December 23, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

1  Sweeney Todd
Musical revivals can be faithful (2000’s The Music Man). They can be bold (1998’s Cabaret). But only in rare cases are they definitive. John Doyle’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s misanthropic musical spook house adds a new frame to the tale of the vengeful barber: Now the story unfurls in a 19th-century asylum, where the inmates, abetted by the staff, act out the show, accompany themselves on beat-up instruments, and, on occasion, threaten to burst the bonds of their captivity. These explosions of bile subside as quickly as they erupt, and the ”players” stump back into their drugged ruts. What better way to ripen the show’s apocalyptic, operatic pessimism, its roaring contempt for modernity? Not a drop of blood touches the stage — a system of buckets and smocks tidily absorbs any untoward fluids — and yet the overwhelming sense is of secret, creeping contamination, dry and silent. As Todd, Michael Cerveris, smoothly shorn and maggot-pale, emits a ghastly sensuality; in his skillful, bone-white hands, the character’s black absence of humanity becomes its own special, photonegative luminosity. And Patti LuPone, wielding a tuba with a proficiency that’s downright erotic, has relieved Mrs. Lovett of her pop-eyed frumpiness, revealing a cagey, desirous, and, above all, practical restaurateur who sees no reason why Todd’s victims should go to waste, ”with the price of meat what it is.” This hell-bound pair is so good, you could eat them alive. Unless they eat you first.

2  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Marriage. It’s the mystery that sustains us, the cracked plinth upon which society rests. Is it possible to maintain a true, honest union with another human being? Yes, of course, was the answer Edward Albee delivered in his 1962 clash of connubial titans, as long as you’re willing to accept a little blood in your Ovaltine. More than 40 years later, Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin snarled and snarked around their cage — a drab den in a drab house in a drab college town — with thunderous and unpredictable energy. They proved that Albee’s experiment in civilization is ongoing — and while it may no longer shock, it still sears.

3  The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Judas is on trial in purgatory, and it’s not going well: Satan appears as a character witness. Pontius Pilate pleads the Fifth. Even the judge is unconvinced (”Your client sold out the Son of God, for Christsakes!”). But in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ brave morality play, the Bible’s greatest sinner pursues forgiveness. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed a versatile cast (including a gut-wrenching Sam Rockwell as Judas and Eric Bogosian as the devil) as Days melded scripture and hip-hop in a passionate look at spirituality that transcends dogma and finds, simply, love.

4  Orson’s Shadow
In 1960, critic Kenneth Tynan attempted to team director Orson Welles and actor Laurence Olivier in a production of Ionesco’s absurdist Rhinoceros; it was a moment when each was losing his way, professionally, personally, and aesthetically. In 2005, playwright Austin Pendleton reimagined that doomed enterprise into a small Off Broadway masterpiece. Shadow is a hymn to all that’s grand, transient, and commandingly ridiculous in collaborative art. It’s also one of the best dramas about drama in recent memory.

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