In the Company of 'Angels'

Posted May 31, 2018 7:50 p.m. EDT

“The Great Work begins.” When we first heard the Angel of America bellow that bulletin as the curtain came down on Part 1 of the play named for her and her band of anxious immortals, many of us who look to the theater for inspiration were, in fact, inspired. Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia,” fusing the ambition, morality and underdog sympathies of earlier 20th-century masters, felt not only like a great American play but like a culmination and reimagining of great American playness. It slammed a door open.

That was 1993. Exactly 25 years later, the first Broadway revival of “Angels in America” started us thinking about what has happened to American plays in the meantime. Have they been as great? Is their greatness different from what it was? Is “greatness” even a meaningful category anymore?

Perhaps not on Broadway. Of the plays we’ve singled out as the best 25 of the last 25 years — dated by their first reviews in The New York Times — only nine have ever appeared on Broadway, and none originated there. No matter their size, most began on, and many never left, the smaller stages of off- and off-off-Broadway, or were developed at regional theaters.

If they have reached fewer people as a consequence, they have told more stories: the kind often ignored during the decades when theater was still a dominant but homogeneous cultural force.

The most obvious and hopeful evidence of that change is the diversity of playwrights and subjects represented on our list. The diversity is only natural because the most exciting theater is often (not always!) about the most urgent issues in the world it reflects. Works exploring race and gender are prominent, for instance, because racism and sexism remain prominent.

Not that we aimed for that result; in fact, our list was put together using such a complicated and secret method that even we don’t understand it. Nor is our grudging ranking of the 25 any less arbitrary just because it emerged from a reasoned debate.

What we do know is that the critics Laura Collins-Hughes, Alexis Soloski and Elisabeth Vincentelli joined us, The Times’ chief theater critics, in a series of round-robin ballots, Faustian horse trades and attempts at persuasion, sometimes successful.

Our conversations were raucous and filled with disagreement; one critic’s pet was often another’s horror. Even so, we found much to love, with more than 75 plays making the first cut.

To prune them 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.

The upshot is a consensus list that satisfied none of us completely, and probably won’t satisfy anyone else either. Get ready to argue about what plays made the cut and, especially, what didn’t.

For instance: Though 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.

Still, you may feel, as we eventually did, excited enough by the 25 plays to want to reread all of them, catch their next revivals or check out those that have been made into films. (The cast members we’ve listed for each play come from various stage and film productions.) Taken together, they constitute a fairly representative — and optimistic — snapshot of the best (mostly mainstream) theater in America since 1993.

It’s a theater that is often more directly engaged in unpacking large-scale social issues than we at first expected. But it’s also a collection marked by imaginative boldness that would not surprise that interloping angel who delivered the millennial challenge 25 years ago. Let the Great Work continue! — BEN BRANTLEY and JESSE GREEN

1. ‘Topdog/Underdog’

By Suzan-Lori Parks

A perfectly shaped distillation of epic themes: race, history and the con games of American identity.

Review: July 27, 2001

Awards: 2002 Pulitzer Prize

Actors: Jeffrey Wright, Don Cheadle, Mos Def

Also: The hip-hop star Mos Def made his first Broadway appearance in the role of Booth.

There was very little debate among us about who should occupy the first spot on this list. During the past quarter century, Suzan-Lori Parks has emerged as the most consistently inventive, and venturesome, American dramatist working today.

Among the most prolific playwrights of our time (one of her projects was the literally titled “365 Plays/365 Days”), Parks regularly wrestles with the fraught subject of racial and sexual identities. And she is a specialist in the warping weight of American history — its fictions as much as its facts. To these elusive phenomena she has applied an ever-changing stylistic lens — part prism, part magnifying glass — with works that are unmistakably the product of a single, bold imagination.

The difficulty was which of her plays to choose, though our eventual selection, “Topdog/Underdog,” was always a front-runner.

Two later sets of plays emerged as serious contenders, works that dismantled and reassembled classic American narratives. The electrifying diptych “The Red Letter Plays” — “In the Blood” (1999) and “______ A” (2000) — inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” considered the stigmatizing of a welfare mother and an abortionist. “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3” (2014) was a Civil War saga, centered on a slave (identified as both Hero and Ulysses) who fought as a Confederate soldier.

“Topdog/Underdog,” which features two characters and a single set, would seem to be smaller in scale and ambition. But this extraordinary drama — seen at the Public Theater in 2001 and on Broadway the next year, in productions brilliantly directed by George C. Wolfe — demonstrates that epic vision in theater does not demand large casts or endless changes of scenery.

“Topdog/Underdog” is a tale of two impoverished African-American brothers, a scam artist and a carnival sideshow performer, who have the burdensome names of Lincoln and Booth. In depicting the daily rituals of these rivalrous but interdependent siblings — which include acting out the fateful historical encounter of another Lincoln and Booth — “Topdog/Underdog” is both a vivid, present-tense family portrait and an endlessly reverberating allegory.

The roles that Booth and Lincoln assume, in public and private, are as much of a con as their sidewalk hustles. Identity for them is a straitjacket of poses and pretenses, an escape-proof garment woven by centuries of oppression. How do you tell the actor from the act?

Or as the play asks, “Does the show stop when no one’s watching, or does the show go on?” As in so much of Parks’ work, “Topdog/Underdog” plies the fine theatrical art of deception to convey the dangers of role-playing in a society in which race is a performance and prison. — BEN BRANTLEY

2. ‘An Octoroon’

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

A coruscating comic melodrama that pulls the masks off centuries of racial representation onstage.

Review: May 4, 2014

Awards: 2014 Obie for best new American play

Actors: Chris Myers, Amber Gray, Danny Wolohan, Jocelyn Bioh

Also: For the original production, set designer Mimi Lien rendered the climactic explosion of a ship loaded with cotton by pelting the audience with cotton balls.

Though Americans have been looking at race onstage since they first had stages to look at, much of what they saw was made and performed by white people, usually in blackface. One of the most popular such entertainments was a five-act melodrama by Dion Boucicault called “The Octoroon,” which opened on Broadway — yes, Broadway — in 1859. In it, a white man named George, the heir to a Louisiana plantation, falls in love with his late uncle’s illegitimate mixed-race daughter, named Zoe. Naturally it ends in tragedy: A ship loaded with cotton explodes. And, you know, slavery.

