13 Straight Plays Everyone Should Know | Playbill

Lists 13 Straight Plays Everyone Should Know From Shakespeare to Hansberry, consider this your straight-play primer.
Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Denzel Washington and Mykelti Williamson in the 2010 Broadway production Fences. Joan Marcus

This Broadway season, it’s all about the play. There are 20 plays that have either already opened or are slotted to in this 2018–2019 season—14 of them new. But the theatre has been home to countless works of remarkable vitality for decades.

An exhaustive list of those works would be nearly unending, but we’ve put together a good starting place for anyone looking to dip their toes into the best the genre has to offer. Get back to basics. Spanning works from the 14th century all the way to today, these 13 plays are works any and every fan of the theatre should know:

Denzel Washington in Richard III Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library

1. Richard III by William Shakespeare

Though Richard III probably isn’t the Shakespeare you read in high school, study up on it now. One of Shakespeare’s history plays, it centers on King Richard III of England, his rise to power, and short time at the throne. This is the play that such lines as “Now is the winter of our discontent” and “My kingdom for a horse” come from. Last seen on Broadway in 2013, notable modern Richards have included Mark Rylance, Al Pacino, and José Ferrer.

Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry in The Importance of Being Earnest Joan Marcus

2. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
This 1895 farce satirizes Victorian life with a tale that sees its two main characters taking on pseudonyms to engage in affairs and avoid social obligations. The only problem is both men select the same pseudonym, and a comedy of mistaken identities ensues. Earnest is Wilde’s most beloved work, having enjoyed many revivals since its premiere and three separate film adaptations (in 1952, 1992, and 2002). The most recent Broadway revival in 2010 starred Brian Bedford, who played the intimidatingly proper Lady Bracknell in drag.

Diane Lane Joan Marcus

3. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Along with The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard is one of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s master works. Telling the story of an aristocratic landowner’s attempts to save her family’s estate from being auctioned off to pay the mortgage, The Cherry Orchard is a window into Russia at the turn of the 20th century when the ending of serfdom finally led to the rise of the middle class. The play premiered in Moscow in 1904, while Diane Lane and Chuck Cooper starred in the most recent Broadway revival, adapted by Stephen Karam, in 2016.

Zita Johann and Clark Gable in Machinal Vandamm Studio/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

4. Machinal by Sophie Treadwell
Based on the real-life figure Ruth Snyder, Sophie Treadwell’s Machnical tells the story of a young stenographer victimized by society’s expectations of women. She’s pressured into marrying her boss even though she hates him, ultimately being driven to murder, a crime she pays for with her life. One of the best examples of Expressionist theatre, Machinal would also have been startlingly feminist for Broadway of 1928. Its continued relevance today has led to several revivals Off-Broadway and around the world. The work’s sole Broadway revival officially opened January 2014.

Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire.

5. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
If you’ve ever heard anyone yell “Stella!” or say “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” then you’re familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire’s most quotable lines. Written by Tennessee Williams, Streetcar takes place in New Orleans and centers on mentally unstable widow, Blanche DuBois, who moves in with her sister and brother-in-law following the loss of her home to foreclosure. The original Broadway production in 1947 starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Marlon Brando as her brother-in-law Stanley (the role that would make Brando a star of the stage and screen), and Kim Hunter as her sister Stella. The work has gone on to become one of Broadway’s most-revived works. The most recent revival in 2012 featured a cast made up entirely of actors of color led by Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, Blair Underwood as Stanley, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine

6. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller’s grim look at the erosion of the American Dream in the middle of the century has become one of the all-time classics since its premiere in 1949. The work follows Willy Loman, who is exhausted after years of working as a traveling salesman. At the end of his rope, Loman asks his boss if he can stop travelling and work from the home office, a request answered with a pink slip. After a dejected Loman decides he’s worth more dead than alive, he kills himself, leaving his wife to utter the play’s most immortal line at his funeral: “Attention must be paid.” The original production won the Tony Award for Best Play at the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as Tonys for Best Author Arthur Miller, Best Director Elia Kaza, Best Producer Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried, Best Scenic Design Jo Mielziner, and Best Featured Actor Arthur Kennedy. The work’s subsequent revivals have starred such actors as George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the most recent 2012 Broadway revival—which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

Bus Stop Playbill - March 1955

7. Bus Stop by William Inge
Though considered a dramatic work, Bus Stop is equal parts romantic comedy and serious drama. The work takes place in a Kansas diner during a snowstorm. When a group of stranded bus passengers is forced to take shelter inside, we meet aspiring nightclub singer Cherie and cowboy Bo Decker, who wants to marry her. The original Broadway production in 1955 starred Elaine Stritch as the owner of the diner and Kim Stanley as Cherie. A 1956 film adaptation became a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. The play enjoyed a short-lived Broadway revival in 1996 at the Circle in Square Theatre starring Kelly Bishop, Mary-Louise Parker, and Billy Crudup.

