1 The History Boys
What should secondary-school education be? Should it be a boot camp for acing exams and gaining entrance to a top university? Or an open-ended movable feast designed to nourish students’ souls for the rest of their lives? It isn’t long into The History Boys before you know where playwright Alan Bennett stands on that question. He sets up the opposing philosophies — heavily favoring the latter, of course — by putting them in the mouths of two metaphorically drawn instructors at a boys’ school in England during Maggie Thatcher’s ’80s heyday. Silver-tongued tutor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) teaches a group of impressionable lads that history is whatever they need it to be, while poor, befuddled Hector (Richard Griffiths) rants and rages against that kind of supercynical pragmatism. Far from making Hector a paragon, Bennett writes him as a tortured romantic whose fondness for his students spills over into fondling and gets him into tragic trouble. The great felicity of this Tony-winning Broadway production (which you can catch some sense of in the film version, starring the same sublime cast) wasn’t just that the arguments felt rough and real instead of schematic. It was that the show seemed perfectly relevant to test-obsessed American educational policy in the age of Dubya.
2 Grey Gardens Broadway
What could have been an exercise in kitsch — a musical version of the cult 1976 documentary about eccentric Jackie O. relatives living in a squalid, vermin-filled Hamptons mansion — emerges as a compelling work of art. As the ravishing Christine Ebersole transforms from domineering society mom Edith in the ’40s-set first act into wrecked daughter Edie, still grappling (and flag waving) for mother’s approval, we see the evolution of madness and the decrepit underside of America’s dream of Camelot.
3 Voyage Broadway
Voyage is the difficult, thrilling first play (followed by Shipwreck and Salvage) in Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, an eight-hour cycle about — stay with us here! — 19th-century Russian thinkers. Like his other works, it’s full of big, ungainly ideas, but they’re illuminated by something we don’t often see in Stoppard: genuine spectacle. Jack O’Brien’s staging is formidable, breathtaking even, and he’s corralled the year’s best cast (Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Brían F. O’Byrne, et al.). The ambition on display is staggering.
4 Company Broadway
Say what you will about the logic of sophisticated New Yorkers promenading with woodwinds. This show’s emotional payoff — perpetual singleton Bobby (the glorious Raúl Esparza) realizes that what he wants, more than anything, is someone to vary his days — made any suspension of belief well worth it. And for the second straight year (after 2005’s Sweeney Todd), director John Doyle’s high-concept reworking of a Sondheim classic made us happily rethink what a Broadway musical could be.
5 Rabbit Hole Broadway
When faced with the death of a child, do you move on but never let go…or erase the past but never move on? David Lindsay-Abaire’s play navigated this treacherous territory with grace, wringing devastating performances out of Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery as a bitterly grieving wife and her warm but desperate husband. Tyne Daly, there for comic relief, delivered a climactic speech about loss that left us breathless, and the tender threads of Lindsay-Abaire’s script hung with us for months.