The same ship explodes in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ reappropriation of the Boucicault play, but it’s not the only thing going up in flames. The whole project of race drama from minstrelsy to “A Raisin in the Sun” is left smoldering in the wake of this shocking comedy.

I say “comedy” not only because by inverting the original story it gives its black characters — Boucicault’s stock figures and interchangeable slaves — agency and humanity, but also because it’s hilarious. When the slave Dido gets upset because Zoe calls her Mammy even though they are about the same age, Minnie, another slave, soothes her: “You can’t be bringing your work home with you. I know we slaves and evurthang, but you are not your job.”

The dialect is a provocation — are we allowed to enjoy it? But so is everything in “An Octoroon,” which seems to consume the original as both lover and predator. A black character identified as Jacobs-Jenkins himself shows up, in his underwear, to announce he will be playing George, for which he applies whiteface; another actor, playing Boucicault, applies redface for the role of an Indian.

These meta high jinks are highly self-conscious, which makes the audience self-conscious, too. That’s a state playwrights often hope to avoid, because it interferes with the easy reception of their stories. But Jacobs-Jenkins is all about that unease; the subject is discomfiting, and he intends to make it more so.

Decades of decorous theatrical argument may have changed the conversation and flattered liberals, but racism and the legacies of slavery are still No. 1 on the list of unrequited American sins. Jacobs-Jenkins means to requite them; onstage explosions are the least we should expect. JESSE GREEN

3. ‘The Flick’

By Annie Baker

An exquisitely observed workplace comedy — and a sneaky paean to analog art in a digital age.

Review: March 12, 2013

Awards: 2014 Pulitzer Prize

Actors: Louisa Krause, Matthew Maher, Aaron Clifton Moten

Also: As a teenager, Baker pretended to see the Meryl Streep rafting movie, “The River Wild,” so she could sneak into the violent “Pulp Fiction” instead. She included a chunk of it in her play.

It takes guts to write a play about something as aggressively unsnazzy as ushering, and even more guts to include real-time scenes of the actual work. But Annie Baker’s “The Flick” suggests that there might be dignity, even a kind of beauty, in sweeping popcorn and mopping spilled soda. Then again, there might not. Largehearted, but never soppy, the play allows for that, too.

With her radical empathy and unflashy comedy, Baker was always a sure thing for a top spot on this list, though there were arguments about which of her plays to include. “The Flick” showcases Baker’s Chekhov-like refusal to condescend to her characters even when they’re at their clumsiest.

Rose, Sam and Avery work for minimum wage at one of the last Massachusetts movie houses to use a 35-millimeter projector. They grope toward intimacy, but the play notes their moments of casual cruelty, the discomfort that differences in race and class excite. Like old reels run through a projector, the flaws are part of the picture.

Baker asks us to sit with that discomfort, often for long stretches of time, as in quiet scenes where light from an unseen screen dances over the actors’ faces. She is a playwright who finds silence fascinating. In “The Flick,” which ran three hours, this fascination entranced some audience members and frustrated others to the point of walkouts, prompting an apologetic letter from the Playwrights Horizons artistic director.

When it comes to speech, Baker specializes in mixed feelings, meticulously distilled, as when the film snob Avery describes a dream where he reckons with the movie that’s affected him most:

“And at first I’m like: what? My entire life can be represented by ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’? ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ is like the one movie I truly truly loved? But then I’m like, wait, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to heaven. I must have done something right in my life because I’m going to heaven.” — ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Another Opinion: There Are Better Bakers

I prefer “John” (2015), the only one of Baker’s plays where her interest in time, storytelling and the mundane are elevated into a thought-provoking, rather than banal, whole. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

“The Flick” is Baker’s most astonishing play and “The Aliens” her saddest and “John” her most magical — but if you twisted my arm to make me name the one that moves me most it would be “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009). Set in a rural Vermont community center, where Adult Creative Drama meets weekly, it consists of a series of trite theater exercises that nevertheless do the work of theater in stripping the variously lonely, confused and lovelorn characters bare. — JESSE GREEN

4. ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’

By Anne Washburn

Rebuilding civilization after the apocalypse with what we have in common, like ‘The Simpsons.’

Review: Sept. 15, 2013

Actors: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Matthew Maher, Jenna Russell

Also: Developing the play with the experimental theater company the Civilians, Washburn and the director Steve Cosson asked a group of actors to remember everything they could about an episode of “The Simpsons.”

“Heretic Homer.” “Heart of Bartness.” “Lisa the Vegetarian.” “Springfield Files.”

To the characters in Anne Washburn’s mind-whirring play, these aren’t just the titles of old episodes of “The Simpsons” — or the titles as they recall them, anyway. They’re also currency: pop-culture properties to trade in the post-apocalyptic remnants of what was the United States.

Survivors sit around a campfire as the play opens, trying to reconstruct a “Simpsons” episode that sent up the movie “Cape Fear.” A succession of nuclear disasters has obliterated the power grid, killing much of the populace. For those who remain, there’s not a TV to turn on anywhere.

Doesn’t sound like much of a setup for a comedy, does it, though that’s partly what “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” is. A song of civilization’s abrupt collapse and rickety reassembly, it’s a tale of our current society, too — the precariousness of it, the stories that sustain it, the myths we invent to make sense of our history.

By the second of this play’s three acts, seven years into post-electric life, the survivors from Act 1 have formed a traveling theater company, performing recreated “Simpsons” shows. Adding to the scripts bit by bit, relying on their own recollections, they also buy lines from strangers and negotiate for episode rights with competing companies.

There’s a weird plausibility to the notion — classic cartoon as cultural cornerstone — and a bizarre, blindsiding grandeur to the play’s final act. It may set you thinking about the reverence we give to received texts, no matter how badly corrupted and far from the source they are.

