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Published: Wednesday, 12/29/2010

2010 was a good year for big stars on stage

It may be hard to remember right now, but this was more than the year Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark didn't open. This also was more than the year a terrorist bomb did not go off in the busiest part of Times Square on an extremely lucky Saturday night.

On a brighter note, there were amazing performances this year by many of those high-priced stars that theater people worried would be just stunt casting. (To name just a few, start with Liev Schreiber, Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, Vanessa Redgrave, and James Earl Jones.) It also was a year of spectacular work by American directors, especially Daniel Sullivan (The Merchant of Venice), Gregory Mosher (A View From the Bridge), and Kenny Leon (Fences).

Careful readers will note this list does not include productions of anything written in the last 30 years. There were breakthroughs Off-Broadway by impressive new playwrights (Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, Kristoffer Diaz's Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still).

On Broadway, however, the handful of adventurous new and newish plays failed to grab a mainstream audience -- even with Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce (La Bete) or Brendan Fraser and Denis O'Hare (the sweet, misunderstood Elling).

An even more brutal audience disconnect was seen in the transfer of the irreverent Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from sold-out embrace at the Public Theater to mild disinterest on Broadway. After this, and the quick folding of another Off-Broadway transfer, The Scottsboro Boys, don't be surprised to see a slowdown in Broadway experimentation. On the positive side, this could refocus energy back to an overshadowed and withering Off-Broadway scene.

And what is happening to new Broadway musicals? In the spring, all four Tony nominees were rock shows, including the good but not great American Idiot and the glorified nightclub act Million Dollar Quartet. Sondheim on Sondheim, Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away, and The Scottsboro Boys may have been imperfect, but at least they were by real theater artists. But they vanished, while three mindless pop-clone oldies keep bringing in the crowds (Quartet, Rock of Ages, and Rain).

Business was shakier in the fall than in the spring. Still, despite indifferent-to-negative reviews, The Addams Family and Promises, Promises were in the $1-million-a-week club.

And happily, without help from Hollywood, the theater has been growing its own wonderful generation of star actresses. Most conspicuous are the radiant Lily Rabe, giving Pacino a worthy foil as Portia in Merchant, and Katie Finneran, whose hilarious cameo made it necessary to endure the second act of Promises, Promises.

Other women to cherish this year include Elizabeth Marvel (in the riveting deconstruction of The Little Foxes), Lisa Emery (in a splendid Pinter double bill), Laila Robins (imperiously gorgeous in That Face), Zoe Kazan (depressed but never annoying as the hardest character in Angels in America), and, in an astonishing debut, newcomer Nina Arianda (in Venus in Fur).

The Signature Theater had a terrific year, first with Horton Foote's nine-play The Orphans' Home Cycle and now with the don't-miss revival of Tony Kushner's monumental Angels in America. The ever-admirable Lincoln Center Theater took two big chances, and stumbled big with A Free Man of Color.

Neither Women on the Verge nor Spider-Man had out-of-town tryouts, and both suffered from having to work out their problems here in front of the New York chat rooms. Oh, and after four delays, Spidey is now scheduled to open Feb. 7. See you next year.



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