Audra McDonald and Sean Combs in A Raisin in the Sun Joan Marcus

8. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of a black family that, after coming into $10,000 from an insurance payout, goes up against racial bias and segregation to move into a nicer, historically white neighborhood. The work had immeasurable impact on Broadway both on and off stage. When it debuted on Broadway in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun became the first work produced on Broadway to be written by a black woman, and, though its audiences where primarily white, was among the first modern Broadway plays to speak to the black experience. The original production starred Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, while the play’s 2004 revival starred Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Audra McDonald, and Phylicia Rashad. The most recent Broadway revival in 2014 starred Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Sophie Okonedo, who won a Tony. That production earned the 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Friedman-Abeles/The New York Public Library

9. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
This 1962 play takes place over one late evening. Following a university faculty party, the middle-aged married couple George and Martha invite a younger couple over for a nightcap. As the liquor pours freely, more details from George and Martha’s strained relationship come out, ultimately building to one of the great surprise endings in the theatre. The work won Best Play at the 1963 Tony Awards, and was poised to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama until the Award’s advisory board decided not to award any play that year, objecting to Albee’s liberal use of obscenities. The play has nevertheless become a classic of the genre. The most recent Broadway revival, in 2012, won Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Play (Tracy Letts), Best Direction of a Play (Pam MacKinnon), and Best Revival of a Play.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in Fences. Joan Marcus

10. Fences by August Wilson
Fences is one of Wilson’s ten plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle—and all are worthy. Each offer a vital commentary on the black experience in a particular decade of the twentieth century. Fences, the sixth of the cycle, is arguably the most successful of the series, telling the story of a former baseball player whose illegitimate child threatens his marriage and relationship with his son. James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance starred in the original 1987 production on Broadway. Jones won a Tony Award for his performance, and the work won the Best Play Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a 2010 revival, which then became the basis of a 2016 film adaptation. Washington has said its his goal to bring the full Cycle to audiences via a series of HBO films, though little has been said of the progress of this passion project.

Stephen Spinella and Ellen McLaughlin in Angels in America. Joan Marcus

11. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
This two-part play examines AIDS, homosexuality, racisnm, and democracy in America in the 1980s. The complex story often dips into surreal symbolism and supernatural beings for a work that is ultimately as epic in scope as it is in length. The play mostly centers on gay couple Prior and Lewis who live in Manhattan, a relationship rocked when one of them is diagnosed as HIV-positive. Their story intertwines and intersects with other plots that include a closeted Mormon, real-life lawyer Roy Cohn, and a winged angel from Heaven. The first part of the play, entitled Millennium Approaches, debuted in San Francisco in 1991, opening on Broadway in 1993. The second part, Perestroika, opened on Broadway a few months into Millennium’s run, after which the two parts ran in repertory. Millennium Approaches won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 and the Best Play Tony Award in 1993, while Perestroika won Best Play the next year in 1994. The entire work received its first Broadway revival in the spring of 2018, winning Best Revival of a Play.

Brandon J. Dirden and Jason Dirden in Topdog/Underdog T. Charles Erickson

12. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, play three-card monte and talk about their lives and upbringings in this two-hander by Suzan-Lori Parks. As differing fortunes leads to increasing tension, their game lead to a reenactment of the deadly meeting of their namesakes. The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2001, a production that was helmed by George C. Wolfe and starred Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright. Mos Def replaced Cheadle for the play’s Broadway transfer, which opened in 2002. That same year, Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, and Crystal A. Dickinson in Clybourne Park Joan Marcus

13. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
This 2010 play riffs on Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The first act takes place in 1959 contemporaneously with the events of A Raisin in the Sun, centering on the family that lives in the house the Younger family hopes to purchase. In the show’s second act, the year is 2009 and the same neighborhood has become an all-black neighborhood now on the verge of gentrifying. A young white couple wants to buy the Younger’s former home to demolish and re-build a new house on the same land, but a Younger family descendent wants to see the house landmarked due to its historical significance. The play uses both humor and drama to dig into the deep-set racism that can often lie beneath the surface—even those who proclaim to be “woke.” Norris’ play premiered at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 2010, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011. A 2012 Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Play.

There are dozens of plays that could be added to this list. Tell us what plays you love! Tweet us @playbill with #PlaysToRead.

Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research, and curator of Playbill Vault. @loganculwell

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