As I noted in the November entry of my column, Every Book Its Reader, the theater section of most libraries is a neglected source of fast-reading, conflict- and character-driven titles. Many readers encountered Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams in school (or through productions, or filmed adaptations), but there’s a world of theater beyond these stalwarts. Here’s a list of plays to consider for yourself or the readers for whom you provide advisory service.
Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
Written in 1979, Shaffer’s play is for anyone who ever felt the sting of injustice that comes from losing out to a gifted genius who’s also a terrible human being. Narrator Salieri thinks he’s at the top of his field until he finds that a crass, manic, giggling man-child can produce music that prove his best efforts are pedestrian. While this isn’t exactly an unadulterated biography of Mozart, it captures one of the driving impulses of history, and with some of the most sublime writing ever about the power of music. It’s got a wicked sense of humor, too. Read this one with some Mozart recordings on hand.
August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts
This 2008 Pulitzer- and Tony-winner is the contemporary heir to the legacy of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Oklahoma poet and patriarch Beverley Weston hires a caregiver for Violet, his pill-addicted, cancer-suffering, acid-tongued wife, and then he promptly disappears. What follows will gather the Weston clan—Ivy’s sister, her three daughters, their partners and children—for a climactic dinner and its ugly aftermath. Like the Albee play below, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s powerful, and not easy to forget.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted by Simon Stephens
Christopher wants to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s dog’s murder, but because he is autistic, he isn’t aware of what everyone else understands, that the mystery is connected to family secrets that his struggling, estranged parents would rather keep quiet. How does one turn a work about the inner working of an autistic mind into an engaging stage play? By presenting the story through the intermediary of Christopher’s teacher, reading her student’s writing, Stephens solves a problem almost as tricky as the math at which Christopher excels. Mark Haddon’s novel is well worth reading, but Stephens’ adaptation is just as entertaining.
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley
Like few other works, Shanley’s 2005 play takes readers into the swirl of confusion that surrounds a sexual predator. The title refers to both the doubts of parents and other nuns when old school Sister Aloysius accuses the popular Father Flynn of molesting his school’s first African-American student (in 1964 Boston) and to the religious doubts that arise from the sad situation. Shanley leaves the question somewhat open: each reader must ultimately decide Father Flynn’s guilt.
The Flick, by Annie Baker
Here’s one for film buffs, or for any young person in search of meaningful employment. The set flips our usual perspective, showing us the seats of a small-town movie theater desperately in need of upgrades. Three employees (who also form a somewhat awkward love triangle) clean up the auditorium after films and in the process examine themes of life ambitions, film, ethics, and race. There’s no scenery chewing in this one, but plenty of wit. The three-hour running time means you won’t see this one staged often, and Baker’s stage directions are so clever that they are worth reading all by themselves.
The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
A coming-of-age tale with a gut-check of a twist, Bennett’s 2004 play concerns eight diverse boys preparing for college entrance exams in England while also confronting their sexuality. They are motivated by the contrasting styles of two teachers, but each has their tragic flaws. Bennett manages to get the reader to think about the nature of a quality education, our place in history, the nature of identity, and the tragedy of human weakness in a quick read that’s also often more than just a little funny.
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl
Better living through electricity! Ruhl’s hilarious period piece concerns a Dr. Givings, an American, but Victorian to the core. He treats women for “hysteria” with a vibrator, but is reluctant to involve his own wife. It’s not just an elaborate dirty joke (although it’s a pretty funny one); in Ruhl’s clever script, it also becomes a meditation on sexual politics, race, depression, the parental urge, and the power—and limits—of technology.
The Man who Came to Dinner, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
Kaufman and Hart’s other collaborations You Can’t Take It With You and Once in a Lifetime are also well worth reading, but my favorite (and the oldest play on this list) is this 1939 screwball comedy. Sheridan Whiteside, a New York celebrity, lowers himself to make an appearance in Ohio, but falls on the steps of a small-town house. Partly star-struck, partly out of guilt, the couple who own the house agree to put him up during his recovery. But “Sherry” is far from grateful: he’s a horrible guest, abusing his hosts and caregivers, trying to break up his secretary’s impending marriage, and encourage the family’s teenage children to rebel. This lovely little bit of holiday misanthropy is an evergreen piece of comedy writing.
‘night Mother, by Marsha Norman
You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel about suicide that will grab you as powerfully as Norman’s 1983 drama. Jessie, a woman in her 30s, thwarted by a life of epilepsy, failed relationships, and a disappointing child, announces to her only companion—her mother Thelma—that she will kill herself that evening. What follows is Thelma’s desperate attempt to convince her to reconsider. As a reader, you’ll be pressed not to find both sides utterly convincing in this raw, two-character piece.
The Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle, by August Wilson
With due respect to Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Earnest Gaines, Ralph Ellison and others, my favorite chronicle of the African-American experience comes through August Wilson’s ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century (and all but one in Pittsburgh). They can be read in any order. Try Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, or The Piano Lesson for starters. Taken collectively, they create a marvelous patchwork quilt of different characters and experiences.
Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare
The title, as well as the Kevin Bacon-centered game of connecting films, have taken on a life of their own, but the original story, inspired by true events, is about more than just our chain of interconnectedness. Paul, a young black, homosexual man uses charm, name-dropping, and liberal guilt to con upper-class couples, convincing them (among other things) that his father, Sidney Poitier, is making a film version of Cats in which they might appear. It’s about race, about our desire to escape loneliness, about conspicuous consumption and the American dream. You’ll laugh throughout at Ouisa and Flan, the couple who get conned, but you’ll probably also relate to them in the process.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Yes, Durang’s comedy is full of allusions to Anton Chekhov, but you don’t have to know the Russian master’s work to have a good time. Two rather stunted middle-aged siblings live a sheltered existence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but that is broken when sister Masha shows up with much younger boy toy and actor Spike in tow, and tries to sell the house out from underneath them. Durang’s absurdism is cheekily on display, but while they are laughing, readers might be surprised by the emotional connections they make to the material.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
The late, great Albee’s best-known work takes readers through the most harrowing, blackly funny social encounter in the annals of literature, as a young couple stop in for a few social drinks with an older professor and his wife at their home. If you can survive your two-and-a-half hours with George and Martha—as people have been doing for 54 years now—and all of the dark feelings they may expose, you might actually find some catharsis. At the very least, you will probably see the dysfunctional relationships in your life as a little less damaged.