The best (and worst) of 2010

The decade kicked off with classics, literary riffs and exciting new musicals.

LEGAL EAGLES Lily Rabe, left, tries to do justice by Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice.

LEGAL EAGLES Lily Rabe, left, tries to do justice by Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. Photograph: Joan Marcus

David Cote, theater editor

The best
1 Gatz Every syllable of The Great Gatsby, read aloud in a perversely ideal office setting: Elevator Repair Service's literary unadaptation was inspired and utterly absorbing.
2 Lear Critics were mostly flummoxed by Young Jean Lee's anguished riff on King Lear, which had us mesmerized with its irreverent structural games.
3 The Little Foxes Just when you thought Ivo van Hove had exhausted his regietheater tricks, he delivered this minimalist-brutalist take of the Lillian Hellman classic.
4 The Merchant of Venice On the other end of the directorial spectrum, Daniel Sullivan's sober, keen-eared revival contrasts fiery Al Pacino and icy Lily Rabe.
5 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Maybe it never had a chance on Broadway (it closes Sunday 9), but we had high hopes for this snarky-smart historical romp from Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman.
6 Clybourne Park Race and real estate became the source for both tragedy and comedy in Bruce Norris's scabrous, biting social satire.
7 The Orphans' Home Cycle Horton Foote's valedictory epic began in 2009 and ended this year, but we still feel its subterranean emotional shock waves.
8 Middletown Meditating on the cosmic sameness of birth and death, Will Eno made generic, small-town America seem breathtakingly weird and unique.
9 Enron This English import got several pans, failed to build an audience and closed after two weeks; but it was a shining example of vibrant, accessible political theater.
10 The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity Musclemen in Speedos deconstructing post-9/11 socioethnic iconographies; what's not to like in Kristoffer Diaz's pro-wrestler play?

The worst
1 The Book of Grace Suzan-Lori Parks had painfully little to say about national borders or race in this trite domestic allegory.
2 Measure for Measure Any show with the spellbinding Jefferson Mays ought to be a fave, but he was wasted in this plodding, drab Shakespeare.

Adam Feldman, associate theater editor

The best
1 In the Wake Lisa Kron's searching, necessary drama offered a nuanced exploration of the limits of American exceptionalism in the 21st century.
2 The Merchant of Venice Daniel Sullivan's exquisitely intelligent account of Shakespeare's problem play achieved a judicious balance of romantic comedy and societal critique.
3 Passion Play The metaphysical met the metatheatrical, yielding layers of mutual revelation, in Sarah Ruhl's expansive triptych on dramatic and religious themes.
4 Clybourne Park Bruce Norris's dark comedy about the changing ethnic profile of a Chicago neighborhood—boosted by an excellent ensemble—took a bracing look at property and values.
5 The Scottsboro Boys This short-lived, long-shadowed pseudominstrel musical popped the burnt cork to explore the trials and errors of racial representation.
6 La Cage aux Folles Terry Johnson's fabulously tawdry and revelatory production dragged Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's musical farce into sharp new focus for its latest Broadway outing.
7 The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity Kristoffer Diaz grappled with big questions of American self-image in the most pleasurably garrulous sports play since Take Me Out.
8 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson A wild blast of energy, irony, political history and narrative mythos, this rocked-out morality tale gave Broadway a transfusion of vitality.
9 In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards Steven Cosson and the Civilians redefined community theater with a clearheaded docudramatic collage about urban planning and borough identity.
10 On the Levee In their fascinating music-theater piece about a devastating flood, Lear DeBessonet, Marcus Gardley and Todd Almond showed the kind of rising talent that lifts all boats.

The worst
1 Viagara Falls Elderly horndogs chased a bone and traded stiff one-liners in this utterly mortifying would-be comedy.
2 The Winter's Tale As inept as the The Merchant of Venice was adept, this misguided fable chilled the Delacorte's summer season.

Helen Shaw, theater writer

The best
1 L'Effet de Serge Philippe Quesne's nearly wordless production (a man prepares minispectacles for friends) did very little—except make theater sacred again.
2 The Scottsboro Boys Say hurrah for Kander & Ebb, director Susan Stroman and their infallible cast: They repurposed loathed forms of minstrelsy to convey historical and racial outrage.
3 Lear Young Jean Lee's lightning-strike show ripped the king out of Shakespeare's tragedy and replaced him with the playwright's own awful sense of loss.
4 The Myopia and Plays David Greenspan's galloping mix of borscht-belt cracks and epistemological insight intellectually lapped our slow-thinking season.
5 Middletown Will Eno's answer to Our Town hypnotized with a flawless first act (directed with arch precision by Ken Rus Schmoll) that segued into a subversive second half.
6 Gatz Elevator Repair Service richly deserved its kudos. After Scott Shepherd finished reciting all of The Great Gatsby, I would have stayed to hear the phone book.
7 Vision Disturbance Christina Masciotti's study of a Greek woman suffering through a divorce meshed with (and elevated) Richard Maxwell's no-pretense aesthetic.
8 Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen The Belgian Ontroerend Goed show seemed to be adolescent mayhem but was actually choreographic exactitude paired with an edge-of-your-seat evocation of childhood.
9 North Atlantic The Wooster Group's Cold War--paranoia farce still feels fresh and biting—and it dares to laugh at the Group's other, more magisterial work.
10 The Aliens Annie Baker stitched old, old patterns into this seemingly effortless tale of poetic souls hanging out in an alley-cum-neohippie-purgatory.

The worst
1 Bass for Picasso Kate Moira Ryan's so-called comedy combined terrible acting, stale gags and Jeremy Piven--like levels of outraged self-pity.
2 The Demons The usually thrilling Lincoln Center Festival hit a snag with this 12-hour-long stinker, ham-fistedly directed by Peter Stein.

Report card

On balance, it was a weak year for Broadway: Pickings were slim for new drama, and the two new musicals we liked most—Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys—closed too soon. But Off Broadway remained a steady supplier of solid new work. (The Public Theater had an exceptional year.) We only wish there had been a greater number of exciting new voices in the mix.

Final grade: B

See more in Theater