As was the case last year, 2019 was a good year for New Jersey theater productions with a strong political or social component. Many of the entries in my Top 10 list for this year — from Eleanor Burgess’ timely “The Niceties” to Henrik Ibsen’s timeless “An Enemy of the People” — had a lot to say about the world we’re living in right now, though a few of my selections, including “Noises Off” and “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” were nearly equally valuable as opportunities to escape from it for a few hours.
There are plenty of New Jersey plays I didn’t see, of course — I can only see so much — but I don’t think that should prevent me from celebrating the best of what I saw.
So here are my 10 favorite productions, in order of preference, with brief descriptions and links to my original reviews. If you feel I’m not including a worthy play, please feel free to write about it in the Comments section, below.
1. “The Niceties” at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton. A well-meaning middle-aged white Ivy League professor is confronted about the subtle prejudices that underlie her work, and her life, by an uncompromisingly radical African-American student, with explosive results and no easy way to mend the rift that develops between the two characters. The professor’s neat, lovely office becomes a veritable battlefield.
2. “The Immigrant” at George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick. George Street found an underappreciated gem in Mark Harelik’s 1985 drama about a Russian Jew who moves to Central Texas in the early 1900s. The title character, inspired by Harelik’s grandfather, encounters prejudice but also support in the local community and eventually becomes a prosperous store owner and part of the American melting pot, while also staying true to his Old World values and traditions. It’s a quintessentially American story.
3. “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. My favorite Jersey musical of the year told the story of Judy Garland’s troubled family life and show-business rise (up to the point when she starred in “The Wizard of Oz” at the age of 16) with classic tunes as well as original music. Ruby Rakos was stunningly good as the driven but vulnerable Garland, and the direction and choreography by Denis Jones conjures the bustling energy and high spirits of golden-age Hollywood musicals.
4. “Yasmina’s Necklace” at Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union. A moving drama, with Iranian refugee Yasmina (Layan Elwazani) and thoroughly assimilated Iranian-American Sam (Cesar J. Rosado) falling in love — to the delight of their absurdly meddling and sometimes annoying parents — and learning to live with the harrowing ghosts of Yasmina’s past.
5. “Gloria: A Life” at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton. McCarter’s Berlind Theatre was transformed into something like a big living room for this play, about the life and times of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem (Mary McDonnell). The production was enhanced by a short Act 2 with a “talking circle” in which audience members were invited to speak about their own experiences and (on the night I attended, at least) were just as absorbing as the play itself.
6. “Noises Off” at Two River Theater, Red Bank. There were lots of laughs in this perfectly executed production of Michael Frayn’s frequently revived 1982 comedy about the backstage (and onstage) chaos in a low-budget British touring production of a wretched farce. It’s the original Play That Goes Wrong.
7. “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University, Madison. A polished production of Neil Bartlett’s 1994 adaptation, which weaves familiar carols into the action, with a poetic, almost musical quality to the dialogue.
8. “An Enemy of the People” at Centenary Stage Company, Hackettstown. Three days after this play, President Trump used the phrase “a true enemy of the people” to describe the New York Times, confirming the timelessness of this 1882 Ibsen play. In it, a doctor is ostracized in his small Norwegian town after alerting authorities to a truth they don’t want to hear: that the water of the baths that draw tourists to the town (and ensure its economic health) are polluted, and the only way to fix the problem is to temporary close and fix them, at great expense.
9. “Surfing My DNA” at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. Jodi Long’s engrossing autobiographical monologue — a one-woman play, basically, though a musician does join her onstage — about the joys and indignities of her life as an Asian-American actress (and the daughter of entertainers, as well).
10. “Heartland” at Luna Stage, West Orange. Gabriel Jason Dean’s heady and topical drama about three people — an American, an Afghan, and an Afghanistan-born American — caught up in political, social and religious forces beyond their control.
11. “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the College of St. Elizabeth in Florham Park. Silly and irreverent, with references to everything from “Hamlet” to “Harry Potter,” this comedy — created by the company responsible for the similarly clever “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)” — proved perfectly suited to warm summer nights at the Shakespeare Theatre’s outdoor stage.
12: “Lily” at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. A post-show, backstage encounter between a country superstar and a groupie at a midwestern arena takes an unexpectedly harrowing turn in this gripping new drama written by veteran NJ Rep actor Christopher Daftsios (who also stars in it).
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