Perhaps it’s the times we are living in, but my favorite three New Jersey theater productions of the year (“Buried Child,” “Detroit ’67” and “American Hero”) were dark and unsettling, depicting people torn apart by familial, societal or political forces beyond their control. There’s some pure escapism further down the list, to be sure (including “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” and “Accomplice”), but overall, there is a theme emerging here, and it’s not a pretty one.
So here, without further ado, are my 10 favorite productions, in order of preference, with brief descriptions and links to my original reviews.
1. “Buried Child” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University, Madison. This production offered an ideal way to remember the bold, brutal vision of playwright Sam Shepard, who died in 2017, with Sherman Howard perfectly embodying a ruined family’s pathetic rascal of a patriarch.
2. “Detroit ’67” at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton. A modern tragedy, with a brother and sister trying to weather the storm of violence — and adapt to changing times — in a riot-riddled neighborhood of downtown Detroit in 1967.
3. “American Hero” at George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick. I didn’t find this tale about Iraq War veterans caught up in a corrupt system — the second installment in a trilogy on the subject of American injustice by playwright Christopher Demos-Brown — to be quite as gripping as the first play, “American Son,” which ran at George Street in 2017. But it’s in the same ballpark, and that’s really saying something.
4. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. A sparkling stage version of the hit 1942 Hollywood musical, with more Irving Berlin classics added in.
5. “Small Town Story” at South Orange Performing Arts Center. The American Theater Group found a gem to premiere at SOPAC with this sensitively written but also richly dynamic musical about a Texas town where some residents protest a high school production of “Rent.”
6. “Hitler’s Tasters” at Centenary State Company, Hackettstown. During World War II, a crew of women had the task of tasting Adolf Hitler’s food, before he ate it, in order to ensure that it hadn’t been poisoned. Playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks daringly throws three modern, cellphone-wielding teens into this scenario, and imagines how they might pass the time — and bond, and fight — in such a situation.
7. “King Hedley II” at Two River Theater, Red Bank. The Two River Theater continued its series of plays in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle with this heartbreaker, set in 1985 and exploring the despairing underside of the Reagan/Bush era.
8: “Issei, He Say, or the Myth of the First” at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. A tale of Chinese and Japanese immigrants having a hard time living next door to each other in a suburb of Toronto in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of a 13-year girl.
9. “Linger” at Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union. Though seriously flawed via the lack of believability in a crucial scene, this is still a compelling portrait of a modern family that turns on itself after an allegation of brutal high-school bullying.
10. “Accomplice” at The Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, Morris Township. There were tons of clever, well executed twists in this comedic thriller, written by Rupert Holmes.