Not everyone loves this play; not everyone’s meant to. But for the rest of us, it’s the kind of bold, inventive show that sends you staggering out onto the street afterward, stunned and exhilarated, not sure quite what you’ve just experienced because you’ve never seen its like before. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

5. ‘Clybourne Park’

By Bruce Norris

A scathingly funny dissection of race, gentrification and liberal pieties that spins off from ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’

Review: Feb. 21, 2010

Awards: 2011 Pulitzer Prize, 2012 Tony for best play

Actors: Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse, Amy Morton, Martin Freeman

Also: The Guthrie Theater presented the play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun,” while Baltimore Center Stage paired it with a different update of Lorraine Hansberry’s play.

Two acts, one neighborhood, separated by 50 years: Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” aims to leave everyone, including the audience, uncomfortable.

Set in 1959, the first act introduces a young couple thinking of selling their Chicago-area home to (unseen) African-Americans who, we realize, are the Youngers of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” But this is a white community, and some neighbors are afraid the newcomers will change it forever.

The second act opens 50 years later in the same house, now in disrepair and recently purchased by a white couple. The neighborhood has fallen onto hard times and is ripe for gentrification. Because they are planning extensive renovations, the buyers are meeting with representatives of the local black community.

Norris’ specialty is making an audience question its sympathies. And no character in “Clybourne Park" better embodies the modern mix of hostility, defensiveness and self-righteousness than Steve, half of the white couple. As the second act goes on, Steve pulls even the most innocent characters into an epic showdown of offensive jokes.

In a recent interview, Jeremy Shamos, who portrayed Steve in the off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons and in the subsequent Los Angeles and Broadway productions, recalled what it was like to play Norris’ obnoxious, entitled provocateur.

Q: What did you think when you realized you would have to tell these jokes every night?

A: I knew it was going to get a reaction, and of course as an actor you think, “This is going to be fun to do!” Steve is saying the things he thinks people aren’t saying anymore — he’s breaking the social norm. But I also knew it was so well-written, it wouldn’t be confused with [a playwright] trying to slip in racism.

Q: Is the idea to make people consider what makes them laugh?

A: It gets people laughing hard, and then it socks you when you’re open. It also makes you question what you laugh at, and where the line falls. Bruce finds that line and plays with it: “Why are you offended by this when you were laughing at that other joke?”

Q: Does “Clybourne Park” hit a particular nerve because the majority of theatergoers are white?

A: The play holds a mirror to people, especially the sort of white, potentially entitled audience who come to see theater. And not in that way that’s traditionally done, where you point out, “You should feel guilty because this is going on.” It’s more: “This is you.” — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

6. ‘Ruined’

By Lynn Nottage

A look at women marginalized by rape during wartime, but also a celebration of endurance.

Review: Feb. 10, 2009

Awards: 2009 Pulitzer Prize and 2009 Obie for best new American play

Actors: Condola Rashad, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, William Jackson Harper

Also: Nottage is the rare playwright to win a second Pulitzer, in 2017, for “Sweat.”

“Ruined,” a fictional work exploring the plight of women in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, is Lynn Nottage’s modern riff on Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Nottage traveled to central Africa three times to interview refugees before coming up with her wrenching story of a morally complicated woman who runs a bar and brothel where she shelters, and profits from, women who have fled rape and abuse. The Goodman Theater in Chicago commissioned and first staged the play. In a recent interview, Nottage talked about the reception to “Ruined” over time:

“When I wrote the play, I didn’t think anybody would ever produce it, because of the subject matter, and because it was set on the African continent, and because it was focused on black women — now that doesn’t seem so extraordinary, but then it was breaking some ground.

The success of the play invited people to take a second look at my work. It opened many, many doors that had been shut for me — suddenly it felt like I was a playwright that was part of a much larger cultural conversation.

But one thing that makes me sad is it’s not produced in theaters that often. It has a very robust life in academia, but for whatever reason, whatever hesitation there was about transferring it to Broadway remains in the air. It still feels dangerous to theaters, because of the dark themes." — MICHAEL PAULSON

7. ‘How I Learned to Drive’

By Paula Vogel

The step-by-step process of sexual predation, methodical as a driving manual, shapes an elegiac play.

Review: March 17, 1997

Awards: 1998 Pulitzer Prize

Actors: Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, Michael Showalter, Debra Winger, Norbert Leo Butz

Also: Five of Vogel’s former students have earned a total of six Pulitzers for drama, including this year’s winner, Martyna Majok.

“The Mammary Plays” is the winking, punny title of one of Paula Vogel’s published collections, and it hints at where she stands. Women have always been central to her work, and that’s part of what makes her essential — the probing, keen, tenacious way that she translates femaleness.

“How I Learned to Drive” is part of that collection — a fractured memory play about sexual predation that can seem stomach-clutchingly prescient in this moment, when #MeToo has overturned a rock and we’re riveted by the nightmare stuff beneath. But that mess has been there all along; decades ago, Vogel was staring it down.

When the play opened off-Broadway in 1997, Mary-Louise Parker played Li’l Bit opposite David Morse as Peck, the insidious, doting uncle who grooms and abuses Li’l Bit from the time she’s 11 until she escapes to college.

“He taught me well,” Li’l Bit says, meaning the driving lessons he gave her on the back roads of 1960s Maryland, in his Buick Riviera. He taught her the rest then, too, as methodically as he instructed her behind the wheel: How to value his desires over hers. How to let him invade her body. How not to tell on him. Eventually he also taught her how to drink, a handy way to tamp down the anguish he would leave her with for life.

Soft as a summer night and chilling as a deep freeze, the play has an ingenious form and a cleareyed awareness that even a harrowingly dysfunctional childhood could have some warmth and laughter in it. It’s an elegy, an indictment, a horror story, but it isn’t a dirge. That’s part of its considerable power. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

One More Thought: How About Her Broadway Debut?

While I agree with the majority that “How I Learned to Drive” is extraordinary, I prefer “Indecent,” Vogel’s devastatingly beautiful and masterfully made Broadway debut from 2017. Braiding three strands of history — theatrical, Jewish, gay — it, too, puts women and sexuality at its center. This time, though, there is romance, and defiant celebration. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

8. ‘Seven Guitars’

By August Wilson

The richest of Wilson’s works from the last decade of his career.

Review: March 29, 1996

Awards: 1996 New York Drama Critics’ Circle best play

Actors: Keith David, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Viola Davis

Also: Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony for the show, auditioned for an earlier Wilson play, but lost that role to Laurence Fishburne.

