAM and the Lincoln Center Summer Festival! Both outdid themselves in presenting a cross-section of dance events that marched to the top of the best of 1999. Among them "Danzon," a return of Tanztheater Wuppertal in which Pina Bausch took on the birth to death sequence that only her expansive and expressive movement vocabulary could fully embellish. Also at BAM the Sankai Juku Company created an immaculate spell onstage presenting the eerie but mesmerizing movement language of Butoh. Mats Ek established himself as a truly innovative choreographer by inventing yet another ballet version of "Carmen." This one, seen in the Lyon Opera Ballet season at BAM, was bewitching with hands and arms given a vital dramatic spin. The trapeze artists of "Les Arts Saufs," flew high in the vast dome erected at Lincoln Center, dipping and soaring like bats let loose in a dark attic.

Famed choreographer Jiri Kylian and his "Nederlands Dans Theater" appeared at the State Theater in "One of a Kind." It was exactly that-superbly delineated choreography set on dancers whose flawless interpretation and sublime technical skill resulted in an unforgettable evening of dance.

At The Joyce, Peter Pucci's "Pucci Sport" was a capricious take on sports, and is destined for a long, successful performing life. His succinct study of the mannerisms and camaraderie of players in the throes of the "game" became an imaginative homage to what appeared to be Pucci's own passion. The Joyce imported a whimsical tour de force for the enjoyment of both adults and children. Finally, one attraction still available at the Gershwin: "Tango Argentino," a return engagement for this stylish company of sleek dancers. The irresistible men guide the sexy ladies through the passion of the tango to the traditional music of the bandeons. If you want to be transported to Neverland for two hours, pay them a visit!

High Marks for Design and Direction

By Jane Hogan

1999 has proven itself to be an eclectic year in terms of theatregoing experiences. Such a mix is a bit of a nightmare for a writer asked for a final synopsis of the year in theatre; these year-end roundups are soooo much easier to write when there's a nice little overriding theme that one can latch on to (The Year of the One-Person Show, The Year of the Puppets, The Year of the Horse).

No such luck here, though we can start with some awfully good theatrical design. Scenic designer Thomas Lynch created a deteriorating but beautiful old Irish manse in Brian Friel's "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" for the Roundabout; Kyle Chepulis was the man behind two of the most inventive sets, presenting a stark, techno look for Axis Company's recent production of Samuel Beckett's "Play" and a clever series of panels for 78th Street Theatre Lab's presentation of Mac Wellman's "The Lesser Magoo" last spring. Nancy Blackwell shined with her groovy cyber costumes for "SparkleFest 2000," back in June at Dixon Place; Christine Jones exposed the chaotic modern world in her creative split-level design for "Tilt," which ran at La MaMa early in the year; more recently, the design team of "Lola Montez in Bavaria" at HERE was responsible for some nicely realized over-the-top 19th-century decadence [Jerry Schwartz (scenic design), Andrew Hill (lighting), Jocelyn Worrall (costumes), Eric Polito (makeup), and Tal Yarden (video)].

There was also some expert staging over the course of the year: from Richard Maxwell's assured and witty direction for his own "Showy Lady Slipper" (he also wrote it) to Eric Siegel and Pam Tanowitz's smooth and sure co-direction for Siegel's "(wish)," presented last month by Rude Mechanicals at SoHo Rep, to Daniele Varon's firm direction of "A Room of One's Own" at The Salon last spring to David Karl Lee's sharp direction for the aforementioned "The Lesser Magoo."

Bouquets at Year's End

By Karl Levett

Natural-born Quillers Award for New Writing: To Cheryl L. West for her "Jar the Floor," a vibrant examination of African-American mothers and daughters. West has an easy way with character-fed laughter and writes great parts for women. To David Lindsay-Abaire for "Fuddy Meers," a wild ride of a comedy, crammed with skewed invention. An original voice that is surprisingly self-assured for a new writer.

Talk the Talk Award: To Arlene Hutton for a true glimpse of the South in the dialogue of her two-hander romance "Last Train to Nibroc."

If-You-Want-A-Good-Part-Write-It-Yourself Award: To Lola Pashalinski (Gertrude Stein) and Linda Chapman (Alice B. Toklas) for their quotation-collage "Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving," creating warts-and-all personas, tartly performed. To Hazelle Goodman for her "Hazelle to the Top! Top! Top!" This solo performer cleverly presents seven African-American neighborhood characters, five women and two men. She is in the true Ruth Draper tradition, both creative writer and vivid performer.

Laurette Taylor Award for Acting: To Lynn Thigpen for her life-force Lola in "Jar the Floor," a performance with genuine dazzle. To Scotty Bloch for her charming, buoyant presence as the ghost-mother in Marcy Kahan's "Goldberg Variations."

Harold Clurman Award for Group Theatre: To a new company, The Rude Mechanicals, for its seriously professional attitude to theatre, as evidenced in its production of Vaclav Havel's "Largo Desolato."

