What follows are 10 shows, listed alphabetically, that left me breathless — and deeply grateful for the refuge that theater can provide.
‘THE BAND’S VISIT’ Pretty close to perfection, and of a subtlety seldom seen in Broadway musicals. David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s delicate story of Egyptian musicians stranded for one uneventful night in an Israeli desert town, directed by David Cromer, maps the common ground of longing and loss among disparate souls who almost — and there’s such sweet, sad beauty in that “almost” — connect.
‘THE B-SIDE: “NEGRO FOLKLORE FROM TEXAS STATE PRISONS” ’ This self-described “Record Album Interpretation” from the Wooster Group asked us to listen, with concentrated attention and virgin ears, to a vinyl recording of songs performed a cappella by African-American prisoners in the early 1960s. Immaculately staged by Kate Valk, and featuring the remarkable Eric Berryman as a sort of transcendental disc jockey, this was conceptual theater at its purest and most precise.
‘BURNING DOORS’ Subversion that matters, delivered with artfully channeled rage by the Belarus Free Theater, based (and banned) in Minsk. The troupe returned to New York this fall with a five-alarm, viscerally charged tour through the past and present of the art of resistance in Eastern Europe, from Dostoevsky’s parables of self-laceration to the fabled protest performances of Pussy Riot.
‘A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2’ Lucas Hnath’s stunning comic drama dared to pick up where Ibsen left off in his landmark study of a wife imprisoned by marriage. Starring a smashing Laurie Metcalf as a middle-aged Nora Helmer, Sam Gold’s witty, heartfelt production straddled the centuries, while reminding us of the singular power of theater to initiate the most profound of conversations.
‘ESCAPED ALONE’ In which the revolutionary British dramatist Caryl Churchill demonstrated once again her ability to reinvent the English-speaking play with every work she writes. This compact study of apocalyptic dreams, directed by James Macdonald and seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, portrayed four anxious, chatty women considering fears both present and future, and mundane and cosmic.
‘JITNEY’ The first Broadway production of one of August Wilson’s earliest plays, this group portrait of workers at a gypsy cab company in a beleaguered African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, served up the most vibrant — and fine-tuned — ensemble work of the year.
‘THE RED LETTER PLAYS’ The Signature Theater Company’s revivals of two audacious riffs on “The Scarlet Letter” couldn’t have been more timely, with twinned portraits of women hanging onto the margins of a world made and ruled by white men. But these blazingly inventive contemporary tragedies also testify to Ms. Parks’s stature as a writer who bends, blends and transforms genres like no other American playwright. [Read the reviews: ‘In the Blood’ | ‘________ A’ ]
‘RICHARD III’ Shakespeare’s anatomy of a head of state as a psychopathic narcissist has never seemed as immediate or as terrifying as it did in Thomas Ostermeier’s Berlin-born production, starring Lars Eidinger as a seductively jokey madman next door. Imported by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this was a spook house for grown-ups that transformed medieval England into a Land of Id that feels all too close to the here and now.
‘SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY’ A man who packs stadiums with his high-voltage rock performances turns down the volume — but not the intensity — to reflect on American life as he’s known it through seven decades. Drawing from his own songbook (and published memoir), Mr. Springsteen exudes a dark but cozy Everyman omniscience that suggests a latter-day equivalent to the paternal Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’ Sarna Lapine’s revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1980s classic about the painter Georges Seurat and his 20th-century descendant, starring a magnificent Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, registered as the ultimate affirmation of the power of art to distill, shape and transcend life’s daily anarchy. Seurat’s invocation of “design, composition, balance, light and harmony” felt like the perfect summing up of why art matters more than ever in times of tumult.
The 7.5 plays and 2.5 musicals on my Top 10 list (presented in chronological order) were not all perfect or even enjoyable in the conventional sense, but helped re-establish equilibrium between the outer world in which bad things happen and the inner world where we worry alone. They felt rudely intrusive: not like escapes or pandering exhortations but, even at their most playful, urgent invitations to act.
‘ESCAPED ALONE’ Four late-middle-aged English women sit yakking away a summer afternoon in a fenced-in backyard. In the hands of Caryl Churchill, banality like this is more than enough to gut you, as their palaver is interrupted by bulletins from a dystopian (and oddly Dada) future. Calamity, Ms. Churchill demonstrates, is not what happens later but what has always been happening, just subliminally enough to make it commonplace.
