Many of the hottest names emblazoned on New York City theater marquees today have been around for years: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Homer, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Noël Coward, Eugene O'Neill. These masters have never gone out of style, as theatre revivals continue to pay homage, right historical wrongs and—as history has shown—capture numerous Tony Awards. Here's a roundup of shows now opening on Broadway and Off-Broadway that merit a second (or third, or thousandth) look.
The Age of Aquarius dawns again for the first time in more than 30 years in a jubilant new production of Hair, a musical depicting the world-changing cultural movement of the Vietnam era through the eyes of young free spirits searching for love, peace and meaning. The groundbreaking score retains its irresistible message of optimism and provides a euphoric reminder that challenge and hope can defeat intolerance and brutality.
Another revolutionary show with roots in social and cultural turmoil is West Side Story, Jerome Robbins' 1957 musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Though the innocent love between Tony and Maria—and the tragedy uniting the Jets and the Sharks—may be familiar to many, it's interesting to note that Robbins' original story was actually set on the Lower East Side with tensions flaring between Catholics and Jews during Easter and Passover.
One of Noël Coward's biggest successes, 1941's Blithe Spirit, features Rupert Everett as a novelist who unwittingly invokes the ghost of his first wife, played by Christine Ebersole. (His second wife, to complicate matters, is very much alive.) Angela Lansbury plays the eccentric medium. Another mid-century favorite is Guys and Dolls, a romantic musical comedy inspired by short stories by Damon Runyon and centered on the character of Nathan Detroit, the muscle behind an established floating crap game in New York, and his bet with fellow gambler Sky Masterson. Packed with favorite songs—“Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat”—the new production showcases Oliver Platt as Detroit.
Three classics by one of Russia's greatest dramatists, Anton Chekhov, return this year, portraying his homeland through scattered scenes, seemingly trivial conversations and haphazard glimpses into his characters. Chekhov's plays are filled with tenderness, sympathy and delicate satire, written to evoke laughter rather than tears. Three Sisters, first produced in 1901, explores spiritual paralysis in Russia's privileged class through three sisters (and a brother) who yearn for Moscow's culture and refinement while confronting their receding dreams. Uncle Vanya is another masterpiece of eternal longing—notable not for the theme of regret at two lives wasted but for the tender beauty of Chekhov's words. From 1904, The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's last play before his death, depicts a modern spirit invading the aimless existence of country life. Tom Stoppard's rich adaptation features the superb acting of Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke. (Brooklyn Academy of Music; now playing.)
Another trilogy of note is Anne Carson's bold translation of An Oresteia. First performed in Greece in 458 BC, the three works remain the great triumvirate of vengeance and passion. This ambitious staging of the fall of the house of Atreus is a watershed combination of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Orestes; Carson's wit and dazzling morbidity breathe new life into the age-old themes of murder and revenge. Another unparalleled production of murder, obsession and lust is Eugene O' Neill's retelling of the Greek myth Orestes, Mourning Becomes Electra. This epic, set in post–Civil War New England, introduces audiences to General Ezra Mannon and his son, Orin, returning home from the war to a house divided, torn apart by the battle between matriarch Christine Mannon and her daughter, Lavinia. An original jazz score by Grammy Award winner Pat Metheny accompanies superb performances by Lili Taylor, Jena Malone and Joseph Cross. And an innovative production of Homer's Iliad: Book One, the Trojan War epic, is opening at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The new play blends ritualistic movement, original music and superb acting in a 75-minute production. (The Aquila Theatre Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre; begins March 31.)
In 1910, a relatively unknown 25-year-old poet named D.H. Lawrence was writing a grim story of desperation: The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, a naturalistic drama lauded for its vivid and startling realism. An intense story of a troubled marriage and a wife's wish realized, this play dramatizes a husband trying to escape his wife's scorn and resentment, and his bitter wife trying to make a safe home for her children amid the coarseness of a mining village.
Grover's Corners comes to Barrow Street in Our Town, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize–winning drama chronicling everyday life through two neighboring families. David Cromer's intimate staging, in which the action occurs among and around those in attendance, creates a personal relationship between actors and audience, and exposes the moral ambiguities and underlying spiritual terror that accompany childhood, marriage and death.
Finally, no list of springtime revivals would be complete without mention of Shakespeare. Those who need their regular fix of the Bard will be satisfied with three innovative productions of Othello, Hamlet and Twelfth Night opening this spring. Othello is a tragedy, filled with racism, love, jealousy and betrayal. (Theatre for a New Audience; begins February 14.) Hamlet, another tragedy, is the story and exploration of a young prince deeply unsettled about his future—and his past. (New York Theatre Workshop; begins March 14.) And Twelfth Night is a sophisticated comedy of mistaken identities and miraculous discoveries. (The Pearl Theatre Company; now playing.)