The best of theater in 2022

We chronicle some of the best in a banner year for plays and musicals, including ‘Guys and Dolls’ at the Kennedy Center, Jodie Comer on the West End and ‘Into the Woods’ on Broadway

(David Milan/Illustration for The Washington Post)

The theater year that is drawing to a close was full of confusion — and contradictions: Do I still wear a mask? Will the people seated behind me wear masks? Do hit shows sell the way they did before the pandemic? Can theater pick up artfully where it left off? Is the clamor for a more diverse and equitable world of the stage being adequately addressed? So in many respects, 2022 was a transitional year. But in one, it was a traditional year, with a lot of splendid work to point out. Here are my reflections on the best of 2022.

1

‘Guys and Dolls’

The Kennedy Center’s revival of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’s heavenly delight of a musical about down-and-dirty gamblers and high-minded do-gooders proved to be just what the doctor ordered for audiences eager to put all their cares and blues away. A sublime Broadway Center Stage cast headed by Jessie Mueller, Steven Pasquale, James Monroe Iglehart, Phillipa Soo and Rachel Dratch sang us back to Broadway’s golden age. The only element that might have further buoyed this two-week engagement, directed by Marc Bruni, would have been news that we could catch it again on Broadway.

A casino in hectic Times Square? This theater critic says heck no.

2

‘Kimberly Akimbo’

Amid the jukebox shows and revivals, the year’s best new musical reacquaints audiences with the platinum-plated artistry of the song-and-story works of yore. Boasting a witty and deeply moving score by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”), “Kimberly Akimbo” is the tale of a 15-year-old New Jersey girl with a disease that ages her at four times the normal rate. The premise paves the way for a marvelous performance by Victoria Clark, who in her 60s gives the most heartbreaking account of an adolescent I’ve ever experienced. Justin Cooley and Bonnie Milligan are smashing in support, in a Broadway production directed by Jessica Stone that I hope sweeps the Tonys in June.

3

‘Downstate’

The best play of 2022 is also its most provocative. Bruce Norris’s (“Clybourne Park”) thought-provoking drama, set in an Illinois halfway house for convicted sex offenders, dares to ask the kind of questions about heinous crimes and the nature of punishment that society would rather not consider. “Downstate” was produced before the pandemic in London and Chicago, and now, in an off-Broadway incarnation directed at Playwrights Horizons by Pam MacKinnon, it gives a sterling cast, including K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper, another opportunity to dramatize Norris’s challenging thesis.

4

‘A.D. 16’

Composer Cinco Paul — the spoofmeister behind Apple Plus’s gimlet-eyed parody “Schmigadoon!” — collaborated with fellow wit Bekah Brunstetter for this — the funniest musical of 2022, which had its world premiere at Olney Theatre Center. A hilarious biblical teen romp, set in Nazareth in the year of the title, the musical has an excitement-seeking Mary Magdalene (Phoenix Best) meeting a hunky young Jesus (Ben Fankhauser) for chaste romance at the dawn of wokeness. Director Stephen Brackett (“A Strange Loop”) set the right endearing tone for a story that also features Jesus’ communing with a dancing colony of lepers (led by the groovy Da’Von T. Moody).

5

‘Into the Woods’

One hopes that somewhere, the late composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim was in earshot of this superlative Broadway revival of his 1987 musical (with book writer James Lapine) about fairy-tale characters adrift in a forest of wishes granted and expectations dashed. No small part of the success of director Lear deBessonet’s production is owed to the sound-design team; it engineered a version that feels as if it is being fed into your own internal audio system. It also helps that the actors in this storybook-world-turned-upside-down have been across-the-board fantastic. (And in February, the show is headed to the Kennedy Center and beyond.)

There will never be another Stephen Sondheim

6

‘Fat Ham’

What a piece of work is this Pulitzer-winning, contemporary riff on “Hamlet” by James Ijames (pronounced “Imes”), one of the triumvirate of artistic directors at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. It takes some nerve and comic virtuosity to take on the English-speaking world’s most important play and make it one’s own. Which seems to be one of the points of Ijames’s sharp, raucous comedy, set in the backyard of a Black middle-class family, in which a young man by the name of Juicy is scandalized when his scheming uncle finds his way into his widowed mom’s affections — and bed. Director Saheem Ali served up a sparkling version at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, with a cast led by Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford and Billy Eugene Jones, and it’s headed to Broadway in the spring.

7

‘Just for Us’

The brilliant Alex Edelman has brought his monologue about an Orthodox Jewish comedian facing down white nationalists to Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where it reliably accomplishes what already occurred in its smash-hit New York run: It leaves audiences in stitches. (The show runs until Dec. 23.) Edelman’s 90-minute piece is a beautifully crafted elucidation of coming from a family of faith in America and finding a way to illuminate the ignorance, absurdity and vulgarity of prejudice. His story tells with charm and intelligence of his infiltration of a meeting of white supremacists in Queens, a gathering that, more than anything else, exposes the hollow, lost souls who embrace antisemitic tropes.

8

‘Prima Facie’

Jodie Comer. Need I say more? Well, okay, I will: The “Killing Eve” star captivated London’s West End last spring with her portrayal of a hard-charging criminal lawyer in “Prima Facie,” which happily is coming to Broadway in April. The monodrama by Suzie Miller and directed by Justin Martin propels Comer stunningly into the tale of a crackerjack barrister who prides herself on getting offenders off. Then life takes a horrid turn, as it sometimes does, and the justice system is suddenly stacked against her. Comer’s astonishing work here bottles all the anguish and rage of the courtroom pro turned victim. Every moment onstage, she’s killing it.

9

‘John Proctor Is the Villain’

Will the wonders of playwrights’ minds never cease? Dramatist Kimberly Belflower comes up with a fascinating modern analogue for Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Her turn-the-tables play is set in a high school classroom in a small Georgia town, where a charismatic teacher leads students in a unit on the classic drama. Events that Miller explores about the relationship between the play’s John Proctor and a teenager, Abigail, find a parallel in the class, as a student confronts the teacher about his own transgressions. Under Marti Lyons’s direction, Studio Theatre gave us a splendid production, with Juliana Sass as the heroic teenager and Dave Register as the teacher.

10

‘American Prophet’

The gorgeous hymns of Nashville-based composer Marcus Hummon grace the production that he and co-book writer/director Charles Randolph-Wright constructed: a musical biography of the great 19th-century abolitionist, writer and political hero Frederick Douglass. With Cornelius Smith Jr. portraying Douglass and Kristolyn Lloyd as his first wife, Anna, the Arena Stage world premiere brought history exuberantly into three dimensions. The bonus was the inspiration provided by Douglass’s voluminous writings and speeches. Hence the subtitle, “Frederick Douglass in His Own Words” — a fitting tribute to a man who gave voice to so many with no way of amplifying their own.

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