January 27, 2022

The Best Performances of 2021

The first play I saw this year, after thirteen months away from a theatre, had no live performers. It was an Off Broadway adaptation of the José Saramago novel “Blindness,” about an epidemic that plunges civilization into chaos—so, not quite an evening of escapism. Audience members, spaced out in two-person pods, watched the harrowing tale unfold in light and sound effects that transformed the cavernous Daryl Roth Theatre, with narration by the English actress Juliet Stevenson piped in through headphones. It was a finely honed performance, but what is theatre without actors to watch?

In fits and starts, elements of normalcy returned. We went back to movie theatres (I know the screens are bigger, but I’d never fully appreciated the sound), to concerts, to Broadway shows. I saw a comedy show, Neal Brennan’s angsty, endearing “Unacceptable.” I went to the New York Film Festival, where I saw Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s bewitching “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” I went to Shakespeare in the Park—how I missed you, Delacorte!—and to the Broadway revival of “Caroline, or Change,” where Sharon D Clarke brought the house down, because finally, again, there was a full house to bring down. At the same time, television maintained its hold on pop culture, and sometimes felt more communal than live gatherings. Shows like “Mare of Easttown” and “WandaVision” drove online water-cooler talk. (These were a step up from “Tiger King,” the unifying TV force of the early pandemic.) We were, in one way or another, together again, and for that we have performers to thank: the people who, by trade, draw multitudes into their orbit.

The list below is utterly subjective and non-comprehensive—no matter how much you watch, there’s somehow much more you’ve missed—but it includes ten people (or groups of people) who burst through the excess of amusements, onscreen or onstage, and did something extraordinary.

Alia Shawkat in “Search Party

Photograph by Chris Saunders / Courtesy HBO Max

The underrated series, which migrated from TBS to HBO Max, is a comedy thriller set in hipster New York: part “Girls,” part “Crime and Punishment.” And, in Shawkat’s Dory Sief, it has an antihero to match both Hannah Horvath and Raskolnikov. The first few seasons charted Dory’s transformation from nosy, underachieving Brooklynite to cold-blooded killer, and in the fourth season, which premièred in January, she has a full psychic break, living in captivity in the basement of an eccentric stalker (the indispensable Cole Escola). Shawkat’s breakout role, in “Arrested Development,” showed her mastery of warped comedy when she was an adolescent. Her portrayal of Dory is as funny as it is frightening, and her scenes with Escola, especially, bring the show to new heights of dark lunacy. The fifth and final season begins on January 7th.

Bo Burnham in “Inside

Photograph courtesy Netflix

Before he turned thirty, Burnham had already lived multiple show-business lives: teen YouTube sensation, singing standup comedian, director of the coming-of-age film “Eighth Grade.” “Inside,” which came out on Netflix in May, could be called a pandemic comedy special, but even that novel description doesn’t do it justice: it’s a video diary, a cabaret show, and an existential crisis all rolled into one. Alone in his man cave, Burnham taped himself over months of quarantine—looking, like many of us, increasingly haggard and despairing—even counting down the seconds to his thirtieth birthday on camera. As his mind seemed to unravel (or was it all an act?), the show became his lifeline and his hall of mirrors, full of visual and aural jolts. And, while he thrashed around in his own head, Burnham dissected the contradictions of modern life in catchy, penetrating parody songs: just try to excise his Kurt Weill-ish ditty “Welcome to the Internet” from your brain once you’ve heard it. Can he please write a musical?

Oprah Winfrey in “Oprah with Meghan and Harry

Photograph by Joe Pugliese / Courtesy Harpo Productions / CBS

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