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Aisle View: 18 (Plays) in 16 (Days)

12/04/2013 11:52 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

I spent the weeks leading to Thanksgiving going to theater. And not just going a lot; events conspired to take me 16 nights in a row, with two two-show days bringing the total to 18. (By exploiting all the matinees you could drive the total over 20, but I spent my days writing.) In busy spells -- which in the Broadway arena typically include the two weeks before Thanksgiving and the month before the various award deadlines in the spring -- it is not uncommon for critics and award nominators to find themselves at five or six a week. Eighteen in 16, though, is overdoing it.

There were extenuating circumstances. Unrelated work took me to England for the first 10 days of the month, during which six shows opened on and off Broadway. (For our purposes, I don't count the eight shows I saw in London and Manchester.) Upon my return, thus, I needed to combine the ones I'd missed with the ones opening during the rush. I was to review 11 of these; the others I saw so that I'd be able to properly cast ballots when awards season comes 'round.

Let me point out that we critics are a hearty lot, and we know full well that many theatergoers would love to have the opportunity to see this much theater. So we never complain, although we sometimes roll our eyes over bowls of soup at the Polish Tea Room in the Edison Hotel. It's great to see every show that comes along, yes; but there are nights when you don't exactly feel like going to theater. And while the typical theatergoer sees the shows they want to see, we regularly go to shows that we wouldn't choose if we didn't have to. I, personally, am keen on the Bard but wouldn't normally go to three Shakespeares in four days. (As it happened, one of the three was excellent and another was the very finest production of the 18 in 16. But even so.)

I returned from abroad Sunday night, took Monday off -- you don't want to risk jetlag, not when you are weighing judgment -- and began Tuesday night with the final preview of Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays. I liked this enormously when Crystal first did it in 2004, and enjoyed it even more this time. This is a memory play, and Crystal has in the interim turned 60 (which is significant) and then 65 (which is even moreso). Perhaps this has made the show even richer.

The next night was the opening of the Stephen Sondheim/Wynton Marsalis A Bed and a Chair. This was a song revue from the folks at City Center Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center, starring Bernadette Peters and Marsalis's own band (including himself at trumpet). Under the direction of John Doyle, this was what you might classify as "well worth seeing," with some spots fitting the concept better than others. Thursday I caught Nothing to Hide, an evening of card tricks with magicians Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães working with director Neil Patrick Harris. I took my 14-year-old son, who found it totally awesome. I found it highly entertaining but without the edgy showmanship of the theatrical divertissements of Penn & Teller.

Friday came A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, a clever new musical that proved to be a thoroughly delightful romp but not one of those "gee, you gotta see this!" shows. Saturday night I went off to the Manhattan Theatre Club for The Commons of Pensacola. Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner starred in a play by actress Amanda Peet about the family havoc wreaked by a Madoff-like crook, with poor Ms. Danner forced to deliver repeated fart jokes. Following this, I headed over to the Café Carlyle to see John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey, whose opening night I missed while abroad. There's something about Pizzarelli -- playing jazz guitar, crooning, or just weaving a word-trail of nonsense -- that gets me every time. This was the only one of the 18 in 16 that I didn't have to see, but I wouldn't miss. Even at 10:45 p.m. on a weekend when I had four other shows scheduled.

Sunday was black Sunday -- not in post-Thanksgiving terms, but in unhappy theatrics. Macbeth, starring Ethan Hawke, came from an organization I admire (Lincoln Center Theater) and a director I admire (Jack O'Brien). Things didn't work out this time, alas. Hawke admonished the patrons to "sleep no more," but some of them did anyway. Others simply hightailed it away at intermission. That evening it was down to Second Stage for Little Miss Sunshine. Again, I'm a staunch admirer of one of the creators, composer/lyricist William Finn; but I found this musical -- based on the quirky film of the same name -- to be an entertainment that stubbornly refused to work. Monday night I reviewed Jason Robert Brown's cabaret act at 54 Below. The composer/lyricist charmed the crowd with selections from his two upcoming musicals, Honeymoon in Vegas (which met favor this fall in a New Jersey tryout and is actively seeking a Broadway home) and Bridges of Madison County.

Then came the heavyweights. Tuesday and Wednesday: Mark Rylance in his authentically all-male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III (which had opened the night I returned from London). Thursday and Friday: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Pinter's No Man's Land. Four smashingly satisfying evenings with three major stars supported by a brace of fine actors. Twelfth Night was easily the best of the four, the best of the 18 in 16, and the best play of the season so far. On the assumption that few playgoers have the stamina or budget to see this worthy quintet, I would place No Man's Land second, followed by Richard and Godot.

On Saturday came Terrence McNally's off-Broadway comedy And Away We Go. This trifle, which intermixed sketches about six struggling theatrical rep companies more than 2,500 years, easily claimed the last slot of what was then 14 in 12. The next day's offering, Regular Singing, zoomed to the top of the list alongside Twelfth Night. This is the fourth of Richard Nelson's Apple Family plays, all performed in rep at the Public with a smashingly good ensemble cast. A trip to the Public over the final weeks of the run is compulsory for theater lovers, not only for a slice or two of the Apples but for the finest musical of the season, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's Fun Home.

My playgoing jag ended on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with the sparkling After Midnight, another City Center/Wynton Marsalis revue which gets my vote as the best Broadway musical of the season thus far; Beth Henley's off-Broadway comedy The Jacksonian, which fits in alongside the McNally play; and Trevor Nunn's production of Beckett's radio play All That Fall, with enchantingly sterling performances by Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

And then came Thanksgiving Day, and rest.