Briefly Brilliant Award: To Leslie Ayvazian (author-director) and Kaitlyn Kenney (performer) for "Deaf Day," a short solo piece in words and sign language, poignantly original. Presented as part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon '99 Series A.

Boris Aronson Award for Sets: To Rob Odorisio for his design for "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight," a setting much wittier than the play.

Brave New World of Musicals Award: To "Splendora"-Stephen Hoffman (music), Mark Campbell (lyrics), Peter Webb (book)the tricky theme of sexual identity well presented by The Illyria Theatre.

Hare's View- and More

By David A. Rosenberg

It was the year of the Hare. David Hare, that is. The prolific, pungent, polemical playwright was everywhere, but given short shrift by year-end prize-givers. In his new memoir, "Acting Up," he takes umbrage at that slight.

Well, I sympathize, even if that means my contrariness shows. Mr. Hare churned my insides with "Amy's View," his disquisition on theatre and humanity, and I found "The Blue Room" corrosive, prescient, and sardonically amusing. Yet I was left somewhat in the dust over his more widely praised "Via Dolorosa."

In other perversities, of the two Racine tragedies at Brooklyn Academy of Music, I much preferred the lesser-known "Britannicus" to the touted "Ph'dre." Given a choice between salesmen, I opted for Kevin Spacey's to Brian Den-nehy's in, respectively, "The Iceman Cometh" and "Death of a Salesman."

Most tasteless moment: the coprophagous climax in "The Censor." Most tasteful: Kathleen Marshall's canoe-paddle choreography in "Babes in Arms." Liveliest play: Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation." Dreariest: Ellen McLaughlin's "Tongue of a Bird."

Most felicitous pairings: Michael McGrath and Edward Staudenmayer in "Exactly Like You," Marge Redmond and the late Bethel Leslie in "Exact Center of the Universe," Michael Mulheren and Lee Wilkof in "Kiss Me, Kate." Actors to watch: Kristine Nielsen and Joe Quintero.

Best musical? "Contact." Worst? "Saturday Night Fever." Musicals I could sit through again? Anything in the Encores! series (except "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936"). Guiltiest pleasure? "Kiss Me, Kate," which, despite imperfections, showed that not all revivals have to be feeble imitations or inane variations of their originals.

Biggest blows to critical ego? The disappointing audience reception for "Not About Nightingales" and the mobs rushing to "Blue Room" only for a glimpse of Nicole Kidman's tush. Hopes for Y2K (not the play)? A nightly bonfire in Shubert Alley to burn cell phones and pagers.

Delectable Dancers

By Lisa Jo Sagolla

Marvelous Michael Moschen, sexy Steve Paxton, dazzling Doug Elkins, mystical Martita Goshen, newcomer Nathan Trice, and the dynamic duo Dan Froot and David Dorfman-these are the scrumptious dance artists who made especially notable impressions amidst the 51 performers I reviewed these past 12 months.

Though declaring someone a genius should, of course, be done with great hesitancy and care, there's no question that juggler Michael Moschen must certainly be considered a candidate. He wowed spectators with his seemingly magical manipulations of all sorts of objects, offering an astoundingly unique exploration of the intersections between the laws of physics and the aesthetics of kinetic design.

Equally ingenious is the work of contact-improv inventor Steve Paxton who, in his solo performance this year, at the age of 60, reminded us that the allure and relevance of a truly original artist is timeless.

In order to teach, transcend, or inspire, art must first engage. And in order to engage, it must entertain. Embracing this wisdom, choreographer Doug Elkins showcased a stylish and amazingly versatile movement vocabulary that provoked and delighted his many fans.

Captivating us with the pure beauty of natural movements and harmonious visual design, choreographer Martita Goshen accomplished the miraculous: She made today's cynical audiences feel genuinely good about life on earth, by illuminating humanity's connections with the planet's natural history.

It was mankind's spiritual history, however, and our religious myths, that inspired the remarkable choreographic debut of Nathan Trice. He astonished us with a program of works, presented in the enchanting environment of an old synagogue, that far surpassed one's expectations of such a newly minted dance-maker.

And, finally, it just doesn't get any better than "Live Sax Acts," the brilliant comic duets about male friendship collaboratively conjured by Dan Froot and David Dorfman.

A Star Was Born & Ensembles Reigned

By David Sheward

It is rare that a fresh talent emerges from the depths of obscurity to the zenith of fame-and only in one year. 1999 was such a year, and Kristin Chenoweth was the talent. After supporting roles in "Steel Pier" and "A New Brain," Chenoweth burst into the public consciousness as Sally, the determined little sister of the title character in the revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." This petite dynamo was determined to get her way whether it was wheedling a better grade out of her teacher or dragging Snoopy on a mad chase after rabbits. Here is a comic talent to inherit the mantle of zaniness of the late Madeline Kahn. After winning every award possible, the show closed and she almost immediately began rehearsals for "Epic Proportions" in which she transcended her skimpy material. Her star continued to ascend when it was announced that she will be playing a struggling actress in an NBC-TV series next year. Art will not imitate life in this case, since Chenoweth should never have to struggle again. She has promised to return to the stage when not cutting up on the small screen. Thank God!