August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays — which he completed shortly before his death at 60 in 2005 — is one of the great achievements of American literature. With each work set in a different decade of the 20th century, and largely in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, these 10 dramas (which Wilson began working on in the late 1970s) chronicle the history of black Americans with an epic breadth of vision that is matched by the soaring poetry of their language.

All of his plays — which include the Pulitzer Prize winners “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990) — were written with a peerless ear for cadence and harmony that turns spoken words into song. But “Seven Guitars,” set in 1948 and first staged on Broadway in 1996, seemed to be borne from beginning to end on a swelling tide of melody.

Even looking at the following excerpt on the page, you can hear that music. Read — and listen — as the bluesman Floyd Barton expresses his ambition in an ascending aria of desire. —BEN BRANTLEY


FLOYD: I am going to Chicago. If I have to buy me a graveyard and kill everyone I see. I am going to Chicago. I don’t want to live my life without. Everybody I know live without. I don’t want to do that. I want to live with. I don’t know what you all think of yourself, but I think I’m supposed to have. Whatever it is. Have something. Have anything. My mama lived and died she ain’t had nothing. If it ain’t nothing but peace of mind, then let me have that. My mama ain’t had two dimes to rub together. And ain’t had but one stick. She got to do without the fire. Some kind of warmth in her life. I don’t want to live in a cold house. It a cold world, let me have a little shelter from it. That’s all I want. Floyd Barton is gonna make his record. Floyd Barton is going to Chicago.

9. ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’

By Anna Deavere Smith

Documentary theater at its most virtuosic — a kaleidoscopic portrait of urban unrest in a single performance.

Review: March 24, 1994

Awards: 1994 Obie for best play

Actors: Anna Deavere Smith in three dozen roles, including a Korean store owner, a gang member, a Hollywood agent and Juror No. 7

Also: Still writing and performing for stage, Smith also became a TV presence in “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.”

In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, Center Theater Group in Los Angeles commissioned Anna Deavere Smith to write a documentary theater piece. She interviewed 320 people whose lives were affected and created “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” by weaving together and performing verbatim excerpts from those interviews. The New York Times called her achievement “an expression of the eternal search for order in an anarchic world.” In an interview, Smith talked about how she developed her distinctive method:

“When I went to school — I was at ACT in San Francisco — on my day off I’d go to City Lights bookstore, and I’d have to go to the basement, to the used play section, to find plays that weren’t written by white males. And so I certainly had a sense that there needed to be other modes of expression for my own work. People were saying, ‘You need to tell your own story.’ But I wasn’t interested in telling my own biographical story. And so I made a deliberate decision — I’m going to go the other way, and I’m going to chase that which is not me. My grandfather had said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you, and so I’ve been trying to become America, word by word, by taking my tape recorder and looking to the people who are nothing like me and who don’t agree with me. I don’t know if I’m a journalist or I’m a this or a that — I’m an Americanist. I’ve been in a love affair with this country, and trying to find a way to learn as much about it as I could.” — MICHAEL PAULSON

10. ‘The Designated Mourner’

By Wallace Shawn

A masterwork from the most corrosive and uncompromising moralist in American theater today.

Review: May 15, 2000

Actors: Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg, Miranda Richardson, Larry Pine, Martha Lavey

Also: Mike Nichols played the lead role in the 1997 film adaptation, directed by David Hare.

An anxious bleat that mixes self-defense with self-flagellation, the voice of the playwright Wallace Shawn has become synonymous with the sound of guilty white liberals, admitting their base natures and apologizing for their very existences. Since Shawn has appeared in New York and London productions of his own work, it has been possible for audiences to hear that voice literally.

But even without the nasal tones and sibilance that are essential to Shawn’s persona as an actor, his authorial voice is singular and unmistakable. It is as harsh as it is eloquent, as primal as it is educated, and it offers one of the theater’s fullest expressions of the shame of living in blinkered comfort and affluence while much of the world goes hungry.

That sensibility pervades an opus that includes “Marie and Bruce” (1979), a loveless portrait of a hate-filled marriage; “Aunt Dan and Lemon” (1985), a beguiling memory play about the seductiveness of fascism; and “Grasses of a Thousand Colors” (2008), a fable of erotic enchantment that finds the rutting beast within human sexuality. But his masterpiece is the sly, cutting and unbearably sad mea culpa “The Designated Mourner,” first staged in New York in 2000.

A series of confessional monologues delivered by three fatally connected characters, “The Designated Mourner” is set in a totalitarian future that now feels as close as tomorrow.

At its center is Jack (a role first played by Shawn), a lucky philistine who married into a world of glamorous literati.

Unlike the play’s other characters — his intellectual wife and her father, a famous poet — Jack is a natural-born survivor. It is Shawn’s contention that such status is hardly a badge of honor. Jack, by his own definition, is a rat, by which he means not a betrayer (although that shoe might fit) but a creature that does whatever it must to avoid extermination.

The play insists that we identify both with Jack and with the less admirable aspects of the play’s other, more insular characters. (Shawn does not write heroes.) This is achieved through the exercise of that distinctive voice of Shawn’s, so seductively clever, so seemingly sane in its rationalizations, so caustically self-aware. —BEN BRANTLEY


JACK: After a while I just concluded there wasn’t any hope — an important insight. There’d be no happiness in my own life, nor would peace be won in the world at large. Was there anything, then, that I could expect to achieve in the coming years? Well, perhaps I could somehow train my mind to focus less compulsively on terrifying images of death and disease. Perhaps I could learn how to pass more easily from one moment to the next, the way the monkey, our ancestor, shifts so easily along from branch to branch as he follows the high road through the forest at night. Let me learn how to repose in the quiet shade of a nice square of chocolate, a nice slice of cake. A delicious cup of tea isn’t, perhaps, that hard to come by; the trick to be learned is just not to think of other things while you drink it.

11. ‘The Humans’

By Stephen Karam

Review: Oct. 25, 2015

Awards: 2016 Tony for best play

Actors: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele

Also: The actors ate Thanksgiving dinner at every performance: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and Jell-O salad. “We take very tiny bites,” Houdyshell said.

