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BEST OF 2006 / THEATER AND DANCE | CHARLES McNULTY

The high points

December 17, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

FORGOING the pleasures of talking about Christine Ebersole's tour de force in the Broadway musical "Grey Gardens," Dakin Matthews' colorful, Capote-esque portrayal of an Angeleno power broker in Culture Clash's "Water & Power" at the Mark Taper Forum, the Geffen Playhouse's psychologically nuanced production of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" and the inventive Dali-inflected staging of the Blank Theatre Company's "Lobster Alice," I still don't have enough time or space to adequately recollect the theatrical joys of 2006. So without further ado, my selection of this year's high points:

*

"The History Boys," Broadway. Alan Bennett's Tony-winning drama about a group of whip-smart schoolboys from the north of England aiming for Oxford and Cambridge was as theatrically intoxicating as it was thematically rich. Playing an impassioned teacher with a sexual quirk, Richard Griffiths forcefully made the case for learning for learning's sake, even if no headmaster in the world would keep him on the faculty.

*

"Love's Labor's Lost," Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation. Director Simon Abkarian's frolicsome production of one of Shakespeare's rarely revived comedies was a joy to behold. Kudos to scenic and lighting designer Francois-Pierre Couture and costume designer Sarah Le Feber for creating such an enchanting storybook world, and to the game cast who made it easy to overlook some of the more arcane bits of Elizabethan dialogue.

*

"All My Sons," Geffen Playhouse. The moral engagement of Arthur Miller's 1947 domestic drama about wartime profiteering and its consequences couldn't have been timelier -- or more tonic. Randall Arney's gripping production zeroed in on the father-son conflict, masterfully duked out by Len Cariou and Neil Patrick Harris.

*

"Sunday in the Park With George," London. The Menier Chocolate Factory revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical about the painter Georges Seurat and his (fictionalized) great-grandson, both at artistic crossroads, was as breathtaking to look at as it was to hear. Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell had poignant chemistry, though I'm just as eager to see Kelli O'Hara and Manoel Felciano in the Reprise! concert version opening Jan. 30 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

*

"The Cherry Orchard," Mark Taper Forum. Alfred Molina, far and away the greatest Lopakhin I've encountered, brought luminous complexity to Sean Mathias' production, which also featured a few genuinely Chekhovian moments of tearful laughter courtesy of Annette Bening, Jason Butler Harner and Sarah Paulson, among others.

*

"The Watts Towers Project," Kirk Douglas Theatre. Lighting up the otherwise lackluster Solomania! festival, Roger Guenveur Smith's very personal tour of the Los Angeles landmark provided not just a cultural collage jampacked with public and private history but an opportunity to see a mesmerizing actor transform the art of solo performance into spoken jazz.

*

"Rock 'n' Roll," London. Tom Stoppard's best play since "Arcadia," it's also among his most emotionally accessible. Rufus Sewell, in one of the subtlest performances of the year, offered a stirring portrait of a Czech-born, English-educated citizen grappling with Cold War brutalities. Expect to see the work on Broadway with, one hopes, Sewell, Brian Cox and Sinead Cusack reprising their roles.

*

"Eurydice," Circle X Theatre at [Inside] the Ford. Playwright Sarah Ruhl might seem like some marvelous cross between her dramatic forerunners Maria Irene Fornes and Caryl Churchill if she weren't so consummately herself. Circle X Theatre Company's lovely staging of this new take on the myth of lovers separated by death has a delicate pathos and wit that augurs well for the author and the company.

*

"Fences," Pasadena Playhouse and the Odyssey Theatre. Two productions of August Wilson's drama, though neither of them without flaws, left no doubt about the play's potency. Laurence Fishburne and Charlie Robinson brought out different aspects of the paternal grit and grief of Troy, the volatile ex-baseball player and romantically straying sanitation man struggling in the conformist 1950s to be the upstanding father he never had.

*

"Leftover Stories to Tell: A Tribute to Spalding Gray," UCLA Live at the Freud Playhouse. A perfect memorial to an artist who was continually searching for new possibilities in the monologue form. Though not open for review, this relaxed gathering of talented friends reading from Gray's unpublished works deserved a rave for restoring the bewildered humor and sadness that made him such a beloved figure in the theatrical community.

*

The worst

Productions that flaunt their outrageous costs. Theatergoers want a decent show, not a budget rundown. "Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular" should have apportioned some of the money it spent on its vaunted flyingsaucer chandelier to someone who could have improved the 95-minute extravaganza's bleary book. And the consortium of producers behind "The Lord of the Rings," the empty-headed colossus that premiered in Toronto in March, had to learn the hard way that $23 million and change does not an instant legend make. The connection between an actor and audience is what gives the theater its lift, not fancy hydraulics.

*

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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