It’s time for the 2017 “Aggies,” named for a woman who I’m betting would have known how to respond to any sexual harassment over her long career. It was sheer talent — not youth, beauty, or sex appeal — that was her calling card, and, besides, the formidable characters she played might have cowed any mogul, however influential or horny.
At each year end, In the Noh presents Aggies to 10 live performances — described below in no particular order — that enlivened New York stages in memorable ways.
“Pacific Overtures,” CSC at Barrow Street Theatre
I keep steady in my belief that this is a Golden Age of Asian Actors. And, when you have a white hot cast like this, married to John Doyle’s superb condensation/ rethinking of Sondheim’s history of Japan, it’s simply the best new musical production of the year. Its minimalist design matched the exquisiteness of the chamber reduction of its orchestra and, if I could ever see one number on constant repeat, it would surely be Ann Harada doing “Welcome to Kanagawa.”
“School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” MCC Theater
“Sizzling” and “electric” are words that spring to mind with Jocelyn Bioh’s crackling all-female competitive free-for-all, superbly directed by Rebecca Taichman. This is the dark side of all those vastly compelling groups of schoolgirls that have enthralled us since “The Children’s Hour” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” I have rarely seen a performance that combined charming high comedy with naked raw vulnerability to such richly dazzling and contrasting effect as Nabiyah Be, the standout in a terrific cast.
“Church and State,” New World Stages
The best play with the greatest performance not enough people saw, due to both the wrongheaded hubris of a real a-hole of a New Times Times critic, as well as most “cultured, intelligent” people’s slavish reliance on that rag, culturally speaking. Because he was sent a script in advance, which he apparently loathed outright, said critic refused to see the show — never mind what brilliant direction or acting can do to enhance, even transform something that needed no apologies anyway. This impassioned treatise on gun violence, both wickedly funny and devastatingly tragic, was superbly acted, especially by the great Rob Nagle, who gave the single finest stage performance of the year.
“Turning Page,” Dixon Place
Angelica Page, the daughter of Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, paid tribute to her actress’ actress of a Mom. Her chameleonic transitions from herself to her mother and the multitudes who resided within her, in nothing less than an epic one-woman panorama of a life lived to the brim, seemed nigh-miraculous.
“Desperate Measures,” York Theater
I confess to walking into this Western-themed takeoff of the Bard’s “Measure for Measure” with some dread, never being a fan of cornpone twang slaughtering Shakespeare (anyone remember the Tracey Ullman/ Morgan Freeman “Taming of the Shrew”?). But what an unfettered delight it turned out to be, snappily staged, with fun rhyming lyrics and an adorable cast. For me, this was the vehicle in which Lauren Molina became a true star, as amusingly antic/ frantic as Betty Hutton, but sexy.
“Indecent,” Cort Theatre
Paula Vogel’s investigation into Sholom Asch’s daringly lesbian-themed 1923 play, “God of Vengeance,” was a whirlwind of dramatic invention, as directed by the estimable Rebecca Taichman (who also helmed “School Girls”). On opening night, there was a highly salubrious feeling of joy that such a “downtown” piece could have made it to the ever-dumbed down Great White Way, and I will forever treasure that charmingly odd, quiet moment when the devastating Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson broke out into a bewitching “Bei mir bist du schoen.”
“Meteor Shower,” Booth Theater
How heartening that, at 72, Steve Martin’ eccentric, ultra wry-and-dry brand of humor is as disarming as ever, but with a meaner, often side-splitting punch to it (call it the positive curmudgeon effect). In a wild reversal of Albee’s “Virginia Woolf,” Keegan-Michael Key and Laura Benanti were the glam, frenetically nightmare — and sexiest — couple of your dreams, except they are the guests here. As their harried hostess, Amy Shumer managed to more than hold her own, with an antic adorableness that proves, really, that all good stand-ups are basically good actors.
“The Portuguese Kid,” Manhattan Theater Club
Like Martin, John Patrick Shanley’s writer’s knack shows no signs of abating and, although it could have been tightened and refined some, this raucous comedy of cruelty made me laugh out loud more than any show I can remember. Good old ethnic New York humor was alive and well at Manhattan Theater Club as the crack cast of Jason Alexander, Sherie Rene Scott, Pico Alexander, Aimee Carrero, and Mary Testa, the season’s funniest sight gag of the season as a stifling mother in the wig of doom, nailed every joke with sniper precision.
“The Big Molinsky,” Joe’s Pub
Nellie McKay did it again, delivering yet one more life of a lady, following her homages to Rachel Carson, Barbara Graham, and Billy Tipton. But who knew how perfectly this ever-insouciant, lovable sprite could become that yenta of yentas, Joan Rivers? It just proves to me the truth of an old adage (I made up) — to truly catch a star, set one performing genius upon another. It worked with Streisand as Fanny Brice, Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, and Michelle Williams as Marilyn, and McKay was both hilarious and meltingly musical as maybe the one Manhattan woman most sorely missed by us all.
“MLCG (My Little China Girl),” Dixon Place
Soomi Kim’s interdisciplinary, fiendishly clever, and moving reminiscence of growing up Korean and alienated in Lebanon, Ohio, of all places, was inspired by the recent death of David Bowie and his music video that once made her fantasize about being the exotic chick in it. Fueled by an unspeakable tragedy that cost her her mother, Kim gracefully maintained a perfect tone of slightly pixillated humor and truthful observation, completely avoiding any self-indulgent mawkishness. Delightfully funky high tech aspects enriched her show, like TV monitors allowing her to actually enter that Bowie video, and thanks to her, I’ve come not to fear the concept of performance art so much.