'Enron,' 'Jerusalem' among drama highlights

Cameron Mackintosh’s “Oliver!” revival got the year off to a record-breaking start last January with its £15 million ($24 million) advance, but theater headlines in 2009 weren’t about musicals. This was the year of the play.

In a year unusually stuffed with strong productions of straight drama, aside from Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart headlining “Waiting for Godot” a bewilderingly lightweight revival that nonetheless did boffo business — new plays outshone classics.

Indebted though it is to Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money,” Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” a Headlong Theater, Chichester Festival Theater and Royal Court co-production, won raves. The play’s exuberant handling of 1990s corporate greed extended its newsworthiness way beyond the theater press. Rupert Goold’s racy production reopens in the West End on Jan. 16 before transferring, with a new cast, to Broadway.

In any other year, “Enron” would waltz off with every available play award. But at the 2010 Olivier Awards on March 21, the eight judges could look in several directions.

Andrew Bovell’s searingly beautiful “When the Rain Stops Falling” (at the Almeida and arriving Feb. 11 in a new Off Broadway production by David Cromer for Lincoln Center Theater) has a chance, as do Mike Bartlett’s thrillingly acute Royal Court triumph “Cock” and Simon Stephens’ arresting and compassionate “Punk Rock.”

But the runaway winner is likely to be the maverick, exhilarating “Jerusalem,” an epic study of the underbelly of English rural life which premiered at the Royal Court in a meticulous production by Ian Rickson. Easily the finest work yet from playwright Jez Butterworth, it is built around – and written for – Mark Rylance whose pulse-quickening performance a) is frankly unrecognisable from his terrified and terrific Tony-winning comic turn in “Boeing-Boeing” and b) will win every acting award open to him.

Equally great female leading roles were in shorter supply. One of the year’s most glorious performances was one of the least seen. Amanda Lawrence hilariously and tragically caught forgotten English eccentric Charles Hawtrey — and countless other extraordinary men and women in his sad life — in “Jiggery-Pokery,” which played just three weeks at BAC, London’s most daredevil and creative fringe venue.

The Donmar Warehouse, however, provided strong opportunities for actresses. Kate Fleetwood was riveting in a masterly revival of “Life Is a Dream” while Rachel Weisz rescued Blanche DuBois from neurasthenic overkill in Rob Ashford’s revitalized “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

If this column could bestow an award, it would be for the dizzy heights achieved by ensemble casts in 2009. Bryony Lavery’s “Kursk” at the Young Vic, and James Macdonald’s productions of “Judgement Day” at the Almeida and “Cock” at the Royal Court were flawlessly performed. Likewise Josie Rourke’s stagings of “If There Is I Haven’t Found It” and “Apologia” at the Bush. The latter, by Alexi Kaye Campbell, blew the notion of second-play syndrome out of the water. Its West End prospects look good.

Musical honors go to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s “Sweet Charity,” thanks in large part to Stephen Mear’s socko choreography. Unconfirmed rumor has it that the show will move into Wyndham’s Theater next spring following the surprise success of the umpteenth return engagement of Stephen Daldry’s “An Inspector Calls.”

Even more tantalizing are whispers of a forthcoming musical version of Erich Segal’s “Love Story.” Chichester Festival Theater acknowledges the existence of Howard Goodall’s score and Stephen Clark’s book but will not be drawn on creatives, dates or precise plans.

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