Hedwig, Hugh & Michael Cera: 12 Powerhouse Theater Performances of 2014

Being famous doesn’t disqualify you from this list. From Bradley Cooper and Michael Cera to a Juilliard grad and Pakistani-American writer, here’s what knocked us out this year.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times, via Redux

Bradley Cooper appeared on Broadway this year half-naked. Neil Patrick Harris wore fishnets and high heels. Hugh Jackman mystified in wading boots. All were terrific, and it was a thrill to watch big stars give powerful, knockout performances that didn’t depend on their names or fame. They proved themselves as serious, hard-working actors.

So to the elitist theater critics who dismiss Hollywood stars out of hand (and keep them off their year-end lists), I can only say—you missed something. This un-snob list, where being famous didn’t disqualify anyone, celebrates the powerhouse performances of the year, both shows and individuals (including a musician and writer). They made it a very good year.

1. Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Having graduated Juilliard last spring, Alex Sharp is too young to have given the performance of a lifetime. But that’s what he did as Christopher, a 15 year old math genius, probably autistic, who finds the world overwhelming. The play is involving, exhausting, and exhilarating since you don’t just watch Christopher navigate life—you experience the same jangled nerves, confusion, and sensory overload that he does. After the curtain calls, Christopher comes back to explain a complicated math problem. Everybody stays—because by the end, his triumph feels like your own.

2. Bradley Cooper, The Elephant Man

Fans of Bradley Cooper got to see the star on stage—buff, handsome, and wearing nothing but boxer shorts—for just a couple of minutes. Then he twisted his arm, buckled his hip and distorted his face, and without cosmetics or prosthetics transformed himself into the badly deformed John Merrick. Cooper disappeared so convincingly into the role that it was impossible to see the actor who appeared in the Hangover movies, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. Most impressive for a star famous for his intensely over-the-top characters, Cooper gave the character an understated grace, and the wonderful Patricia Clarkson mesmerized as the daring actress Merrick yearned for in real life.

3. Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Neil Patrick Harris in fishnets, high heels, and glitter could be a great gag. But the mix of confidence and vulnerability that he brought to Hedwig, a failed German rock star with a botched transgender operation, made the character feel universally real. From TV’s How I Met Your Mother to hosting the Tony Awards, NPH can entertain an audience better than anyone, but that he also touched our hearts and made us empathize with Hedwig was the knockout punch.

4. Greta Gerwig, The Village Bike

This disconcerting play about a woman’s sexual desires took on a certain sweetness with Gerwig (Frances Ha) at center stage. Open-faced and guileless, she starred as Becky, a pregnant woman whose escalating need for sexual release moved from charming to unsettling. At the MCC theater, Gerwig played Becky as a woman who may have a dark side but who you’d like as your best friend, no matter what needs she had to conquer.

5. Hugh Jackman, The River

In this quiet, subdued, and mystical play about a fly-fisherman and the women who drift in and out of his life, Jackman abandoned the charming, flamboyant personality fans love and revealed himself as an intense and nuanced actor. His complicated character (called only “Man”) in this Jez Butterworth drama had passions of all kinds, and Jackman made us care about all of them—including the fish.

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6. Michael Cera, This Is Our Youth

Gangly-limbed Michael Cera (of Juno and TV’s Arrested Development) brought anguished innocence to this revival of the Kenneth Lonergan play about 20-somethings looking for their place in the world. The ensemble cast (with Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson) was seamless, but it was Cera who made us feel how all emotions cut deep when you’re at a certain age, and love, family, and friendship waver in uncertainty.

7. Annaleigh Ashford, You Can’t Take It With You

James Earl Jones charmed as the patriarch of a madcap family in this 1936 chestnut, and Kristine Nielsen dithered without being ditsy as a would-be romance writer. But playing the screwball daughter blithely practicing her classical ballet, Ashford (Kinky Boots) kept everyone—especially herself—on their toes. High school productions have taken the luster off this Moss Hart-George Kaufman comedy, but Ashford and company brought it all back.

8. Tony Shalhoub, Act One

Sometimes you realize the power of a performance only when it remains in your mind many months later. In this show at the Lincoln Center Theater, Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) played dramatist Moss Hart narrating his own life story. Santino Fontana (Frozen) charmingly captured the energy and eagerness of the playwright just starting out, but it was Shalhoub, looking back at his younger self with the perfect mix of amusement and nostalgia, who left an indelible mark.

9. Sting, The Last Ship

This bleak new musical about a working class town and its failing shipyard had exactly one thing going for it—a powerful, fully formed score by Sting. The music was so good, original, and varied that it almost made up for the story that didn’t quite hold together. Sting took over the lead role to try to draw an audience, but his thumpingly inspirational score was already the hero of the show.

10. Ayad Akhtar, The Invisible Hand and Disgraced

In these two plays, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright explored the situations of an assimilated Pakistani living in America—and an American banker captured by terrorists in Pakistan. Both left you gasping. Broadway’s Disgraced raised controversial questions about the essential character of an individual, while The Invisible Hand (New York Theater Workshop) was even more shocking in giving insight into the terrorist mindset and a view behind the horrifying headlines.

11. Scenes From A Marriage

Good luck staying married after seeing this adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman movie, by Belgian director Ivo van Hove. In original staging at the always innovative New York Theater Workshop, the audience moved to different locations to watch three sets of actors portray one couple at various stages of their disintegrating marriage. In the final act, all six actors appeared on a larger stage, in a cacophony of pain, confusion, and hope that perfectly captured the echo-chamber of a long relationship.

12. Hand to God

Sexual repression has been around for centuries, courtesy of all our favorite religions. But it’s rarely explored with more insight and cutting-edge wit than in this original show at the terrific MCC Theater, featuring a sexually eager mom, a confused clergyman, and a repressed teen. The show is transferring to Broadway this spring, and here’s hoping not all the edges get smoothed.