The 20 best Broadway shows and Off-Broadway theater of 2015

Our theater critics rank the best Broadway shows and Off Broadway plays and musicals of the year
Hamilton
Photograph: Joan Marcus Hamilton
By Adam Feldman and David Cote |
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Most Decembers we wince at the prospect of ranking end-of-the-year lists. Often it’s genuinely hard to agree on #1. New York theater is incredibly diverse. Also, our job is to be versatile: uptown, downtown able to appreciate the best of Broadway and the avant-garde fare Off-Broadway shows and Off-Off Broadway. In truth, though, 2015 was the year downtown went uptown—in a big way—with terms like “game-changer” and “breakthrough” being thrown around regularly. The show, as you know, is Hamilton, and you can believe the hype. But it’s not alone. A future-history play in verse, ravishing revivals, and thrilling downtown experiments made for 12 months of unforgettable theatergoing. Note: We decided to exclude shows from previous years that had transferred (An Octoroon, Fun Home, The Flick and Hand to God) or events with very limited runs (Encores!: Little Shop of Horrors).

RECOMMENDED: Check out more of NYC's best of 2015

The best theater of 2015

1
Hamilton
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater, Musicals

Hamilton

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Open run
Most of what can be said about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audacious, loquacious hip-hop history musical has been said—nay, shouted from rooftops. The cascading lyrics are jaw-dropping, the cast is phenomenal and the storytelling is sublime. Miranda’s masterpiece is the sort of cultural watershed that only happens every decade or so. You can bet it’s #1—we are not giving away our shot.—DC
2
A View from the Bridge
Photograph: Jan Versweyveld
Theater, Drama

A View from the Bridge

Shattering, primal, unforgettable: Director Ivo van Hove strips Arthur Miller's 1956 Brooklyn tragedy to its essentials with a superb British cast and nerve-jangling modern design (by van Hove’s constant collaborator Jan Versweyveld). Mark Strong is rivetingly good as an overprotective uncle whose transgressive desires doom him. Bridge is the dramatic event of the year.—DC
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3
The Humans
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater

The Humans

A nuanced ensemble cast, directed by Joe Mantello, captures the give and take of a family Thanksgiving dinner in Stephen Karam’s painfully funny and truthful look at the ongoing costs of living.  The dark side of the play creeps up on you slowly, until Karam rips the curtain from the existential dread that lurks behind the rites of the quotidian.—AF

4
King Charles III
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater

King Charles III

A mighty task Mike Bartlett undertook  / In offering a future hist’ry play: / Shakespearean in scope, in blank verse writ, / Yet most adept and modern in concern. / As stubborn Charles, the long-awaiting king, / Twixt Parliament and royal priv’lege torn, / Tim Pigott-Smith commanded deep respect.—AF

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5
John
Photograph: Matthew Murphy

John

A ghostless ghost story, Annie Baker's long, meticulous play was rich in suggestive pauses and a kitschy-gothic atmosphere. In a rural bed-and-breakfast, a troubled young couple is watched by the ambiguously sweet proprietor (the marvelous Georgia Engel). Sam Gold staged the action so precisely, those lost souls haunted our dreams.—DC

6
10 Out of 12
Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

10 Out of 12

Anyone who has endured a tech rehearsal knows how painstakingly dull it can be. But genius playwright Anne Washburn used this limbo-like onstage-backstage world as a locus of humor, complexity and even menace. Immersing you in illusion—and illusion-breaking—the densely layered Les Waters–directed production made for a deconstructed love letter to playmakers.—DC

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7
Hir
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater, Comedy

Hir

Patriarchal domination is dressed in a purple housecoat and banished to a corner in Taylor Mac’s wild-eyed, clear-minded look at an American household bent on embracing a postgender, postcapitalist, radically messy future. Kristine Nielsen, a marvel of manic cheer, holds her uneasy balance superbly in Mac’s dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl.—AF

8
Eclipsed
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater, Drama

Eclipsed

The radiant Lupito Nyong’o and her castmates were riveting as sex-slave "wives" of a Liberian rebel leader in Danai Gurira’s urgent drama. Gurira rendered these women's plight in sometimes harrowing detail, but with merciful humor and a focus on the personal. To this bracing tale of war and endurance, applause seemed an insufficient response.—AF

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9
Something Rotten!
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater, Musicals

Something Rotten!

