Best Of Broadway & Beyond

Pictured from second left, Kiril Kulish, Elton John, Trent Kowalik and David Alvarez, appear on stage in tutus for the curtain call at the Broadway opening of "Billy Elliot The Musical," in New York, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. (Photo: AP Photo/Stuart Ramson) AP Photo/Stuart Ramson

Nothing quite as satisfying and thoroughly American as "August: Osage County" arrived on Broadway in 2008, but then Tracy Letts' corrosive family drama, which opened in late 2007, remained a strong presence in New York throughout the year.

Still, fine new American plays weren't missing in action, although you had to go off-Broadway to find them courtesy of such experienced hands as Michael Weller and Neil LaBute and such promising, up-and-comers as Beau Willimon, Noah Haidle and Steven Levenson.

Here then is a totally subjective list of the best of 2008, from Broadway, off-Broadway and one point beyond.

"Blasted," was the year's most disturbing play filled with graphic physical and sexual violence. English playwright Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in 1999, created a highly theatrical world in which horror goes beyond terror in a blistering production from off-Broadway's Soho Rep.

Director Stephen Daldry made theater magic, transforming his superb 2000 film "Billy Elliot" about a coal miner's young son who yearns to dance into a warmhearted, emotionally stirring musical. An impressive collaboration by all its creators, who include pop idol Elton John (music), Lee Hall (book and lyrics) and Peter Darling (choreography).

The disappointed souls who populate "The Seagull," Anton Chekhov's exquisite tale of regret, never looked or, what is more important, sounded better than in this revival directed by Ian Rickson. Kristin Scott Thomas was luminous as the supremely self-absorbed actress Arkadina.

It was a long, arduous journey to New York for "Road Show," but the astringent Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about the Mizner brothers and their avaricious pursuit of the American dream was worth the wait. John Doyle's direction at the Public Theater off-Broadway was particularly striking.

In "A Catered Affair," Doyle again directed, distilling the story of an unfulfilled marriage and its affect on the wedding of the couple's daughter into an adult, emotion-drenched musical. John Bucchino's lovely, understated melodies and literate lyrics perfectly fit the intimate story. As the unhappy housewife, Faith Prince was heartbreakingly real.

The bilious business of moviemaking remains as hilariously nasty as ever in "Speed-The-Plow, the revival of David Mamet's play, which features a strong cast of Jeremy Piven, Elisabeth Moss and the intense, highly watchable Raul Esparza.

"Farragut North," Beau Willimon's entertaining political morality tale follows the dirty doings of a young press officer enmeshed in the Iowa presidential primary. John Gallagher Jr. was delightfully nefarious as the underhanded wheeler-dealer in a production at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company.

Recollections of regret are the soul of "Port Authority," a series of interlocking Conor McPherson monologues, beautifully showcased in a production, also from the Atlantic Theater Company. The fascinating tales by this wonderful young Irish writer were handled with aplomb by Gallagher (of "Farragut North" fame), Jim Norton and Brian d'Arcy James.

"reasons to be pretty," is Neil LaBute's latest examination of contentious relationships and their perceptions of physicality, particularly by a guy who wants to grow up. The off-Broadway MCC Theater production will resurface on Broadway in April 2009.

"Hughie" and "Krapp's Last Tape" are a double bill from the 2008 season at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The Eugene O'Neill classic about a down-on-his-luck gambler and the Samuel Beckett masterpiece of memory both featured Brian Dennehy in the year's most memorable twin performances. A New York visit from both productions is imperative.
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