I reviewed 55 New Jersey plays in 2017 — down slightly from 59 in 2016 — and my favorite was “American Son,” which the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick presented in February. (Here is my original review). Suzzanne Douglas was absolutely unforgettable in this timely drama, playing an African-American college professor whose son was possibly involved in a police incident. The action takes place at 4 a.m. in a Miami police station waiting room, and it’s a long, excruciating wait until she finds out what really happened.
“American Son” is the first part of playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s planned trilogy exploring American injustice. The second part, “American Hero,” will be presented at the George Street Playhouse from Jan. 30 to Feb. 25, 2018.
Here is a look back at my 14 other favorites, in order of preference, with links to my reviews (click on the play title).
2. “The Honeymooners” at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. Michael McGrath re-created Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden with uncanny accuracy in this new musical comedy version of the beloved sitcom, though Leslie Kritzer, as Alice, nearly stole the show with her big, jazzy solo number, and Michael Mastro and Laura Bell Bundy were very good, too, as Ed and Trixie. Familiar yet new, with catchy, clever songs and affectionately retro choreography, this “Honeymooners” seems like a natural for Broadway, though nothing along those lines has been announced yet.
3. “Betrayal” at Mile Square Theatre, Hoboken. Harold Pinter’s 1978 drama tells the story of an affair, but it begins after the affair is over and works its way back to the moment it started, nine years previously. The story unfolds and deepens, but differently from the way we’re used to: Past incidents are referred to, and then we see them happen. Playing the two lovers, Dena Tyler and Aidan Redmond managed to make us feel their characters growing younger — less jaded and stoic, more open to what the future holds — with every scene.
4. “A Raisin in the Sun” at Two River Theater, Red Bank. Lorraine Hansberry’s Civil Rights Era classic unfolds with the horrifying inevitability of a Greek tragedy, and this sturdy production did it justice, with stunning work by Brandon J. Dirden as the play’s conflicted everyman, Walter Lee Younger.
5. “What the Butler Saw” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison. Joe Orton’s 1967 portrait of a mental health clinic where the authority figures are the truly crazy ones still seems wildly irreverent a half-century after it was written. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey deserves credit for taking on this rarely performed play, and making every joke sting.
6. “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Two River Theater, Red Bank. A straightforward — but still sharp and stylish — take on the Oscar Wilde classic.
7. “Skeleton Crew” at Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union. This workplace drama, set in the employees’ break room of a Detroit car factory, seemed particularly appropriate for our current era of downsizing and corporate heartlessness, with a standout performance by Shane Taylor as a middle manager striving to please his bosses while also doing right by those he supervises.
8. “Murder on the Orient Express” at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton. A lively, colorful adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic, with Allen Corduner in good form as the deeply human (and morally conflicted) master detective, Hercule Poirot.
9. “The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects” at Peak Performances series at Montclair State University. Peak Performances often presents experimental works that combine elements of music, dance and theater in ways that make them not easily categorized. This piece, performed by the International Ensemble — with music by Ashley Fure and sets by her brother, Adam Fure — was one of them, and one of the best: an immersive, viscerally compelling experience built around the theme of, as Ashley Fure put it, “ecological anxiety.”
10. “Mutual Philanthropy” at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. Two mismatched couples — one rich, one poor — get together for dinner in Karen Rizzo’s explosive play. With alcohol inevitably involved, the evening turns, ultimately, into a power struggle, with everyone looking to get something from someone else.
11, 12. “The Bungler” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison; “The Learned Ladies” at Centenary Stage Company, Hackettstown. The laughs came fast and furiously in these two excellent productions of Molière farces.
13. “& Juliet” at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. Robert Caisley’s breathlessly paced new play is about a hard-driving college drama student who clashes with her professor. It ultimately has a lot to say about the price of success, and unconscious prejudices, and the thin line that separates extreme ambition from insanity.
14. “Bakersfield Mist” at Bickford Theatre at Morris Museum, Morris Township. Kim Zimmer are Carl Wallnau embodied absolute opposites in this thought-provoking play about a crude, unfiltered bartender who may have bought a Jackson Pollock painting for a few bucks, and a cold, condescending art expert who has the power to pronounce it real or fake.
15. “Annie” at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. Ultra-familiar territory, yes, but deserving a mention because of the strong voice and remarkable poise of Cassidy Pry, who played the title character on the night I saw it (Peyton Ella alternated in the role), and the abundance of talent on display by the young actresses who played Annie’s orphanage friends.
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