The Stage

10 Best Plays of the Year: Richard III, No Man’s Land, and More

From Mark Rylance’s lip-curling portrayal of a limping Shakespearean king to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s bromance, see 2013’s best plays.

Geraint Lewis/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

This was the year that British actors took over Broadway and showed just how good they are. In addition to being thrillingly talented, they performed shows in repertory—which could be seen as showing off. Americans responded with one brilliant take on a classic, and a host of clever and quirky shows that proved creativity in theater hasn’t been lost. At least twice this number were worth seeing, but here are my ten favorites of the year.

1. Richard III

English actor Mark Rylance gives lip-curling dimension to the ugly, limping king by finding the dark humor Shakespeare wrote. Audience delight aside, Rylance doesn’t play the king for comedy, but rather with an understated demonic grin, reminiscent of satanic carvings in cathedrals. The all-male cast and authentic period costumes lend legitimacy to the production, but Rylance’s perfect timing and mirthless laughter are all that’s really needed. Adding to the awe: the cast performs this in repertory with Twelfth Night, where Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, is a tensely riotous Olivia in drag.

2. The Glass Menagerie

Great actresses have portrayed Amanda Wingfield as an overbearing Southern belle drowning in narcissistic memories of her own past. But in this extraordinary production, actress Cherry Jones offers a hint of hope amidst the sadness, letting us glimpse a mother who loves her children and doesn’t know how to save them. Tennessee Williams’s meditations on memory are almost palpable here. When Tom (Zachary Quinto) remembers his fragile, vulnerable sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger), she appears as a specter from nowhere, materializing on the shabby sofa of their childhood home. We feel the pull between life as painful reality—and forgotten wisps of vapor.

3. No Man’s Land

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen enthrall as two old writers who (possibly) knew each other at Oxford and try to drown the pains of the present with tales of a happily philandering past. Though the play is imbued with the despair of aging and impotence, these brilliant actors give unforgettably virile performances as men caught in a moment where they no longer matter. For those who recognize them only from movie blockbusters, the stars’ artistry with Pinter’s language is a revelation. They appear in alternate performances in a wonderfully picaresque Waiting for Godot.

4. Buyer and Cellar

When I visited Barbra Streisand once at her homes in Malibu (yes, she has three), she gave me tour of the basement she created in the image of a New England Main Street. So I can confirm that the location of this one-man play, in which a struggling actor gets a job working as a shop clerk in that magical basement, does indeed exist. That everything else about the play is complete fantasy doesn’t matter. Michael Urie is so full of charm and affection as he plays every role (including Streisand herself) that this lighter-than-air confection touchingly gets to the heart of friendship, fame, and loneliness.

5. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

War and Peace, set to music, with a young, vibrant cast and a cafe setting where the audience can sip vodka and eat pierogis. What more can you want? The show mocks the complexities of Russian novels, and if you think you need SparkNotes to keep the story straight, don’t worry. The very first song simplifies who’s who: “Helene is a slut, Anatole is hot...And Andrei isn’t here,” the cast gleefully sing. In this small sub-plot of the book, war doesn’t play a big role, but the romance is fiery and the sprawling show makes Tolstoy hot again.

6. The Winslow Boy

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Playwright Terrence Rattigan was dismissed as old-school decades ago, but the wonderful revival of this 1946 play should make him as sought-after as mid-century designer furniture. In this classic drawing-room drama, Arthur Winslow (Roger Rees) is a father who goes to extreme measures after his young son (Spencer Davis Milford) is thrown out of a naval academy for a petty offense. The virtue of fighting for the truth at any cost is front and center, but in this terrifically acted and directed production, the characters register as real people who care about love and family as well as ideals.

7. Romeo and Juliet

No, it wasn’t a perfect R&J, but Shakespeare’s gorgeous poetry flowed from Orlando Bloom with such ease and freshness you almost forgot the guy was a movie-star hobbit. Condola Rashad as his beloved Juliet seemed less comfortable with the language, but when she let her body speak, all was forgiven. The balcony scene played as a wonderful cat-and-mouse of youthful hormones, and though the director’s decision to divide the Montagues and Capulets on racial grounds didn’t work, the power of passion blazed through.

8. Small Engine Repair

Three tough guys swigging scotch and bragging about sex are unlikely players to offer any understanding of love and family. But this off-Broadway show reverberated with insights that felt painfully real. Social networks like Foursquare played a big role in the plot, but the real social networks of childhood friends and unbreakable loyalties drove the emotion. Unknown (at least to me) writer John Pollono took the lead role, and though the play wasn’t perfect, he gave hints of being David Mamet crossed with a young Robert De Niro.

9. What’s It All About: Bacharach Re-Imagined

Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and the Beatles all got their due this year, but none of the shows felt as exciting as—get ready—this tribute to Burt Bacharach. Revisiting the songs that have become favorites of wedding bands, young musician Kyle Riabko gave them freshness and meaning, rediscovering the emotional punch they had before turning into clichés. In one surprisingly sweet scene, Kyle embraces a girlfriend as he plays a guitar slung over her back. Expect to leave the tribute happily humming the haunting notes of “Alfie” and not minding any raindrops falling on your head.

10. Jeeves and Bertie In Perfect Nonsense

Three esteemed actors trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London pop into a slapstick play based on the beloved novels of P.G. Wodehouse and have a grand old time. Serious Shakespearean star Matthew Macfadyen plays Jeeves and cross-dresses as a female love interest, and Stephen Mangan is Wooster, in on the joke as he takes a bubble-bath on stage. Now drawing sell-out crowds on London’s West End, the English humor would delight on Broadway, and here’s hoping the producers bring it across the pond. We do love our Brits.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Mark Rylance's role in Twelfth Night.