In my annual list of favorite theater, a few awkward questions pop out. First, what does it say about the season's staying power that only three productions are still running? What does it say about new musicals that only one -- "Once" -- makes the list? And how about a year when, unquestionably, the best theater came from previous work from the masters -- Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Clifford Odets?
On the brighter side -- and there is, in fact, a bright side -- eight of my picks are American playwrights in a category long dominated by the English. Better yet, five are actually alive. --LINDA WINER, firstname.lastname@example.org
12. HURT VILLAGE (closed) Katori Hall, a very worthy object of the Signature Theatre's attention, split open the old-fashioned black-family melodrama into a rich, audacious play-with-music-and-dance that turned potential cliches about gentrification hell into something close to tribal psychological touchstones. The play introduced a gifted young actress named Joaquina Kalukango as the scary-wise 13-year-old and let us marvel at the versatility of Tonya Pinkins in one of her many impressive performances this year.
11. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN (closed) Nathan Englander's deeply moving adaptation of his own short story explored the last hours of Yiddish literary stars in a Soviet prison. Director Barry Edelstein and six exquisitely individual actors at the Public Theater created an entire lost world that thrived, momentarily, until Stalin's crackdown on what was demonized as the “Jewish conspiracy in the arts."
10. GOLDEN BOY (through Jan. 20, Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.) The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher stage a bristling 75th anniversary revival of Clifford Odets' drama about a gifted Italian-American kid who gives up his violin for the fame and fortune of prizefighting. This is a pivotal American period piece with a huge, expert cast — including Seth Numrich as the wayward prodigy and Tony Shalhoub as his massively sweet and complicated immigrant father.
9. THE BEST MAN (closed) Gore Vidal's 1960 campaign melodrama, star-encrusted with a cast including James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, felt as pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our mud-fight to the White House.
8. CLYBOURNE PARK (closed) Bruce Norris' 2011 Pulitzer-winner slyly contrasts a modest Chicago bungalow, first in the white neighborhood where the black family in “A Raisin in the Sun” prepared to move in 1959 and, 50 years later, where yuppies are gentrifying the ghetto. Pam MacKinnon ("Virginia Woolf”) directed the tragic-comedy with unrepentant, delightful viciousness.
7. UNCLE VANYA (closed) Anton Chekhov's 1897 masterwork of mixed emotions has had an unambiguously glorious year — first with the astonishing Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company, then way downtown at the Soho Rep in Annie Baker's vibrant adaptation. There, audiences sat on stairs around the action, performed close-up with a terrific New York cast — including, not incidentally, Michael Shannon, the tormented former Prohibition agent in “Boardwalk Empire” (Shannon has been working all over New York theater this year. If you get a chance to see him in anything, I promise you won't be sorry.)
6. THE PIANO LESSON (through Jan. 13, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directed a stunning production of Fugard's “My Children! My Africa!“ at the Signature, also has staged August Wilson's 1990 Pulitzer-winning ghost story there as an ensemble treat both haunting and haunted.
5. ATHOL FUGARD SEASON (closed) The Signature Theatre's three-play celebration of the work of the great South African playwright/provocateur was everything one could hope it would be -- impeccably and lovingly staged personal stories that reverberate into universal dimensions. More, please.
4. ONCE (ongoing, Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.) Who could have imagined that last spring's Tony would go to a peculiar and enchanting, heart-tugging romance about a glum but dashing Dublin guitarist, a delightfully solemn pianist from Czechoslovakia, an Irish/Eastern European sensibility and lots of off-center hipster wit? The chamber musical, an expansion of the 2006 indie film, moved from the New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway without losing a moment of its wonderful strangeness.
3. DISGRACED (closed) This is the best play that you probably never knew was here. Presented in a limited run at Lincoln Center Theater's tiny Claire Tow, Ayad Akhtar's quick-witted and shattering drama builds on the explosive ambivalence about Islam, Judaism and America felt by two upscale Manhattan couples. Aasif Mandvi (best known from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") strips off the protective layers on a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer in this disturbing quartet about a Muslim, a Jew, an African-American and a white woman. Here's hoping some smart producer decides to let everyone in on this important and captivating new work.
2. DEATH OF A SALESMAN (closed) Director Mike Nichols went back to the original 1949 designs but found devastating new shades in the familiar characters of Arthur Miller's masterwork. With Philip Seymour Hoffman as a younger and lighter Willy Loman and Andrew Garfield as a more delicate Biff, the former quarterback, Nichols' wrenching production honored the legacy while finding a fresh humanity on its own.
1. EDWARD ALBEE'S WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (through Feb. 24, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.) The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's brilliant 50th anniversary production shifts the balance in Edward Albee's late-night marital evisceration without losing a gasp of emotional terrorism. Instead of playing Martha as a gorgon, Amy Morton goes for subtle power. Meanwhile, Tracy Letts turns husband George from the beta dog to a pit bull. Director Pam MacKinnon delivers a visceral, devastating, deeply human night.