It’s a gloomy Thanksgiving, and the Blake clan (mom, dad, older daughter, grandma) has driven in from Scranton to celebrate with the younger daughter, Brigid, and her boyfriend, Richard, housewarming their depressing Chinatown duplex. (Their furniture is stuck in Queens; one less thing to be thankful for.)

The family play is American theater’s bread and butter — most of its other meals, too. But what distinguishes “The Humans” is how well it works on a specific, naturalistic level, diagnosing the particular troubles of the Blakes (job loss, romantic betrayal, mental and physical illness), while also allowing the family to stand in for an unnerved nation.

Yet Stephen Karam’s play is not a downer. It is buoyed by jokes and tenderness and unlooked-for moments of grace, because Karam, like Annie Baker, owes a debt to Chekhov. They all know that if something is worth crying over, it’s probably worth laughing over, too.

You can hear this in one of the play’s most feeling speeches, delivered by the dad, Erik (brilliantly played by Reed Birney):

“I thought I’d be settled by my age, you know, but man, it never ends: mortgage, car payments, internet, our dishwasher just gave out. Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive? I even started cutting my own hair to try and save a few bucks. Messed it up pretty good. Thank God I’m married.” — ALEXIS SOLOSKI

12. ‘This Is Our Youth’

By Kenneth Lonergan

Mumblecore before mumblecore, by way of Manhattan.

Review: Oct. 31, 1996

Actors: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Matt Damon

Also: Lonergan won an Academy Award for his “Manchester by the Sea” screenplay.

“This Is Our Youth” finds eloquence in the verbal fumbling and listless non sequiturs of ambition-free, overgrown stoners. But Kenneth Lonergan is no mere tape recorder. Like the best “vernacular” playwrights (including David Mamet, August Wilson and, more recently, Clare Barron), he translates what he hears into a heightened form of speech. His dialogue sounds truer to life than life itself, in capturing both the moral evasions and unintended revelations that emerge every time people open their mouths.

A portrait of three blighted young things in Manhattan on a grass-and-cocaine-fueled bender, “This Is Our Youth” was the play that made us start listening to Lonergan (and noticing the many stars drawn to perform his work). In what follows, the hapless Warren, recently evicted from his own home, discusses a future that will never happen with a fashion student named Jessica. — BEN BRANTLEY

13. ‘Three Tall Women’

By Edward Albee

A great Cubist drama that restored a pre-eminent playwright’s reputation and crystallized his lifelong themes.

Review: Feb. 14, 1994

Awards: 1994 Pulitzer Prize

Actors: Myra Carter, Marian Seldes, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf

Also: Albee said that his mother, on whom the play is based, bought him from an adoption agency for $133.30 and forever after hoped to return him.

By 1994, Edward Albee was considered passé. His new plays flopped right and left, and his reputation hung solely on early works like “The Zoo Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Then “Three Tall Women” (which had its premiere in Vienna before arriving off-Broadway) opened the door to a fertile third act in his career — and a re-evaluation of his entire output.

What turned the key? Perhaps autobiography. “Three Tall Women” is the first and probably the only Albee play directly drawn from his life — or, really, his mother’s: a woman much disliked in reality but somehow well loved in retelling. Certainly she is numerous; Albee refracted her into three characters of different ages, called A (in her 90s), B (in her 50s) and C (in her 20s).

In the scene at right, as in the rest of this exhilarating, hilarious, disturbing work, they touch on the jumble of identity, mortality and greed for life that were Albee’s permanent preoccupations. — JESSE GREEN

14. ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’

By Stephen Adly Guirgis

Profoundly compassionate, explosively profane, this is the play that put its author, and his theater company, on the map.

Review: Nov. 30, 2000

Awards: 2001 Edinburgh Fringe First award

Actors: John Ortiz, Ron Cephas Jones, Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira

Also: The serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, was one inspiration for the play. So was Guirgis’ attempt to save a friend from a cult.

A raucously funny, spiritually fumbling, muscularly written drama, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ first real hit puts two very different prisoners in adjacent cages: one a bike messenger who, enraged at losing a friend to a cult, shot its leader in the butt; the other, a Bible-quoting sociopath with a long trail of corpses behind him. The play got a much lauded off-Broadway revival this season from Signature Theater Company. But Guirgis’ most cherished memories are of its original production, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for Labyrinth Theater Co. in 2000. The actors in it, including John Ortiz, Labyrinth’s current artistic director, are his friends and fellow company members. So was Hoffman, then just starting out as a director. Guirgis, now a Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke recently about how seeing Hoffman in “True West” on Broadway that year sent him home to write.

“It was, I guess, late in the spring and we were supposed to go into rehearsals in a week or two, and my play was half unfinished. I was afraid. I remember seeing a matinee of Phil, and it had such an effect on me after the show. I remember trying to unlock my bike and just crying. I was like, there’s somebody who has some talent and he’s doing everything in his power to give voice to it and let it shine. Here I am, I have some talent and yet I’m trying to hide it and I’m procrastinating. So I rode my bike home and I started writing and I basically finished the play. The first draft." — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

15. Eurydice

By Sarah Ruhl

Its loveliness and elegant simplicity would make any Orpheus weep.

Review: Oct. 3, 2006

Actors: Maria Dizzia, Joseph Parks, Charles Shaw RobinsonAlso: Ruhl is adapting the play, a favorite on college campuses, into an opera with composer Matthew Aucoin.

The oppressive weight of being a Hot Young Playwright had yet to descend on Sarah Ruhl when she wrote “Eurydice,” a play that took its time in getting to New York. It was almost four years old when it opened off-Broadway in 2007, and by then it was much anticipated — not least because of a near-incantatory New York Times review of its New Haven production.

Ruhl’s comedy “The Clean House” may be better known. Her one Broadway show — “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” — may be painted on a bigger canvas. Both of those were Pulitzer Prize finalists. But there is a lyrical, haunting loveliness to the crystalline “Eurydice,” whose poignancy and off-kilter humor disguise its potency.

A twist on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it is a slender thing, the story of a young woman besotted with her sweet new husband yet missing her dead father with such depth of longing that she follows him, inadvertently, to the underworld.

