The Ones We Left Behind

The Ones We Left Behind
The Ones We Left Behind

We started with 75.

That’s how many plays we counted when each of us compiled our own lists of the best works of the past 25 years. This was encouraging; it meant we found much to love. And many of the same plays were on more than one list. That was good to recognize, too.

To get to 25, we eventually realized that we could only include one play by any given playwright, or risk being overrun by a medley of Annie Bakers or Suzan-Lori Parkses.

Conversely, we decided that we could not include veteran playwrights just because they wrote great plays before 1993.

Our conversations were raucous and filled with disagreement; one critic’s pet was often another’s horror.

And while we deliberately excluded musicals, saving that furor for another time, other once-dominant genres simply failed to show up.

The one-set naturalistic drama and the flat-out comedy are mostly not represented, each having evolved into something eerier and more conceptual. Plays addressing the profound changes in technology during the period are also thin on the list.

So here we offer more to savor, and to argue about. Three more lists: One considers the major figures whose groundbreaking work came before our time frame. One singles out the plays that grapple with the high-tech future, now.

And one, the first here, is for plays that had passionate individual advocates, but not as much affection from the group.

Agree? Disagree? Read on.


THE MODEL APARTMENT (1995) by Donald Margulies An enormously powerful work that only gradually reveals its hand, this masterly play segues from a classic comedy of Jewish neurosis into a harrowing assessment of the long-term reverberations of a barbaric chapter in history. — BEN BRANTLEY

WELL (2004) by Lisa Kron What at first looks like a keen dissertation on the politics of urban neglect keeps being crashed by a human comedy about mothers and daughters, health and illness, and playwrights who (brilliantly pretend to) lose control of their plays. — JESSE GREEN

SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN (2006) by Young Jean Lee This identity-politics mic drop is a series of uproarious, unnerving vignettes performed by three women in traditional Korean dress and the Korean-American woman they harangue. — ALEXIS SOLOSKI

GOOD PEOPLE (2011) by David Lindsay-Abaire Economic hardship drives a white single mother to desperate measures in this compassionate look at class differences and blue-collar distress in South Boston. The play’s lead, Margie, is among the richest female characters of modern American theater. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS (2015) by Bess Wohl Gesture takes the place of dialogue as six lost souls embark on a silent retreat, where their crowded, eloquent, often very funny quiet morphs into a kind of tranquillity that washes over the audience, too. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES


Here are a dozen playwrights whose most acclaimed work arrived in the quarter-century before “Angels in America,” but who were still productive in the quarter-century after.

A. R. GURNEY The great elegist of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the endangered, genteel species to which he belonged, he brought a touch of class — in all senses of the word — to plays like “The Dining Room” (1982) and “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004).

ADRIENNE KENNEDY Fragmentary, lyrical, devastating plays like “Funnyhouse of a Negro” (1964) and “The Ohio State Murders” (1992) situate race in America as a nightmare. “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” suggests we still haven’t woken up.

RICHARD FOREMAN A playwright of wisdom and mischief whose so-called “reverberation machines” are philosophical meditations delivered with low-tech dazzle. A Downtown legend since the late ’60s, he kept the recherché hits coming before temporarily abandoning theater for film.

JOHN GUARE With prescient works that include “The House of Blue Leaves” (1971) and “Six Degrees of Separation” (1990), he prophesied how star gazing would become this country’s dominant religion, while finding the poetry in hopeless dreams of fame.

CHARLES MEE With an eye toward history and an ear tuned to music, he remakes stories from found texts (“bobrauschenbergamerica,” 2003) and classic dramas (“Big Love,” 2001; “Iphigenia 2.0,” 2007), shaping wild, bold, strange, romantic worlds where people get physical with operatic intensity.

TERRENCE McNALLY From bathhouse (“The Ritz,” 1975) to opera house (“The Lisbon Traviata,” 1989) to AIDS (“Love! Valour! Compassion!,” 1994) and beyond, his plays have reshaped gay life onstage — and helped define it offstage, too.

DAVID RABE The Vietnam plays (“Sticks and Bones,” 1971) made him famous; tough-guy dramas (“Hurlyburly,” 1984) cemented his place. With later work, like “Good for Otto” (2018) and “The Black Monk” (2003), he continues experimenting — still darkly comic, probingly psychological, channeling stubborn ghosts.

SAM SHEPARD He showed us how the great American frontier had become a collective, polluted state of mind; and he redefined its landscape — and the dysfunctional family drama — with masterworks like “Buried Child” (1978), “True West” (1980) and “Fool for Love” (1983).

DAVID MAMET His recent work has an embittered, reactionary edge, but early classics like “American Buffalo” (1975) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1983) made him the great poet of grifter vulgarity.

In the 25 years since Roy Cohn first worked his landline in “Angels in America,” a digital revolution has taken hold. Here are five standout plays that examine technological change, and how it’s altering us all.

THE DYING GAUL by Craig Lucas (1998) A bereaved screenwriter comes to believe he has made contact with his dead lover in a gay chat room; this angry, disturbing play was among the first to reckon with the potential for malice and revenge afforded by online anonymity. — BEN BRANTLEY

ALLADEEN by The Builders Association (2003) A slippery multimedia collaboration with London’s motiroti about Bangalore call centers. Innovative projection technology and video editing software merged the faces of nonwhite characters with the white sitcom stars they used as vocal models. — ALEXIS SOLOSKI

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL by Quiara Alegría Hudes (2013) Large swaths of this Pulitzer-winning drama take place in an online support group for recovering drug addicts. Ms. Hudes deftly suggests the zip of those conversations, and the way people reveal more of themselves when hidden behind screen names. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley (2015) In a beckoningly lifelike online realm, anonymous pedophiles with a fetish for Victoriana can indulge their impulses with imaginary children. A moral examination of the queasy-making consequences of fantasy, it forces us to consider: Where’s the harm? — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison (2016) In 2062, holographic companions are programmed with the personalities of loved ones to comfort the confused and bereaved. Still, in this moving drama, the staging tech is decidedly low; grief may be the one thing that future Siris will never learn to copy. — JESSE GREEN

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