‘A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2’ Lucas Hnath’s response to Ibsen is far more than a what-came-next-for-Nora sequel. At its core it is a public forum on questions of marriage that still bedevil us. Is wedlock ownership? May one love only once? How can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? The miracle is that, as performed by its original cast in the spring and its second cast in the summer, it’s also that rare thing: a great, ambivalent feminist comedy for our times.
‘SOJOURNERS’ AND ‘HER PORTMANTEAU’ A young woman leaves a relatively privileged life in Nigeria in the late 1970s to study biology at Texas Southern University. Her stay in the United States gets somewhat extended; 34 years later, we meet her again as her two children — one raised back in Africa, one totally American — collide. Seen at New York Theater Workshop, in productions directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, Mfoniso Udofia’s two plays offered a moving and powerful corrective to the notion that what immigrants leave behind is always awful, and that what they find is always worth the trip.
‘COST OF LIVING’ Two disabled characters and two caretakers make up the cast of Martyna Majok’s gripping play, directed by Jo Bonney for Manhattan Theater Club. But which is which? John, who has cerebral palsy, is a rich, bratty grad student; Ani, a double amputee, is a hilariously foul-mouthed North Jersey terror. The people who help them, Eddie and Jess, have different problems. “Cost of Living,” which could have been an identity play about people with disabilities, is thus so much greater: a play about disabilities with people.
‘MASTER’ We were gathered, apparently, at the memorial service for one James Leroy Clemens, a fictitious Afro-Futurist artist who spent his life creating a series of “illuminations” in response to Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But we were really watching a Foundry Theater production of an immersive multimedia play by W. David Hancock at the Irondale Theater Center in Brooklyn. More than anything else I saw this year, “Master,” directed by Taibi Magar, addressed and exemplified (in real artworks, many by Wardell Milan) the question of cultural appropriation that everyone else only talked about.
‘AS YOU LIKE IT’ I’ve always delighted in the Public Theater’s Public Works projects, which on Labor Day weekends since 2013 have brought hundreds of people from all over the city together to perform a great work in Central Park. But this year’s offering, a musical adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy by Shaina Taub, directed by Laurie Woolery, may have been the finest yet, with the humanistic theme built into its title made evident everywhere you looked onstage.
‘MARY JANE’ Amy Herzog’s play about the mother of a very sick 2-year-old goes where it must but not where you expect. The title character, played with perfect composure by Carrie Coon in the New York Theater Workshop production, is so uncomplaining and willfully blasé that her refusal to surrender to distress seems almost pathological. But in Anne Kauffman’s ideal staging we begin to understand, just as Mary Jane does, that the life-or-death questions the child’s illness has raised are always there anyway.
‘SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY’ Call it a greatest anti-hits concert, with the chart-toppers unrecognizably altered and the story, much of it drawn from his 2016 memoir, “Born to Run,” a two-hour “suicide watch.” Still, as a portrait of the rock star as a serious artist, his ear tuned to the whole world’s injustice, there has been nothing like it since Lena Horne’s “The Lady and Her Music” — and she didn’t sing “Dancing in the Dark.”
‘JESUS HOPPED THE “A” TRAIN’ Where is God — where is good — in the criminal justice system? The questions don’t so much hover over Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play as yank at it with gale force. In a furiously Socratic revival directed by Mark Brokaw for the Signature Theater, two incarcerated men, played by Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi as if on fire, argue and then seem to prove that making good choices in an bad world is nearly beyond the human skill set. Now that the United States is the world’s largest jailer, who are we to disagree?
‘THE BAND’S VISIT’ What Ben said. (But read my review.)
ALSO The Broadway revival of “Sunday in the Park With George” for the sublimity of its score; “Jitney” for its ensemble cast; “Hello, Dolly!” for the joyful precision of its tribute to a vanished theatrical style; the Playwrights Horizons production of “The Treasurer,” by Max Posner, for its grim honesty about aging; Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play,” at MCC Theater, for its giddiness; “War Paint” for its score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie; Michael Arden’s ravishing re-staging of “Once on This Island”; and Sam Gold’s Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” because (like all theater lovers) I don’t care if I was the only one who loved it.