The theater world has Tony Awards fever and it’s up to critics and stage pundits to read the tea leaves of nominees and interpret the state of the art. Most of the energy goes to debating the vitality of the American Musical, or a fresh British Invasion and so forth. And while the runaway success of Hamilton has given the Broadway musical a huge jolt of energy and hope, I’m equally excited about non-musical fare this season. The four pieces nominated for Best New Play— Eclipsed, The Father, The Humans and King Charles III—make a collective argument that the 2015-16 season was the best for plays in a long time.
First: stats. Of the 39 shows that opened in past season, 20 were either new plays or revivals of plays, and 19 were new musicals, musical revivals, dance events or magic shows such as Penn & Teller. So already, plays outnumbered tuners. Of the 20 play openings, 12 were revivals and eight were new. Personally, I’d like to see more parity in that department, but let’s look at the new plays. You had high-concept, star-driven stuff such as An Act of God (returning to Broadway with Sean Hayes), which had a very smart, funny script. On the other end of the spectrum there was virtuoso verse drama from Mike Bartlett, whose King Charles III, a “future history play,” was composed almost entirely in iambic pentameter.
King Charles III, for all its poetic ingenuity, was in some ways the most conservative new play nominee. It was British, it was highbrow, it was about the royal family—of course it’s nominated. Its competitors are refreshingly diverse. Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is a harrowing drama of wartime survival among women. German playwright Florian Zeller explores the onset of dementia, albeit expressionistically, in The Father. And Stephen Karam’s The Humans, generally believed to be the front-runner, is a delicate tissue of seriocomic naturalism and sly spectral touches that gathers to an eerie, semi-mystical climax. In some ways, the best plays show how flexible and timely new drama can be: not bound to strict realism, still able to address big social issues.
The kicker: all the nominated writers this year are under 40. Compare that to the playwrights in 2014, who were all white, male and with an average age of 64. How’s that for the future of Broadway plays?