Best theater of 2022: So many L.A. bright spots in a challenging year
Just when you think things are about to improve, the reality of what we’ve been dealing with sinks in. Let’s not hide the truth: 2022 was a bruiser, economically and emotionally.
We were told by the president that we’re past the pandemic, but we’re still getting sick and too many are still dying. Theaters slowly returned to full programming, yet the habit of theatergoing hasn't been easy to restart. Masks became optional, but this flexible policy only created more cognitive dissonance.
When I look back, however, I’m startled by the year’s theatrical richness. There were too many exceptional local productions for me to make room for Broadway highlights. But let me just say that Michael R. Jackson’s groundbreaking "A Strange Loop,” Lea Michele’s tour de force in “Funny Girl” and, what is for me the best play of the year, Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” would be at the top of my list.
There were also several top-notch theater books that deserve a shout-out. Isaac Butler’s “The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act,” Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green’s “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” Carey Perloff’s “Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View” and D.T. Max’s “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim” pulsated with theatrical sensibility and insight into the art form.
But without further ado, these are the treasures (in alphabetical order) of my 2022 SoCal theatergoing.
'Blues for an Alabama Sky'
Phylicia Rashad directed a first-rate revival at the Mark Taper Forum of Pearl Cleage’s play, set in the creative ferment of 1930s Harlem. A morality play involving the clash of free-spirited bohemians and a religious conservative who insinuates himself among them, the work shed timely light on the relationship between brutal patriarchy and reproductive freedom.
'Here There Are Blueberries'
The story of an album of photographs sent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the basis for this nonfiction drama conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman. The play meditates on the images of Nazi concentration camp workers fraternizing in a startlingly casual manner. This meticulously staged world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse offered a new way of understanding Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil."
'The Lehman Trilogy'
Sam Mendes’ pitch-perfect production of Ben Power’s award-winning adaptation of Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s hit European drama was perfectly at home at the Ahmanson Theatre. A play about the rise and fall of a financial empire, from its immigrant founders to its late-capitalist adventurers, the work occasioned a masterclass in acting from Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Howard W. Overshown.
Los Angeles could claim bragging rights with Matthew López’s two-part Tony-winning gay drama, which realized its full potential in the Geffen Playhouse’s production directed with an equal measure of sensitivity and boldness by Mike Donahue.
Daniel Fish’s Tony-winning deconstruction of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic heartland musical raised hackles among some Ahmanson Theatre traditionalists. But for those with an open mind, the production revealed just how unsentimental about the American myth this chestnut can be.
'On the Other Hand, We’re Happy'
Rogue Machine's U.S. premiere at the Matrix Theatre of this small-scale yet emotionally expansive play by Welsh playwright Daf James was the unexpected delight of the season. A heartfelt interrogation into the paradox of happiness, the work was performed with rigorous honesty and ebullience by Christian Telesmar, Rori Flynn and Alexandra Hellquist under the disciplined direction of Cameron Watson.
'A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney'
The title alone of Lucas Hnath’s 2013 drama suggests its meta adventurousness. The belated West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, nimbly directed by Peter Richards, was up to the challenge posed by a play that antically dismantles the fantasy of biography.
Martyna Majok’s drama about the bond between two undocumented youths living in New Jersey in the wake of 9/11 was delivered with laser precision at Pasadena Playhouse. Miles Fowler and Ana Nicolle Chavez portrayed the high school friends striving to transcend their shadowy circumstances in a production directed by Zi Alikhan that showed the inextricability of politics and psychology.
Playwright and provocateur Jeremy O. Harris seemed to usher in a new era at the Mark Taper Forum when his pathbreaking Broadway drama came to town and confronted the racial wounds that can only heal if subjected to the starkest light.
'Trouble in Mind'
It took a long time for Alice Childress’ 1955 backstage comedy to receive its due, but the play's spry theatrical intelligence, under Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s direction, felt evergreen in this Old Globe Theatre revival that probed unflinchingly into the recesses of systemic racism.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.