The 10 Best Theater Performances of 2021

One of the most sublime views of New York City is of lower Manhattan at night, while waiting in line for a show at St. Ann’s Warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront. On the best nights, the skyscrapers of the financial district are perfectly reflected in the black mirror of the East River, like the world’s most talented four-year-old made an ink blot and folded it over.

Late September was a great night for live theatre. In fact, I was waiting in that line one night. This experience and the nine other described below highlight the very best of theater in the year that audiences and performers both returned to their seats, sometimes reluctantly.
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An Octave Away

Only an Octave Apart
Photo by Ruvén AfanadorJustin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo

On that September night I waited to witness the premiere One Octave Away at St. Ann’s, the converted 1860 tobacco warehouse in DUMBO. Once inside, seated among the double masked (nose slippage brought the evil eye) the cliche would be “there was electricity in the air.” And while I don’t know about the physics of how sound travels from a performer’s vocal chords, throat and mouth to the audience’s ear, when Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo began singing, it felt like I was being physically bombarded (in a good way) by electrons of music particles. The audience was moved by the performance and realized how little they had experienced the live music.

The thrill of seeing two talented, but narcissistic, performers Bond, who is a transgender cabaret performer, and Costanzo (an international opera star, usually performing at the Met), revel in each other’s connection and be in front of an audience was a good part of it.They are both divas. Although it seems absurd to pair a tall, gravelly-voiced, downtown opera singer with an actual divas, it works. The conversation was spontaneous and intimate. It was also hilarious. Based on the audience reaction, unchecked glee, it’s likely that this irrepressible pair will eventually reunite. It’s important not to lose them when they do.


There are two entries in the list that cross over pandemic restrictions. Blindness, based on José Saramago’s novel, adapted by British playwright Simon Stephens (his adaptation of A Curious Instance of a Dog at NightThe show, which won a Tony award in 2015, opened April when many people had just been vaccinated. There were no actors and the show featured socially distant seats that were spaced far apart. The headsets were worn by each audience member. Juliet Stevenson was the Olivier Award winner and her account of a collapse of society in the wake of a worldwide pandemic (the original London performance of this play) is chilling. Ben and Max Ringham created an immersive sound environment that was almost overwhelming. Stevenson would sometimes whisper in your ear and then move behind you to resume his conversation in the other. For the panic-stricken audience, Stevenson’s story seemed almost too personal. The people who attended the performance stared at one another, then wandered off in the dark, dazed.

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Enemy of the People

The socially-distanced headset-supplied single performer category saw another outstanding production. Enemy of the People. Park Avenue Armory asked for a retelling of Ibsen’s tragedy during the epidemic. Robert Icke adapted it and featured Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia) in the production. The Handmaid’s Tale.) Dowd, who played several characters, was able command attention from an audience of five thousand people, spread out over the old drilling hall. They were seated at separate tables at cafe-style cafes, and this was despite the distracting electronic vote button. The audience had to participate in the decision-making process, which determined where the play would go.

Dana H. AndAre You a Room Owner?

Dana H
Photo by Chad BatkaDeirdre O’Connell in Dana H, photographed at Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan

Not only were the headsets provided by venues, but it also proved to be a successful year for transcriptions. The Vineyard Theater put on a spectacular pairing. Dana H. AndAre You Buying a Room?Both are based upon verbatim transcripts. What is the Room?This riveting drama was taken from FBI transcripts about the raid and arrest Reality Winner. Reality Winner is a high-tech security employee who leaked top secret data regarding Russian interference in 2016 elections. Reality Winner was sentenced to five years imprisonment and was convicted. It was well-paced and performed with skill. The production was performed in Repertory. Dana H., the harrowing account of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother, Dana H., getting kidnapped and held captive by a brutal member of the Aryan Brotherhood. The remarkable performance by Deirdre O’Connell had an extraordinarily high degree of difficulty and emotional toll. For the entire performance, O’Connell expertly lip synched recordings of interviews conducted with the actual Dana H., recounting her terrifying journey. The performance I attended left O’Connell in tears during the curtain call.

Assassins AndCompany

Matthew Murphy, photoPatti LuPone and Katrina Lenk in ‘Company’

There were also two Stephen Sondheim productions made unfortunately timely by the composer’s death, at 91, in November. I found the Classic Stage Company’s production of Assassins problematic: fresh on the heels of the Alec Baldwin film set shooting, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse and the latest school shootings, a production in which guns are practically the main character seems questionable, but maybe that’s part of the point. Final verdict: The caliber of the cast, and the heartfelt performances of these actors won out. Company received a lavish Broadway production directed by Marianne Elliott, who has won multiple Tony awards, with gorgeous sets, a killer 14-piece orchestra and Patti LuPone’s show-stopping, bring-down-the-house, standing O rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch.” In the gender-shifted production, the Andrews Sisters-like “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “I’m Not Getting Married Today” also drove the audiences wild.

Caroline or Change And Kimberly Akimbo

Caroline, or Change
Joan Marcus PhotographyL to R: Nasia Thomas, Kevin S. McAllister, Sharon D Clarke, Arica Jackson, Harper Miles in Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘Caroline, or Change’

Jeanine Tesori is the leading candidate for being the most prominent composer of musicals. Sondheim, however, cannot be replaced.Fun HomeTwo productions are currently being staged in New York by the actress (and both of them are excellent). The third NYC revival is her collaboration with Tony Kushner. Caroline or Change. I’ve seen all three and this crackling production is my favorite today. Tesori’s latest revelation, Kimberly AkimboThis is an almost perfect evening of theatre with David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s based on the play of that name. This play is incredibly funny, heartbreaking and fresh. The Off-Broadway production at the Atlantic Theater, starring Victoria Clark as a teenager who looks like she’s in her 70s, has recently been extended until next year and it would be a surprise if it did not eventually end up on Broadway.

Kimberly Akimbo
Photo taken by Ahron FosterVictoria Clark stars in ‘Kimberly Akimbo’

Trouble in the Mind

Trouble in Mind
Joan Marcus Photography(l to r): LaChanze (Wiletta Mayer), Chuck Cooper (Sheldon Forrester), Michael Zegen (Al Manners)

Theater community began to take action in 2021. They mounted more performances by people of color and took steps to address years of racism. Perhaps no production embodied this more than the Roundabout’s powerful Broadway premiere Trouble in the Mind. Alice Childress (a Black playwright/author who died in 1994) wrote the 1955 play. Childress didn’t agree to reduce its message regarding racism within the theatre community or beyond. The play finally gets a successful production thanks to LaChanze’s captivating performance. LaChanze won the Tony previously for her work. Purple.

One good thing about seeing theater at the highest levels is that even less successful productions, ones that don’t make top 10 lists, have transcendent moments. On the other hand, critics were on the ground. The VisitorThe Public Theater. Although much of their commentary was well-placed, lighting and staging were very poor. One scene featured two characters on the Staten Island ferry, where water was moving across the screen. The magical illusion was an accentuation of the energy and potential that is felt every time the house lights dim or the curtain raises.


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