It’s not a bad place, and it’s certainly not hell, but Eurydice’s memory is erased along the way, in the water of the River Lethe. When her father comes to meet her, she thinks he’s a porter.

“Please take my suitcase to my room, if you would,” she says.

“I’m sorry, miss, but there are no rooms here,” he tells her, understanding what has happened, and she nearly weeps.

So he carefully, tenderly constructs a room for her out of string. Inside it, he gently helps her to rebuild her mind.

The elegant simplicity of that string room is emblematic of the play, which is abundant with feeling — between a daughter and her father, between a wife and her husband — and also with fanciful oddity: a chorus of coldhearted stones, a Lord of the Underworld vrooming around on a red tricycle. Yet Ruhl is so powerfully in control, balancing the elements so exquisitely, that there is restraint even in such fullness. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Another Opinion: But She’s Funny, Too

Corsets loosened up considerably in Ruhl’s wry “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” (2009), an 1880s-set comedy about women gaining control over — and discovering the pleasures of — their own bodies. That this smart, funny ode to autonomous female sexuality was once on Broadway feels like a dream. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Our list isn’t heavy on comedy, and “Stage Kiss” (2014) — about romantic entanglements among the cast of a very bad musical — is not just a comedy but a farce. Or only so much of a farce as love itself is, pratfalling each night and renewable each morning. — JESSE GREEN

16. House/Lights

By The Wooster Group

They made us see the future.

Review: Feb. 3, 1999Awards: 1991 Obie for 15 years of sustained excellence

Actors: Kate Valk, Suzzy Roche, Ari Fliakos, John Collins

Also: The troupe’s founding members included Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray.

Four decades ago, when the Wooster Group began its acts of theatrical subversion, who could possibly have predicted that this loopy experimental troupe would turn out to be so precisely prophetic? Led by the director Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group pioneered an onstage vision in which art high and low became a single pulsing entity, informational media blended into a senses-scrambling blur and technology splintered our collective attention span into kaleidoscopic shards.

Working with classic texts (including “Hamlet,” “Phèdre” and “The Emperor Jones”), filtered through and fragmented by up-to-the minute electronics, LeCompte and her precision-tooled company have regularly summoned a universe of multiple screens, melting words and mechanically displaced voices. In the world according to Wooster, the most basic notions of identity — individual and cultural — come under siege, and it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between live performance and its replicated images.

Such enlightening confusion reached a virtuosic high point in “House/Lights,” presented at the Performing Garage, the troupe’s longtime base in SoHo, in 1999. This production was built on the text for “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights,” a 1938 opera libretto by Gertrude Stein. The show suggested how prescient Stein was in championing Cubism as a jagged mirror of contemporary life.

In Stein’s version of the Faust tale, its title hero forever changes the perception of time by inventing electric light, opening a Pandora’s box. “House/Lights” spliced this story of a soul-sapping bargain with the 1964 bondage movie “Olga’s House of Shame.” Projected scenes from that film were enacted by live, flesh-and-blood ensemble members.

Or were they — live, that is? The greater Faustian bargain under consideration was the sacrifice of any sense of a solid reality to a cyberculture. The show’s disorienting essence was embodied by the Wooster Group’s longtime leading lady, the brilliant Kate Valk, in the role of Dr. Faustus. Not that she looked or sounded like any Faust you’d ever encountered before, with her marcelled hair, bee-stung lips and squeaky, baby vamp voice, distorted and multiplied by screens and synthesizers.

Valk’s Faust has turned out to be a perfect prototype for the Instagram generation, for whom the truest self is often a two-dimensional alter ego. — BEN BRANTLEY

17. ‘The Laramie Project’

By Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project

A play about community responsibility devised by a community of artists.

Review: May 19, 2000

Awards: 2001 GLAAD Media Award

Actors: Andrew Garfield, Stockard Channing, Cyndi Lauper, Peter Fonda, Judith Light

Also: Earnings from an earlier play on Oscar Wilde helped pay for the research trips to Wyoming.

One of the things great plays can do is keep the news from dying. Would the assassination of Julius Caesar still be so fresh in our minds, along with its lessons, if Shakespeare hadn’t dramatized it?

How much less would we be likely to remember the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student who, in 1998, was tied to a fence on a prairie outside Laramie, Wyoming, beaten mercilessly and left to die? He was but one of 1,488 gay victims of hate crimes reported to the FBI that year.

Part of the reason we still know his name is that 10 members of Tectonic Theater Project spent nearly a year, in Wyoming and New York, interviewing, transcribing, compiling, writing, rewriting, staging, restructuring and finally performing “The Laramie Project,” first in Denver and then off-Broadway, where it ran for six months.

Six months is a healthy run for a piece of “devised theater” — a work, that is, created from documents, transcripts, journals and other found materials. But “The Laramie Project,” while factual, is not a documentary. It is a haunting portrait of a community grieving, explaining, disagreeing, apologizing, doubling down, fending off a media invasion and trying to take responsibility.

And though eight actors speak lines ascribed to more than 60 characters, text is but one format among many that make up a production of “The Laramie Project.” Tectonic used its collaborative “Moment Work” process to develop the play, beginning with images, gestures, sounds, movements and other elements of theater in creating narrative. Sometimes the text came last.

The process seems to be connected to the play’s extraordinary power, impact and resilience. In the 18 years since it opened, thousands of productions have been staged, more than 2,000 in the United States and Canada in the last 10 years alone. Some 80 productions are in rehearsal or production in North America right now.

Perhaps more important, “The Laramie Project” is opening conversations all over the world, with productions in 17 countries and 13 languages. One of those, in May 2016, took place secretly in Kampala, Uganda, where homosexual relationships are illegal and the threat of Matthew Shepard’s fate is basically everyday news. — JESSE GREEN

18. ‘Yellow Face’

By David Henry Hwang

A full-throttle comic attack on bigotry and the American theater.

Review: Dec. 11, 2007

Awards: 2008 Obie for playwriting

Actors: Hoon Lee, Noah Bean, Francis Jue

Also: Characters based on real people include Joseph Papp, Jane Krakowski and a reporter for The New York Times referred to as Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel.

The oops moment in the bracingly satirical “Yellow Face” happens when DHH, a fictional stand-in for the playwright, accidentally casts a white actor in an Asian role.

