December 18, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

1. Ruined
At first glance, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama is a bran muffin of a show: a dutiful, good-for-you depiction of violence in Africa, particularly violence against women. But Nottage injects a pulsing vitality into her play while underscoring the harsh realities of a civil war that’s claimed 5.5 million lives.

Ruined centers on Mama Nadi (played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona in the Chicago and Manhattan Theatre Club productions), the indomitable proprietress of a Congo brothel who tries to mollify both the government and rebel soldiers while keeping a watchful eye on her girls even as she exploits them. (She’s an updated version of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.) Her charges include the limping 18-year-old Sophie (Condola Rashad), who performs haunting songs that draw out the unexpected beauty — and, yes, joy — to be found in otherwise bleak lives. ”Will the sound drown out your sorrow,” she sings, ”so you remember nothing tomorrow?” Not likely.

2. Hair
With all its talk of be-ins and Vietnam, this musical may seem like the stage equivalent of bell-bottoms. But it’s one nostalgia trip worth taking. Thank heavens there’s no drug test for Galt MacDermot’s melodic score, a blend of folk, pop, and acid rock that will linger in your brain for weeks. And the youthful cast, who pour into the auditorium proffering daisies and hugs, go even further to ”Let the Sun Shine In.”

3. The Brother/Sister Plays
Tarell Alvin McCraney may be 29, but his ambition (and talent) surpasses his years. In three plays staged at the Public Theater over two evenings and four and a half hours, the young playwright spun a gripping story (actually, three of them) about two generations of African-American characters in a fictional Louisiana town.

4. The Norman Conquests
Another three-play epic, another revelation. And if you think a seven-hour show needs to be super-serious (à la Tom Stoppard’s Russian intellectual history lesson The Coast of Utopia), think again. Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 comedy is a precisely constructed farce about six supposed grown-ups spending a hilariously libidinous weekend in a country house (each play is set in a different room). Director Matthew Warchus perfectly orchestrated the mayhem with an all-Brit cast.

5. God of Carnage
Two sets of parents sit down to make peace after a playground row between their 11-year-old sons, and then find themselves competing to see which of them best puts the boor in bourgeoisie. Warchus directs another comic gem, abetted by Yasmina Reza’s witty script and a glittery original cast including Tony winner Marcia Gay Harden, a stolid James Gandolfini, a cell-phone-addicted Jeff Daniels, and a very weak-stomached Hope Davis.

6. Our Town
& Brighton Beach Memoirs
David Cromer is the latest Chicago theater phenom to find a wide audience. This year, he directed and starred in an innovative Off Broadway version of Thornton Wilder’s community-theater staple Our Town that was intimate and powerful, fully engaging all of the senses. (More theaters should smell like bacon!) Then he dusted off another passé hitmaker, infusing Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs with hipness and relevance in an inexplicably short-lived Broadway revival.

7. A Streetcar Named Desire
Who’d have guessed it would take an Australian actress to deliver what is arguably the definitive performance of Tennessee Williams’ tragic Southern belle Blanche DuBois? But Cate Blanchett mesmerizes in a show first mounted by her own Sydney Theatre Company. Credit goes not to the kindness of strangers but to Liv Ullmann’s thoughtful direction.

8. Let Me Down Easy
In her new one-woman show, writer-performer Anna Deavere Smith tackles health care — as well as 20 real-life figures who shed light on both the politics and personal drama of the issue. The MacArthur-certified genius segues seamlessly between monologues by both the famous (Lance Armstrong) and the ordinary (her aunt Lorraine), creating indelible impressions with the slightest gesture or shift of her voice. This is one public option everyone can embrace.

9. Twelfth Night
Anne Hathaway’s sparkling duet with Hugh Jackman at last spring’s Oscar telecast was no fluke. The star lit up Central Park’s Delacorte Theater last summer as Viola in a beguiling production of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy that featured original music by the Brooklyn-based folkies Hem. If Hathaway’s musical chops be the food of love, let’s have no talk of dieting.

10. Becky Shaw
The characters in Gina Gionfriddo’s pitch-black comedy of manners are not ones for social niceties. ”If you look hard at anything…anyone, you will be revolted by what you see,” notes Susan (Gilmore Girls‘ Kelly Bishop), the mother of a married couple who unwittingly arrange one of the worst blind dates in history (let’s just say it escalates to blackmail threats and a suicide attempt). Between the acid quips, though, are heartfelt insights on the fragility of love.

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