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Best Shows of 2012 Include ‘Salesman,’ ‘Sorry’: Review

'One Man, Two Guvnors'
Suzie Toase and James Corden starred in "One Man, Two Guvnors." Set in the British seaside town of Brighton, the comedy was a National Theatre production. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Commanding new voices and rising young actors competed with revivals for attention in 2012. These were the best of them, on and off Broadway.

1: Mike Nichols’s wrenching revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard to love but impossible to ignore Willy Loman, towered over the season.

2. Director Pam MacKinnon’s revelatory staging of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” restored our faith in the entertainment value of marriage as warfare, 1960s-style. It’s still running, and you must see it.

3. At Lincoln Center Theater’s intimate new Claire Tow Theater, Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” continues to scorch audiences with its unflinching look at marriage vows versus tribal loyalties. As a Pakistan-born mergers and acquisitions lawyer who’s not entirely assimilated, “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi leads a pitch-perfect ensemble through this timely collision course.

4. Richard Nelson’s “Sorry,” set during the early morning hours of Election Day, 2012, opened at the Public Theater on the evening of that very date. This latest installment (the third of four) about the Apple family was performed with exquisite Chekhovian truthfulness.

Art House

5. Also at the Public, a new musical, “February House,” looked at a Brooklyn brownstone whose motley tenants briefly included W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee. The glittering songs by Gabriel Kahane ranged from torchy ballads to music hall ditties, all put across by a vivacious cast. Buy the brilliant cast recording.

6. Set in Costa Rica, Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl” at the Claire Tow provided the latest showcase for actress Sarah Steele, playing a teenage girl seeking solace at her uncle’s jungle hideaway after a tragedy at home. Watch for that name; you’ll be seeing it a lot.

7. Two disparate stagings of my favorite Chekhov play were among the season highlights. The Lincoln Center Festival presented “Uncle Vanya,” starring an icily brilliant Cate Blanchett. Downtown, Soho Rep’s “Vanya” was the more intimate event, placing us right in the faces of the players in Chekhov’s probing comedy and offering another memorable performance by Michael Shannon as the besotted doctor Astrov.

8. Frank Gehry’s inviting three-theater complex for the invaluable Signature Theatre Company is a major addition to the city’s cultural life. Deeply affecting productions of three plays by the incomparable Athol Fugard -- “Blood Knot,” “My Children! My Africa!” and “The Train Driver” proved that low prices and powerful stories fill houses.

Albee, Durang

9. Recalling James Corden’s nonstop clowning in “One Man, Two Guv’nors” still cracks me up. I described him as a pudgy beignet of an actor. You could eat him up in Richard Bean’s hilarious update of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters.”

10: Another important young voice was heard at Playwrights Horizons in Lisa D’Amour’s powerful “Detroit,” about two couples living at the edge of oblivion in that economy-torn city. David Schwimmer, proving there’s life after “Friends,” led the fine quartet of actors.

Honorable Mention: Signature’s “The Lady From Dubuque” showed that Albee’s once-dismissed play is a keeper. James Lapine’s Broadway revival of “Annie” is hugely entertaining. Christopher Durang’s comedy “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” is still the funniest show in town.

Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker squared off in a charged, under-appreciated revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Disney’s “Newsies,” given the once-over by Harvey Fierstein, has some of the most infectiously kinetic dancing in the city. Jake Gyllenhaal electrifies “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” as the garrulous uncle of a morose teenage girl with self-esteem issues.

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include movies and Lewis Lapham on books.

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