Year In Review: My Favorite Plays of 2015

I saw 52 different plays last year, which I believe is a personal record. Part of the reason the numbers went up is because Joe is now an adjudicator for the Theatre Bay Area Awards, which means he gets a lot of free tickets. We also have season tickets to three different companies.

I feel like I may have gotten a little pickier, though, which made it surprisingly hard to come up with a top 5. For instance, Shotgun Players’ production of “Eurydice” was a tour de force of brilliant acting, choreography and production design, but I’m just not a huge fan of Sarah Ruhl’s play itself. On the flip side, New Conservatory’s “Other Desert Cities” boasted a fantastic script (by Jon Robin Baitz), but a couple of the performances were so shaky that they spoiled it for me. And I adored the music in Berkeley Rep’s “Amelie,” but the book was not nearly as good.

In a way, 2015 was also defined by the show I didn’t see: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the Broadway musical that has become my new white whale. (Don’t try to get tickets, because it’s sold out through infinity.) Like “The Book of Mormon,” it will eventually come to San Francisco and I’ll be able to score tickets then, but it’s still horribly annoying to me as a theater superfan that I’m missing the theatrical event of the decade. At least I was able to catch Miranda in “Button!”

These are the plays that stood up to my harsh scrutiny in 2015:

1. “Dogfight,” SF Playhouse (book by Peter Duchan, score by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul): I went into “Dogfight” with zero expectations—it had gotten an unfavorable review in the Chronicle, I’d never heard of it, and the subject matter (young Marines about to ship out to Vietnam stage a contest where the object is to show up at a party with the ugliest date) was offputting—and yet I fell in love with it from the very first notes and was transfixed for the entire show. Pasek & Paul are a stunningly talented duo; I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re the young heirs to Stephen Sondheim. I can’t wait to hear what they do next (“Dear Evan Hansen,” opening in New York in March 2016).

2. “Talley’s Folly,” Aurora (Lanford Wilson): Part of a mini-Wilson festival at Berkeley’s Aurora, this two-hander (performed at the theater’s tiny, 49-seat secondary venue, Harry’s UpStage) was just magical, with a luminous Lauren English as a “spinster” schoolteacher (bear in mind, this was the 1940s—the character’s around 30 years old) being courted by an older, Jewish accountant (Rolf Saxon). I’d already seen the “sequel,” “Fifth of July,” which takes place a few decades later, so I knew the answer to will-they-or-won’t-they?, but that didn’t make it any less splendid. And sitting just a few feet away from the actors made for a beautifully intimate experience.

3. “From Riverside to Crazy,” ACT (Stephen Adly Guirgis): Carl Lumbly gave the performance of the year as a retired New York City cop struggling to stay in his rent-controlled apartment. Funny and moving, with an excellent supporting turn by another local treasure, Catherine Castellanos, as the “church lady” who visits the widowed cop.

4. “Disgraced,” Berkeley Rep (Ayad Akhtar): Like Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” this is one of those plays that shows what happens when, as the old MTV “Real World” slogan promised, “people stop being polite and start getting real.” A thought-provoking but always-entertaining play about identity, assimilation, prejudice and family secrets.

5. “Now for Now,” Z Space (Mark Jackson & Megan Trout): So you’re a jaded, seen-it-all theatergoer who figures nothing can startle or surprise you anymore. Then you see “Now for Now,” which is bizarre, humorous, gross, uncomfortable, weird, abstract, mesmerizing and unforgettable. I am acquainted with both Jackson and Trout, and I know some elements of the story are autobiographical, but it also flies off in several different directions, as the characters’ relationships (student and teacher; father and daughter; lovers) shift within the play.

“Now for Now” is the only one of the shows on my list that you’ll have the chance to catch in 2016, as Shotgun Players is bringing it back for a couple days in late February as part of its new Blast Theatre Festival. In October, Jackson will direct Trout in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Shotgun. She’s playing Honey and Jackson’s longtime partner, Beth Wilmurt, will play Martha; that casting alone ensures that “Woolf” will be one of the can’t-miss theatrical events of this year.

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