Highlights from the legit season

Memories can be short, particularly when you’re a critic who sees more than 100 shows, (a conservative estimate) in the course of a calendar year. With the fall season bringing a spectacular number of theatrical misfires, misfits and mishaps on Broadway and Off, it was easy to forget that, looked at in its entirety, 2003 was not without its unforgettable pleasures.

Opening to little fanfare at the Atlantic Theater Co. in February, Conor McPherson’s “Dublin Carol” turned out to be, in retrospect, the finest new play of the year. It also contained one of the best performances from a year in which, all too often, performers outshone their material. Playing a reformed alcoholic trying to come to terms with the painful legacies of his past, Jim Norton gave a perf of heartrending honesty and sensitivity. And it was those very qualities in McPherson’s writing, and his production, that imbued this small slice of life with a chilling resonance.

“Dublin” was a supremely well-crafted example of classic playwriting, but two of the year’s other significant new plays revealed writers stretching traditional forms. In “Fucking A,” the incendiary (and underappreciated) new play from the author of “Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks dared to blend together the most unlikely forms, Brechtian agitprop and old-fashioned melodrama, to envision a nightmare-future world where women’s bodies have become battlegrounds.

At Playwrights Horizons, Doug Wright dissected the traditional solo-play form in “I Am My Own Wife,” turning a bio drama about German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahsldorf into an inquiry into the pitfalls of turning to the real world for artistic inspiration. Exploring the life of a man who may have had a dual nature in more than one sense, Wright, actor Jefferson Mays and director Moises Kaufman also constructed a haunting and funny meditation on the slippery nature of heroism.

A gold star for originality also should be awarded to the creators of “Avenue Q,” the little musical that opened Off Broadway in the spring and showed surprising strength when it leaped to the big leagues in the summer. A po-mo musical that co-opts the sound and style of a kiddie TV show — puppets included — to present the bruising realities of young adult life in the big city, the show is saved from an acute case of cuteness by the wink-free playing of an ideal cast.

As a whole, the year was not a stellar one for new plays or musicals. It was the more revelatory excavations from the theatrical past that captured much of the attention, particularly on Broadway.

A list of the season’s acting highlights would have to include the unforgettable pairing of Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzard in a searing, and sensationally funny, revival of Peter Nichols’ “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.”

The Roundabout followed that import from London with an equally fine import from the West Coast, Jeff Calhoun’s beautifully realized rethinking of “Big River,” which used deaf, hearing-impaired and “regular” actors.

In the battering fall season, creaking, overproduced or underconceived musicals fought for attention with ill-starred performers (see Farrah Fawcett, Ellen Burstyn, Mary Tyler Moore …). But reprieve came from two late-arriving productions: The glorious Donna Murphy revivified a mothballed musical in “Wonderful Town,” capturing the city’s heart with a performance of sheer perfection, and Jack O’Brien brought Shakespeare back to Broadway with a thrillingly theatrical flourish with his expert staging of “Henry IV.”

Broadway does not, thank heaven, live by the all-or-nothing rules of TV’s reality shows. But if it did, the champ for 2003 would have to be Robert Falls’ extraordinary, see-it-or-live-to-regret-it staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” With a quartet of the finest stage actors you could wish for bringing new nuances, but classic conviction, to a landmark American play — perhaps the landmark American play — the four hours of Falls’ intimately epic production practically sped by.

Most significantly, Falls and co. turned this famously dour drama into the hottest ticket of the summer on Broadway. That unlikely feat alone should assure the year a place in the theatrical history books.

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