We try to go in with an open mind, we critics do: Theater is alchemy, and often the whole really is more than the sum of the parts. So knowing what you think you know about a director, a show, a cast—it doesn’t always mean you know what’s going to happen.
Still, after 15 years on a beat, you do know stuff, and that stuff shapes your expectations—about shows, about institutions, about the process of making theater. What’s fantastic is when all that experience turns out to be for naught, and something surprises the heck out of you. It’s like being a newbie again. So this year, rather than running down yet another list of highs and lows, I thought I’d put it all right out there, and tell you about a few expectations that I was pleased (for the most part) to be flat wrong about.
I wasn’t overly enthused, for instance, about another evening with David Mamet, whose tics and bile can be oppressive when actors and directors don’t find the humanity at the heart of his characters. For her farewell at Studio Theatre, founder Joy Zinoman dropped American Buffalo into the slot and came up with straight 7s—with a substantial assist from Edward Gero, whose grubby Donny Dubrow broke my heart clean in half.
Hamlet, conversely, is a play I’m always happy to see but occasionally somewhat reluctant to write about again. Finding something fresh to say is easier, though, when a director surprises you not once, not twice, but three times with ideas you’ve never seen teased out of a 400-year-old play—which is why I left Joseph Haj’s lean, swift-moving June staging at the Folger Theatre feeling like I needed have yet another look at the text. (A bonus? Todd Scofield’s ghost, whose paternal kindness was palpable.)
A talky old French comedy, rewritten by a cerebral American playwright known for wordplay? Forgive me, The Liar, for not having known immediately that you’d be awesome. I take it back, Sabrina Fair: You may be 60-something, but you were surprisingly nimble and charming when you showed up at Ford’s this season. And apologies to you too, Rent; I know you’ve been around the block a few times, but when your Alphabet City rocks as hard as it did in the Keegan Theatre’s production, I’ve gotta pay you your due.
A surprise of another sort? South Pacific, reportedly splendid in its Lincoln Center incarnation but sleepy (if well-sung) in its national-tour stop at the Kennedy Center. No surprise at all? Sunset Boulevard, which is nothing if not an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: two tunes, wrapped up in a melodrama and hammered into your head all night long. (It is gratifying, though, that Signature Theatre co-founder Eric Schaeffer still pours that kind of ambition and energy into productions at his home base. With the company settled firmly into its no-longer-new Shirlington home and a regional Tony under its belt, I’d half expected to hear this year that Schaeffer, who with Million Dollar Quartet finally got the Broadway hit he’s been chasing, had anointed a successor and announced plans for the next phase of his career.)
The year’s biggest and most gladdening shocker, though? That would have to be Oklahoma, and I’ve never been so happy to have my expectations confounded. The bizarre rumors that attended its casting process, the general sense that such a safe old chestnut was hardly the show to open the dazzling new Arena Stage with, my own record of generalized “meh”’s when it comes to Molly Smith’s excursions into musical theater—let’s just say my hopes were nowhere near as high as the proverbial elephant’s eye, and it was only a sense of duty that made me drag my weary carcass down to the sparkling new Mead Center that Thursday night. But by the time Eleasha Gamble’s warm and winning Laurey took her seat in that clothesline surrey, I was wearing a stoopid happy grin—and it didn’t leave my face all night.
Darn show’s still running, right? I may need to go back.