While one star twinkled more brightly than all the rest, it was also the year of the ensemble. In Patrick Marber's "Closer," Natasha Richardson, Rupert Graves, Anna Friel, and Ciarin Hinds were simultaneously a quartet of skillful sexual predators and a foursome of wounded victims. The much larger cast of the revival of O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" presented a stageful of hopeless down-and-outs at Harry Hope's end-of-the-line saloon. Star Kevin Spacey was only one of 17 achingly real portraits of humanity staring at itself in the mirror and recoiling.

Likewise, Brian Dennehy was unquestionably the center of "Death of a Salesman," but every role down to the briefest cameo was perfectly cast and executed. The year comes to a close with the recent openings of two more dazzling ensemble showcases: Donald Marguiles' "Dinner With Friends" and Arthur Miller's "The Price."

Vibrant Theatre in Unexpected Places

By Elias Stimac

My first year as a theatre critic in New York has been filled with admiration, revelation, and discovery. I've admired the consistently high level of quality shows in New York; realized that vibrant, vital work can take place not only in a major venue but in schools, churches, even the third floor of an office building; and discovered some of the finest theatrical talent I have ever seen, both on- and offstage. Here are just a few of the many highlights that come to mind.

The Innocent Theatre Company sprouted an indelible version of Maxwell Anderson's "Bad Seed." Pilot House built an intriguing "Dark Rapture." Playwrights Horizons presented a gripping "Goodnight Children Everywhere." Wings Theatre Company creatively revived "The Good Person of Setzuan." New York Theatre Workshop produced a haunting "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek." Reverie Productions delivered a stark "Brave Brood." The Worth Theatre Company went two-for-two with its offerings of Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings" and "Uncle Jack," director Jeff Cohen's adaptation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."

In addition to those memorable group efforts, individual kudos should be given to actresses Joanne Liao ("Good Person of Setzuan") and Alicia Goranson ("Trestle at Pope Lick Creek"), actors James Kaliardos ("Bad Seed") and Michael John Garces ("Agua Ardiente," at American Place Theatre), director Ruth Maleczech ("Las Horas de Belen," for Mabou Mines), playwrights Jamie Gorenberg and Elizabeth Benjamin (part of "The Stumbling Tongue," at N.Y. Performance Works), set designer Mark Nayden ("Furious," at N.Y. Performance Works), costume designer Susan Hilferty ("Tartuffe," for The Acting Company), lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound-music designer David Van Tieghem (both for "Trestle at Pope Lick Creek").

The production that most impressed me was Moonwork's presentation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Director Gregory Wolfe and his amazing cast and design team turned the Shakespearean classic into an inventively touching tribute to theatrical magic past and present.

My Favorites: (Musical) History & (Auto) Biography

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

A rousing history of American music, the "other" Civil War musical, A. R. Gurney's most heartfelt autobiographical play yet, a legendary London theatrical pairing, and a true tale of gay old Hollywood stand out among the productions I reviewed in 1999.

"It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" was an enlightening and triumphant compendium, thanks to its straightforward self-assurance and eclectic musicology (despite the limiting title). "Reunion" was a charming retelling of the American tragedy of 1861-65 from the Union point of view. "Ancestral Voices" plumbed further depths among Gurney's own 1930s and '40s Buffalo WASPs. Jerome Kilty's "Dear Liar" demonstrated anew that the 40-year correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell could be as compelling as their onstage voices. And Claudio Macor's "The Tailor-Made Man" brought the first "out" movie star, William Haines, and his 1920s-'50s milieu to vivid life.

Individual performances I'll long remember-in mostly not-first-rate plays or productions-include those of Jennifer Woodward, in the title role of "The Countess"; Laurence Luckinbill, as "Clarence Darrow Tonight!"; Vonder Gray, as a bag lady in "Encounters in Passaic"; George S. Irving, as the acting teacher in "So Long, 174th Street," based on Carl Reiner's autobiography; Mark Linn-Baker, the sole performer in "Chesapeake," and James Naughton as his slick, confident self in his musical walk down his memory lane, "Street of Dreams." Most of all, I'll remember Elizabeth Wilson, the errant but unapologetic grandmother in "Ancestral Voices." That piece also offered my favorite ensemble acting of 1999, a year of many good ensembles: Wilson, Philip Bosco, Blythe Danner, Edward Hermann, and David Aaron Baker became a believable family, even sitting down in this much-more-than-staged reading. The six exuberant performers in "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," and the half dozen thoughtful interpreters of "Reunion" brought even larger themes of Americana to the forefront. q

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