Broadway’s funniest and splashiest musical comedy in at least 400 years offers anything-for-a-laugh gags wrapped in a solid structure, with a dash of sweet emotional ballast. Brian d'Arcy James is splendid as a frustrated Elizabethan playwright trying to construct the world's first musical.—DC

10
Skylight
Photograph: John Haynes

Skylight

The quietly magnetic Carey Mulligan, as a schoolteacher, and the off-angular Bill Nighy, as a rich entrepreneur, were the Broadway year’s most compellingly mismatched couple in this razor-sharp revival of David Hare’s 1995 drama. Sifting through the ruins of their past romance, they unearthed a clash of values that resonated as powerfully now as ever.—AF

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11
The Iceman Cometh
Photograph: Richard Termine

The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O'Neill's 1946 masterwork about varieties of delusion in a New York saloon is nearly five hours long, a test for even the hardiest theatergoer. But Robert Falls's gorgeously acted revival made it worth the hangover. Anchored by a splendid Nathan Lane and the volcanic Brian Dennehy, this Goodman Theatre production got you drunk on O’Neill’s punchy, jagged lyricism before slapping you sober.—DC

12
The King and I
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
Theater, Musicals

The King and I

Bartlett Sher's revival of the 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is a grand and glorious thing: smart, moving and visually ravishing. Tony winner Kelli O'Hara is simply perfect as a single mother teaching the children of the King of Siam. Nothing is lost in translation; this King and I speaks a universal language of love.—DC

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13
The Color Purple
photograph: Matthew Murphy
Theater, Musicals

The Color Purple

Ten years after its Broadway premiere, The Color Purple returns in an intensely focused revival, directed by John Doyle, that brings out its deeper hues. Cynthia Erivo triumphs in the central role of Miss Celie, who rises through unspeakable adversity to find joy in a world that has given her little reason to believe she has a right to it.—AF

14
Iowa
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Iowa

The playful verbiage and satirical cartoonishness of Jenny Schwartz’s play, about a teenage girl whose Internet-addled mom decides to move them to Iowa, were captured splendidly in Ken Rus Schmoll’s staging, and the cast of eight sustained a remarkable tone of committed absurdism. Smartly weird songs, by Schwartz and Todd Almond, were among the show’s many elements of surprise.—AF

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15
The Evening
Photograph: Paula Court

The Evening

Writer-director Richard Maxwell’s tale of a cage fighter, his manager and a prostitute seeking redemption at a dive bar started out like a throwback to his earlier, more accessible comedies about society’s losers. But by the end it turned more abstract and terrifying than anything else he’s done. The deadpan auteur can still shock and surprise.—DC

16
Gloria
Photograph: Carol Rosegg

Gloria

Print-media worker bees were a miserable hive of self-involvement in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s cunningly structured satire, which swerved violently from knowing workplace comedy into a wider lane of social comment. The play had powerful things to say about how we tune in and tune out; after its shocks, the human touches lingered.—AF

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17
Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2
Photograph: Johan Persson

Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two

A cunning and cipher-like Ben Miles played Tudor fixer Thomas Cromwell in this two-play version of the novels by Hilary Mantel. Mike Poulton's action-packed script created a totally engrossing pageant of gossip, backstabbing and amoral double-dealing in the dangerous court of King Henry VIII. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s versatile 23-member ensemble made history in every sense.—DC

18
Fondly, Collette Richland
Photograph: Gene Pittman

Fondly, Collette Richland

Writer Sibyl Kempson joined with the multifarious Elevator Repair Service to evoke genuine insanity in a theater, probably the weirdest show seen on an Off Broadway stage. The play—surreal, grotesque, hermetic and trivially epic—was a vast, flapping freak flag, a surreal farce about the struggle between pre-Christian, Earth-mother eco-anarchy and the crushing boredom of bourgeois patriarchy.—DC
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19
Barbecue
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Barbecue

Four trashy white siblings staged an intervention on behalf of their even more damaged sister; in the second scene they were all played by black actors. That was just one of many snappy switcheroos in Robert O’Hara’s brash, taboo-flouting roast of race and representation, acted with verve by a cast of 10. For better or worse, the satire was relentless.—AF

20
The Spoils
Photograph: Monique Carboni

The Spoils

In his latest antivanity project, actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg played a deplorable trust-fund slacker whose jerkiness verged on psychosis. The cast of Scott Elliott’s razor-sharp New Group production was stellar (including Erin Darke and The Big Bang Theory's Kunal Nayyar), and Eisenberg’s intensely awkward performance was repellent and riveting.—AF

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