“But guys, does he — ? Does he look Asian to you?” the white producer asks.

“What do you mean, ‘look Asian’?” DHH asks, offended, and digs in.

Race, heritage and the slipperiness of cultural identity have long been at the core of Hwang’s plays. In “Yellow Face,” he blends comic fantasy with memoir to examine the way Americans tiptoe around conversations about race, and the brutal damage that xenophobia can wreak.

Bigotry in the theater comes in for special attention, including the notorious “Miss Saigon” casting controversy of the early 1990s. In this scene, DHH talks on the phone with a fictional version of the Tony Award-winning actor BD Wong. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

19. ‘August: Osage County’

By Tracy Letts

Too much is never enough in this high-octane family melodrama.

Review: Aug. 13, 2007

Awards: 2008 Pulitzer Prize; five Tonys in 2008, including best play

Actors: Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton

Also: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch’s star power did not save the 2013 film adaptation from a critical drubbing.

The family reunion that goes horribly wrong is among the hoariest of plots. “August: Osage County” is a feverish reminder that it can still make for riveting theater.

Meet the Weston clan, which has gathered in the old family home in Oklahoma after the patriarch has gone missing. Even in this crowded house, it’s hard to look at anyone but Violet, their pill-popping, rage-filled mother. She is the keeper of secrets, the manipulator of her grown children, a fickle and monstrous and deeply human bully. She knows all too well the ways truth can be liberating and destructive at the same time. Give her three acts and three hours, and no one will leave unscathed.

Some sniff at Tracy Letts’ masterpiece of familial warfare, finding it be too big, too broad, too shouty, too reliant on the sudden detonation of long-buried mines. But this too-muchness is exactly what differentiates the play from its brethren, and why it is so satisfying. Letts took American drama, which felt stuck in small-scale, tightly wound pocket plays, and supersized it — without losing sight of the human-scale details that make a story affecting.

The Grand Guignol joy with which Letts keeps upping the dramatic ante is utterly contagious. The play moves with irrepressible velocity, punctuated by gasp-inducing reveals and fiery confrontations. When Barbara, the oldest and most conflicted sibling, ends a disastrous dinner by screaming to her mother, “You don’t get it, do you? I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!” at the very end of Act II, it is one of the most satisfying exclamation points in modern theater. You simply could not wait to see what happened after that second intermission.

“August: Osage County” pulls off the precise balance of wild abandon and controlled craft that typifies the best melodramas — a word the show proudly reclaims. Indeed, you could argue the play is the third entry in a de facto genre trilogy. After the hard-boiled “Killer Joe” and the paranoid thriller “Bug,” Letts essentially wrote an updated Douglas Sirk film, perhaps the best Bette Davis vehicle never written. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

20. ‘The Vagina Monologues’

By Eve Ensler

No recent hour of theater has had a greater impact worldwide.

Review: Oct. 23, 1996

Awards: 1997 Obie for playwriting

Actors: Eve Ensler and a cast of thousands

Also: Every February, colleges, high schools, youth groups and community organizations are invited to present the piece royalty-free and donate the proceeds to local anti-violence groups.

Eve Ensler’s solo show, a series of monologues linked by anatomy, has birthed its own theatrical and activist industry. As Ensler explains in the opening monologue, she conducted interviews with more than 200 women: “Older women, young women, married women, lesbians, single women, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African-American women, Asian-American women, Hispanic women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women.” Their words were then shaped into speeches.

You can quibble with the literary merits of “The Vagina Monologues,” its sexual politics, its essentialism.

But it’s hard to argue with its worldwide impact (performances in 140 countries, translations into 48 languages and counting), the money it’s raised, nor the starry array of actors who’ve performed it: Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Kate Winslet, Glenn Close, Salma Hayek and on and on like so many rolling orgasms. Here are the now-famous opening lines. —ALEXIS SOLOSKI


“I bet you’re worried. I was worried. That’s why I began this piece. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them. I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas — a community, a culture of vaginas. There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them — like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there.”

21. ‘Underground Railroad Game’

By Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, with Lightning Rod Special

Trampling taboos about race and blasting American history’s white-savior myth.

Review: Sept. 26. 2016

Awards: 2017 Obie for best new American theater work

Actors: Jennifer Kidwell, Scott R. Sheppard

Also: The creators met as students at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training.

“Remember, guys,” Teacher Stuart says, “at Hanover Middle School, we don’t just learn about history from reading old books. We learn about history by living history. So, for the rest of this marking period, you guys are going to be engaged in your very own educational Civil War.”

Immersive learning! Great idea, right? Not in this case. In “Underground Railroad Game,” a taboo-shattering two-hander created by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with their theater company, Lightning Rod Special, Teacher Stuart is addressing a group of fifth graders. He and Teacher Caroline have just divided the students into two groups: Union and Confederate. The Union side will get points for smuggling slaves, represented by dolls, toward freedom. The Confederate side will get points for capturing those slaves. And, hey, if the Confederates work hard enough, maybe this Civil War will have a different ending.

Sheppard played a game like that at school when he was growing up in Pennsylvania. His retrospective horror at it was the catalyst for the show, in which each audience member is also assigned a side in the conflict. But American spectators have an inherent stake in this friendly, ferocious, ultimately flaying comedy. What we recognize in the game — and in the funhouse-mirror rom-com relationship between Teacher Caroline, who is black, and Teacher Stuart, who is white — is the warped legacy of slavery and the maybe unbridgeable gulf in our country between black and white.

Physical-theater artists who wrote this daring show for themselves to perform, Kidwell and Sheppard are accustomed to making work that’s rooted in the body. “Underground Railroad Game” is more text-based than they’re used to, yet it’s rooted in the body, too — the black body and the white body, female and male, locked in a poisoned dynamic of scarring damage and enormous pain. — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

22. ‘The Wolves’

By Sarah DeLappe

The joy of seeing and hearing teenage girls on stage as if for the first time.

Review: Sept. 12, 2016

Awards: 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, 2017 Obie ensemble award

Actors: Brenna Coates, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan

Also: DeLappe and Lila Neugebauer, the director, both played soccer in their youth — Neugebauer was even captain of her high school varsity team.

