For 77 years, the Best Plays annual volume has been a crucial reference work for theatre lovers and scholars. Not only would the book's editors (initially Burns Mantle, more recently Otis Guernsey) choose the season's 10 most valuable plays/musicals of the New York commercial theatre season, they would list the credits of all the major shows in theatres Off-Broadway and across the country, as well as provide photographs, awards listings, necrologies, season summaries, and a gallery of drawings by Al Hirschfeld.
Volume 78 is due in late December/early January 1998, but this one will come with a significant change: instead of the usual ten "Best Plays" as chosen by the editors, this and subsequent editions will choose plays based on which shows won major NY awards. That is, Tony, Lucille Lortel, Pulitzer Prize and NY Drama Critics Circle. (Plays included are partially excerpted and summarized by the editors.)
Thus it is that the upcoming edition includes only six "Best Plays:" Titanic (Tony), How I Learned To Drive (Lortel, NYDC Circle), The Last Night Of Ballyhoo (Tony), Skylight (NYDC Circle), Violet (NYDC Circle_ and Old Wicked Songs. (The editors have reserved the right to single out for a Special Citation a deserving play they feel was overlooked, hence the inclusion of Songs).
Also included is the Jane Martin comedy/drama Jack And Jill, selected as best regional play by the American Theatre Critics Association.
In his introduction to the book, Guernsey explains his reason for the new system: "It has become increasingly..difficult and less appropriate to pick out ten plays for special treatment to the exclusion of all others. Our theatre has become much too sophisticated for that, ranging from the multi-million-dollar musical spectacle to the piercing solo performance, from Titanic to A Huey P. Newton Story. Our New York theatre has never been more eclectic." The Best Plays Of 1996-97, which covers June 1, 1996-May 31, 1997, will also feature an introductory overview of the Off-Off-Broadway season by NY Times critic Mel Gussow, and a look at the Broadway/Off Broadway season by Playbill On-Line staffer David Lefkowitz. Jeffrey Sweet, who co-edited the book since 1985, has moved on to concentrate on playwriting and his duties on the council of the Dramatists Guild.
The Limelight Editions publication will retail for $47.50.
-- By David Lefkowitz