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The Best Theater of 2018

It’s been a busy year for theater fans on both sides of the Atlantic, with Broadway hosting everything from big-name brands (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” “Mean Girls,” “Frozen”) to indie gems (“The Band’s Visit”) and London launching ambitious new plays (“The Inheritance”) and high-profile revivals (“Company”). Below, Variety‘s theater critics — Marilyn Stasio and Frank Rizzo in New York, and Matt Trueman in London — make their picks of the year’s most remarkable shows on Broadway and beyond. Their original reviews are excerpted below.

Angels in America (Broadway)
Tony Kushner’s massive drama about the age of AIDS in the 1980s returned to Broadway in a Tony-winning production from the National Theatre, with Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in lead roles and fresh messages for our current end time. This epic didn’t feel like a historical artifact; instead, experiencing this revival of the 25-year-old play felt more like picking up a scorching hot ember from a fire that won’t burn out. The scribe’s thoughts about religion, politics, sex, morality, mortality, civic corruption and environmental calamity — as viewed through the prism of the 1980s AIDS crisis — felt every bit as prescient as they did when all our friends were dying. — Marilyn Stasio (Read the full review here.)

Company (West End)
Here comes “Company,” remade for today. With Stephen Sondheim’s blessing, director Marianne Elliott has given the marital musical an incisive gender-flip. Bobby has become Bobbie; bachelor become bachelorette. It brings a 50-year-old show — and its sexual politics — bang up to date. Elliott frees the musical’s feelings and turns “Company” into an expressionist trip. This Bobbie might once have been seen as a spinster, but today she’s as freely, breezily and enviably single as any bloke, at least outwardly. Yet, as Elliott makes clear with a beautifully light touch, society stills piles the pressure. –Matt Trueman (Read the full review here.)

The Ferryman (Broadway)
Glorious is not too strong a word for director Sam Mendes’s production of Jez Butterworth’s heartbreaker of a play. Flawless ensemble work by a large and splendid cast adds depth to the characters in this sprawling drama that is at once a domestic calamity and a political tragedy, in which a joyous harvest feast at the Carney household in rural Northern Ireland is tragically disrupted by the political realities of the Troubles. –MS (Read the full review here.)

Girl From the North Country (Public Theater)
Conor McPherson’s Depression-era treatment of classic Bob Dylan material vividly transformed individual songs into an extended cohesive narrative about America adrift in hard times. In the production at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, tunes like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” felt as if they were written specifically for the Depression, while an inspired ensemble of actor-singers were transformed into the heroes of their own stories, as well as characters in the lives of others. –MS (Read the full review here.)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Broadway)
This is no time for bogus expressions of sophistication, so let’s just say: Hooray! With “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the Boy Who Lived has come to Broadway, bringing enchantment to a world that could really use a little magic right now. Director John Tiffany and his wizard designers answered the big question: What can the theater do for the story of Harry Potter that the books and movie treatments haven’t done? The stage brings its own brand of wizardry. Visually and aurally, the show presents a panorama of dazzling effects that draw audible gasps from the audience. –MS (Read the full review here.)

The Inheritance (Young Vic & West End)
Matthew Lopez’s epic two-parter picks up the mantle of “Angels in America,” and might just measure up. Like “Angels,” “The Inheritance,” directed by Stephen Daldry, is a vast, imperfect and unwieldy masterpiece that unpicks queer politics and neoliberal economics anew. In addressing the debt gay men owe to their forebears, it dares to ask whether the past hasn’t also sold the present up short. –MT (Read the full review here.)

The Lifespan of a Fact (Broadway)
Harry Potter had no sense of humor whatsoever, but Daniel Radcliffe proves to be a master of comedy in the brainy Broadway play “The Lifespan of a Fact.” If we were living through a different moment in time, the fabricated but emotionally wrenching “truth” of an essay writer (played by Bobby Canavale) would easily outweigh the chilly reality championed by Radcliffe’s fact-checker. But with the leader of our nation stomping on truth as we know it, and the very essence of reality imperiled by political fact-stretchers, the debate at the heart of this play transcends comedy and demands serious attention. –MS (Read the full review here.)

Lobby Hero (Broadway)
“Manchester By the Sea” didn’t come out of nowhere. The aching compassion for humanity in that 2016 Oscar winner is second nature to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, going back at least to 2001, when he first wrote this bittersweet, people-friendly play that was revived over the summer by Second Stage. With a tight, stellar ensemble that included Chris Evans and Brian Tyree Henry, there was no slack in the emotional tension and no escape from the sticky web that even nice people get tangled up in when they tell lies — especially the lies they tell themselves. –MS (Read the full review here.)

Network (Broadway)
Funny how times haven’t changed. Paddy Chayefsky’s diatribe of a film, which played as satire almost a half-century ago, takes on fresh fury in a sizzling stage production, directed by Ivo Van Hove, that feels less satiric but more urgent — and frightening — in today’s times. With Bryan Cranston giving a full-throated roar as disillusioned news anchor Howard Beale, the sense of immediacy is palpable. –MS (Read the full review here.)

The Prom (Broadway)
It seems like a dubious musical mash-up: Broadway narcissists-turned-activists take over a middle-American town to help a lesbian teen who just wants to bring her date to the prom. But with a tuneful score, a playful book, and performances that remind you what musical-theater heart and chutzpah are all about, this cause celebre of a show turns out to be a joyous, funny, and sweet production that earns a big Broadway corsage. –Frank Rizzo (Read the full review here.)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)
Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stageworthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Jeff Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, tolerance and decency. Celia Keenan-Bolger is smart, funny, and entirely convincing as Scout, Atticus’s precocious 6-year-old daughter and the narrator of the story, and the rest of the large and very fine cast perform their parts with all their hearts under Sher’s impeccably fine-tuned direction. (Read the full review here.)

Summer and Smoke (Almeida Theatre & West End)
Director Rebecca Frecknall’s spare staging takes a lesser Tennessee Williams play and reveals the great drama at its core — a devastating fable of half-requited love, missed moments and the ways we waste what little life we get. Frecknell’s production, anchored by two phenomenal performances by Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham, makes the case for the play by zooming right in, blurring its background. Distilled, “Summer and Smoke” becomes a shot of Tennessee, neat. –MT (Read the full review here.)

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