Best Play(s): 'House & Garden'

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The world is so much with us, racing forward, that it's restorative to pause, recall the theatrical year past and savor its pleasures. You should try it yourself -- trying using the search box at the top of this page.

But the odds are you don't have as many memories to sort through as we do, and that makes it hard when faced with the annual directive to pick the top 10. There is too much range and variety in Pittsburgh's professional theater scene, both local and touring, plus the best of the semi-pro and university shows, to make it easy.

Though it falls to me to wield the pen, PG theater criticism is a team effort. Of the 80-some local shows reviewed in 2011, I did the most, then Sharon Eberson, then Bob Hoover. Both spoke up for their favorites. Nine others reviewed at least one show, led by Kate Angell. I also queried a few trusted others whose help is enhanced by their anonymity. But the final decisions were necessarily mine.

It was particularly tough selecting No. 1. It came down to "House & Garden" and "Maria de Buenos Aires," both excellent collaborations in unusual ways. The former won out because two plays staged simultaneously and (literally) on top of each other is simply the greater feat.

We also struggled with the bottom of the top 10 -- "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" could easily have moved up. I further relieved pressure on the top group by creating a category for solo shows; otherwise, "The Amish Project" would be in the top 10, as well.

1. Alan Ayckbourn, "House & Garden," Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: Two interlocking plays ("House" and "Garden") in adjacent theaters trace the comic haps and mishaps at an English country estate. Actors exited one play just in time to enter the other, keeping two audiences entertained with Mr. Ayckbourn's rueful comedy. Good as separate plays, the two multiply their effect when served in tandem.

2. Astor Piazzolla (music) and Horacio Ferrer (libretto), "Maria de Buenos Aires," Quantum Theatre: A tango opera, mixing a melancholy song cycle, surreal poetry and smoky music, then using ballet noir, operatic voices and a rich video accompaniment to create a story despairing, romantic and ultimately mythic. The space played its part, a cabaret wrapped around ramps and platforms in a derelict East Liberty Y, a dusty echo of the battered streets of turn-of-the-20th-century Buenos Aires.

3. Tarell Alvin McCraney, "Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet," City Theatre: A story about a Louisiana teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, told by a theater poet with original myth-making power. Part of Mr. McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy, it draws on the oldest strands of Yoruba folklore and the newest hip-hop rhythms.

4. John Logan, "Red," Pittsburgh Public Theater: A play about art and the war between generations, as Mark Rothko, the artist as epic hero, looks back to the great masters, triumphs over his immediate predecessors and sneers at his pop art successors. There's also a surrogate son with whom to tussle, while man's tenuous place in the universe is in the balance.

5. Leslie Bricusse (book, lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn (music), "Jekyll & Hyde," Pittsburgh CLO: Director Robert Cuccioli (who played the lead on Broadway) returned to re-stage and re-jigger his previous CLO success with a largely new cast, especially strong in its women.

6. Oscar Wilde, "The Importance of Being Earnest," PICT: Director Alan Stanford added a frame story about the exiled author taking his desperate pleasure in a Parisian cafe and also taking refuge in a revival of his great play in his own mind, casting it from the cafe's rent boys and other habitues while saving the imperious Lady Bracknell for himself.

7. Madeleine George, "Precious Little," City: A crisp tough-minded but often comic play about a linguist, an ape, language, memory, culture, commitment and, ultimately, the hopes and fears of love and maternity.

8. Gab Cody (with Rita Reis), "Fat Beckett," Quantum: An appropriation of "Waiting for Godot," re-imagined as a more hopeful journey by two female comics, performed by the authors and staged in another Quantum-found space, a derelict school building in Lawrenceville.

9. Tracy Letts, "Superior Donuts," Public: A feel-good comedy about the gritty slice of Chicago life seen in a doughnut shop, where greed and abuse are eventually turned back by loyalty and honor.

10. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, "Hunter Gatherers," Bricolage: A grisly comedy that peels back social niceties and finds two young couples reduced to primal comic mayhem.

A runner-up dozen:

Tammy Ryan, "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" (Playhouse Rep); David Lindsay-Abaire (book, lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), "Shrek" (PNC Broadway Across America); Yasmina Reza, "The God of Carnage" (Public); "Million Dollar Quartet" (PNC Broadway); Martin McDonagh, "Lonesome West" (Playhouse Rep); August Wilson, "King Hedley II" (Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre); William Cameron, "Violet Sharp" (Terra Nova Theater); Euripides, "Electra" (Public); Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson, "Louder Faster" (City); Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, "Seussical" (Pittsburgh Musical Theater); Caryl Churchill, "Mad Forest" (Carnegie Mellon); and Tennessee Williams, "The Glass Menagerie" (Prime Stage).

Best solo show: Jessica Dickey was magnificent in her own "The Amish Project" (City). Keith Bunin's "Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" (also City) is a cabaret that morphs into a drama, with the charming Luke Macfarlane as Sam. And of Alan Cumming's cabaret for the 25th annual Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force benefit (Public), I predicted, "it's going to take an awful lot of great theater to keep this evening off my annual list of the Top Ten theater evenings."

Best debut of a new company: Organic Theater Pittsburgh in Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone."

Special mention: The retrospective of Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy (Pittsburgh Playwrights).

Theater of the year: City Theatre, with five of its six mainstage shows among these bests.

Stay tuned for the annual Performer of the Year story, coming in early January, when we celebrate the year's best performers, directors, designers and others.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM


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