The teenage girls of “The Wolves” — the name of the play is also the name of their soccer team — are identified only by the number on their jersey. And they spend the entire show, which takes place on an AstroTurf field, in their uniforms.

Yet instead of robbing the characters of their individuality, this setup achieves the exact opposite: It allows the audience to focus on each girl’s personality as it emerges — clearly, indelibly — over the course of the play. Sarah DeLappe makes us work a little harder, while underlining the balance of individualism and teamwork, effort and sacrifice that sustains both soccer and society at large.

“The Wolves” starts with a torrent of excited, overlapping chatter as the players stretch and warm up before a game. Things calm down a little bit as the show settles in, but throughout DeLappe captures the ebb and flow of animated conversations, as well the dynamics of constantly evolving relationships, here refracted through sport.

Competition is not mere background; it is a major presence in these girls’ lives. There is no turning back. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

23. ‘The Realistic Joneses’

By Will Eno

A suburban comedy on its surface, a wrenching reflection on love and death at its core.

Review: May 1, 2012

Awards: 2014 Drama Desk special award

Actors: Michael C. Hall, Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts

Also: Eno spent his teens training as a professional cyclist.

Two couples, a few summer nights, some adultery. It sounds so familiar. It isn’t. A lot of Will Eno’s gently disorienting script is small talk between Bob and Jennifer Jones, an unhappy couple living in a mountain town, and John and Pony Jones, their new differently unhappy neighbors. The men share a congenital illness that is slowly killing them. The women don’t share much.

But behind the jokes and inside the chitchat, there’s big talk, too, about what a little thing life is and how we have to try to live it anyway.

A philosopher and a wisecracker, Eno is a playwright who favors ideas over plot. He also makes space for the language that gets those ideas across, the crackle of a quip, the snap of an upturned cliché. (Some opening lines from his 2004 “Thom Pain (based on nothing)”: “Do you like magic? I don’t. Enough about me. Let’s get to our story.”) This interest in language links him with Melissa James Gibson, Adam Bock and Jenny Schwartz, other playwrights of the ‘00s explicitly concerned with the ways in which syllables do and don’t work for us.

In “The Realistic Joneses,” the two men face a future in which their words, the language centers of their brains, will literally fail them. In the meantime, they are left with only bare, shopworn vocabularies to convey what’s most anguished and extraordinary.

“This was fun,” John says when the couples meet.I mean, not fun, but, definitely some other word.” — ALEXIS SOLOSKI

24. ‘The Apple Family Plays’

By Richard Nelson

One kitchen. Four plays. All the big questions affecting middle-class American life.

Reviews: Nov. 3, 2010; Sept. 12, 2011; Nov. 7, 2012; Nov. 24, 2013

Actors: Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders

Also: The author imagined the story set in a house he often passed on his daily walks in Rhinebeck, New York.

In one kind of stage naturalism, the living room sofa faces front. Characters deliver drinks to guests but direct their pithiest comments to the audience. Then there’s “The Apple Family Plays,” in which there is no front: Neither guests nor eavesdroppers, the audience is part of the family crowded into the kitchen with the angst and the garlic.

That kind of naturalism, which Richard Nelson takes to the nth degree in his quartet of slice-of-life dramas about a household of upstate New York Democrats in the mid-Obama years, is not an anti-theatrical gimmick. It’s the defining element of the design of a work that sets the microscope on its finest resolution to provide the truest picture.

Though the Apples are white as white can get, and their liberal politics are entirely filtered through family troubles the size of a lease or a medical diagnosis, they speak for a larger demographic worried about capital-D democracy. No accident that the omnibus subtitle, “Scenes From Life in the Country,” is taken from “Uncle Vanya,” whose money-squeezed, put-upon tragicomic family are, for all their pettiness, universal.

Nelson has said that the four Apple plays — “That Hopey Changey Thing,” “Sweet and Sad,” “Sorry” and “Regular Singing” — are fundamentally about memory. Their opening nights at the Public Theater were timed to real-world events that were already history or would soon become it: the 2010 midterm elections, the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the re-election of Obama in 2012 and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The characters discuss all that, but rereading the plays now, I find it’s the smallness and localness of the conflicts that do the work of telling the larger American story. That’s a story built into our governance as much as our relationships: a story about the parsing of responsibility to self and to others, and the bickering conjoint twins of liberty and equality. In other words, a story about citizenship.

As they filter outward from the Public Theater (where they had their premieres) to the country and the world, “The Apple Family Plays” are complicating that story in unexpected ways. Theatergoers who met the Apples during a European tour in 2015 seemed surprised by what they saw; they didn’t know that American families — and plays — had passionate arguments over politics.

Some of us would prefer to forget those arguments, as if nothing profound about our nature were at stake. But after seven and a half hours with the Apples, squabbling and probing as in this “Hopey Changey” excerpt, we know better. —JESSE GREEN

25. ‘The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity’

By Kristoffer Diaz

A wicked satire of the American penchant for turning pretty much everything into spectacle.

Review: May 21, 2010

Awards: 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, 2011 Obie for best new American play

Actors: Usman Ally, Desmin Borges, Terence Archie

Also: The script includes extensive notes to help make the milieu feel authentic. The fights, for instance, must feature “wrestling moves and not stage combat.”

Chad Deity is a cocky African-American champion with THE Wrestling, a World Wrestling Entertainment-like company led by one Everett K. Olson, a savvy operator who goes by E.K.O. But Chad’s ring popularity depends on his opponents and the hostility they generate in the audience.

Enter Macedonio Guerra, an undersize Puerto Rican from the Bronx blessed with the gift of gab, and his buddy Vigneshwar Paduar, a Brooklynite of Indian descent. They get cast as new heels, Che Chavez Castro and the Fundamentalist. Let the smackdown begin.

Kristoffer Diaz clearly knows and loves wrestling — his high-octane play is the only one on this list to feature men in spandex slamming each other over loud hip-hop — and he uses it to explore the mechanics of storytelling and the exploitation of ethnic and cultural stereotypes as flashy entertainment.

In this (now prescient) excerpt from “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” the title character and E.K.O. talk through plans to create persuasive ring villains — a new “Axis of Enemy Combatants.” —ELISABETH VINCENTELLI