Emily Davis and Pernell Walker
Off Broadway’s Season Shook Up Norms of Life and Theater
Our co-chief theater critics discuss the plays and musicals that reflected and predicted an unstable world.
Deirdre O’Connell in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” at the Vineyard Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Given the indefinite postponement of the Tony Awards, we recently looked back on a Broadway season that ended prematurely and decided to distribute our own set of prizes. It seems only fair that we extend our discussion to Off Broadway — which, before its houses were also shuttered, provided some of the most original, powerful and prescient theater of the past year.
BEN BRANTLEY So much of what we saw Off Broadway from last spring onward has stayed in my mind, Jesse — or, perhaps, I should say, it haunted me. In many of these productions, time seemed to be torn off its hinges, and the solid floor of what we think of as “normal life” to have cracked open. Who knew how apt a preface such works would provide for the rudderless world we now inhabit?
JESSE GREEN “Rudderless” is exactly how a lot of these terrific plays (and a handful of musicals) wanted us to feel politically, existentially and even spiritually — I mean with actual ghosts. Above all, I’m thinking of Yaël Farber’s production of “Hamlet,” starring Ruth Negga, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Its treatment of the supernatural was as simple and successful as any I’ve encountered.
BRANTLEY Yes, time has rarely felt as “out of joint” in “Hamlet” as it did in this thrilling production from the Gate Theater in Dublin. Negga, an Irish-Ethiopian actress, played the prince as a sheltered, thin-skinned young man abruptly forced into acknowledging a world ruled by corruption and death. Farber conjured a sense of the other — or another — side behind the known universe. Negga’s extraordinary, multilayered performance was built on the outrage of a previously untested mind coming to terms with an awareness of that other realm.
GREEN And Farber smartly staged most of the ghost scenes in the midst of the audience, so we had to do physical work — turning, hunting — to confirm our worst fears. Another play that actively destabilized our perception of a predictable world was Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” at Playwrights Horizons, about a medium who may be a fraud and a client who insists on believing her anyway. Weirdly, in the audience, I preferred to believe her, too.
BRANTLEY Hnath is my nominee for playwright of the year, in terms of his ability to unsettle through unorthodox theatricality. That was true not only of “The Thin Place,” but also of his devastating “Dana H.,” an account of his mother’s abduction by a psychotic patient she had served as a chaplain. The text consisted entirely of interviews conducted with his mother, delivered by the actress Deirdre O’Connell (lip-syncing to the recorded material). And what initially seemed like a gimmick became a powerful instrument of dislocation. This was at the Vineyard Theater, which also presented the season’s other great work of destabilizing documentary theater, Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room.”
GREEN In their uncanniness, these two plays seemed to create a shadow image of our eerie politics, without ever making a direct political statement. The man who abducts Dana in “Dana H.” is part of a white supremacist netherworld, and though she returns from it, she and we are changed. “Is This a Room” — a verbatim transcript of the FBI interrogation of the intelligence specialist Reality Winner — raises the specter of a coming police state. Or is it already here?
BRANTLEY Emily Davis’s portrayal of Reality Winner captured the wrenching internal struggle that happens when we’re trying to pretend life is “normal” — that it’s not under threat and about to unravel — when of course the opposite is true. And at this point, I would like to declare Negga, O’Connell and Davis as tied for the best actress of the year, on or Off Broadway.
GREEN No disrespect to performances on Broadway this season but, as usual, Off Broadway offers actors so much more range to explore, and in these cases with no loss of bravura opportunities. I was also stunned by Hannah Gadsby, whose uncategorizable “Douglas” — a stand-up act that was also a drama that was also a tirade — was not just a great turn but a beautifully crafted argument about sexual, neurological and physical difference. “I no longer believe that I am falling short of expectations,” Gadsby says in the show. “I believe it is those expectations that are falling short of my humanity.”
BRANTLEY Gadsby is disruptive in a positive sense, in that she’s redefining all sorts of preconceptions, whether about genre or gender. This was a season that shook up expectations of what a play could be, as we’ve noted, but also of what a musical could be. (The high point among more conventional fare: Michael Mayer’s blissful production of “Little Shop of Horrors” starring Jonathan Groff.) I’m thinking of Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop,” an exercise in athletic navel gazing at Playwrights Horizons about a black, queer creator of musicals (like Jackson); and “Octet,” Dave Malloy’s extraordinary a cappella chamber opera at the Signature Theater, about a group of internet addicts gathered in an Alcoholics Anonymous-style assembly. Both shows were, for the most part, set in the shadowy, teeming interiors of isolated human minds.
GREEN And both were about characters lost in worlds that at first seemed free but turned out to be prisons. What prescience! Usually we think of great new work as historical, tying together threads of recent social change. But in so many plays this season, authors seemed to predict what was coming next — or at least to question, often bitterly, the presumption of stability in the present. That’s why we saw so many ghosts: They are both warnings and reproaches. In Bess Wohl’s extraordinary “Make Believe,” at Second Stage Theater, the ghosts were the kind children make with white sheets but also the kind adults sense hovering around them, whispering that the world is not as safe as they were told it would be.
BRANTLEY In Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” at Playwrights Horizons, those fears were shared by an unexpected cast of characters, who made your stereotypical Manhattan audience — i.e., left-leaning, anti-Trump — question its assumptions about Americans on the right. The play gave us a gathering of spiritually minded, academic arch-conservatives contemplating their own crises of faith, with gripping dramatic conviction. And this, too, was a play that memorably made room for the numinous, the inexplicable.
GREEN For most of that audience, “Heroes” was both an insight into a world we rarely think of without snark and a horror story about the backlash always threatening to rise from the graveyards of past battles. That theme was even more explicit in two plays that rethought the successes of gay liberation: “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House,” by Liza Birkenmeier, and “History of Violence,” based on an autobiographical novel by Édouard Louis. “Dr. Ride,” at Ars Nova, looked longingly at a moment (it’s set in 1983) before everyone had to choose sexual sides. And “Violence,” another St. Ann’s presentation, described in painful detail the way academic ideas about sexuality get twisted into an impossible knot by a real-world gay tryst that turns to rape.
BRANTLEY “History of Violence,”with its self-made intellectual protagonist who came from a blinkered blue-collar background that he revisits in the course of the play, is also of course about class, and how it shapes prejudices, identity and, often, a paralyzing feeling of predeterminism. I found the same themes in a much more conventional, but equally energizing, portrait of a New York shelter for victims of abuse, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” at Atlantic Theater Company.
GREEN No one gets the garrulous mess of life onstage like Guirgis, and with 18 rich characters, “Halfway Bitches” had even more life per minute spilling past the proscenium than usual. I left feeling wonderfully destabilized by his unbridled empathy.
BRANTLEY While Guirgis wraps all his characters in a warm blanket of compassion, he doesn’t give them — or us — false hopes of an easier future. Might I bring up a play that is indeed set in the future, and also refuses to pander or reassure? That’s “Queens Row,” Richard Maxwell’s study of a dystopian United States, performed at the Kitchen. In it, three women describe the blasted, divided world they now inhabit. It should have been an unconditional downer. Yet it is Maxwell’s implicit contention, that where there’s life there’s, well, life. That in itself is something to celebrate. So is theater that can take on life, even in its darkest aspects, and make us see it more clearly.
GREEN That’s a gift today. Or should I say yesterday? By forcing us into conversations with the unstable world we mostly prefer to ignore, these plays restore a kind of equilibrium that may also help us survive it.