Maybe you're a Shakespeare junkie, and you just can't get enough of classic drama like Othello or Macbeth. Or maybe you loved Rent in high school, and you're always up for an edgy new script. Maybe you're just in the mood for something a bit different than a run-of-the-mill novel. Well, look no further, because there's no shortage of brilliant plays to read to shake up your TBR pile.
You might think that plays are always better seen than read. Seeing a real live person writhing around onstage is, admittedly, more powerful than reading the stage direction "he dies" on a page. But some plays are so beautifully written, funny, evocative, or just plain engrossing that you can read them straight through (and the reading goes much faster when most of the text is dialogue). They come alive in book form, no sets or costumes needed. Plus, some of these scripts have such brilliant nuance and direction that you might miss out on something if you watch it without reading. And with these plays, you really won't want to skip a single line. You don't have to be an actor or even a die-hard theatre fan to appreciate these remarkable plays:
1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
George and Martha are having company over for the evening — but George and Martha like to play games. Strange, dangerous games, full of sharp twists and turns, and all building to one stunning climax. Edward Albee's dialogue is sharp and almost unbearably funny, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? might just be the perfectly constructed dark comedy.
2. In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl
Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the vibrator but were afraid to ask. Sarah Ruhl's writing is quite simply gorgeous: lyrical and alive, but still so straightforward and cleanly written. Even her stage directions read like poetry. She takes real, historical themes of race, class, gender, and sexual liberation and spins them into a play that is equal parts touching and funny (and, of course, full of vibrators).
3. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner
Don't let the length scare you off (because yes, this play is actually two full-length plays back-to-back), because Angels in America belongs on any list of great American literature. Prior is a man living with AIDS, and recently abandoned by his boyfriend, Louis, who has left him for Joe, a conservative Mormon whose wife, Harper, is completely losing it. And that's where things start to get strange, and slightly ethereal. One of the most compelling and poignant plays that modern drama has to offer.
4. Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon
Eugene Jerome and his family are just trying to survive through the Great Depression (without killing each other). As always, Neil Simon displays his signature wit in this semi-autobiographical look at coming-of-age on the eve of World War II. Simon's plays are always about character, and he's most incisive when looking at the very characters who brought him up.
5. M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
Renee Gallimard is a French diplomat stationed in China, where he meets his ideal women: Song Liling, a beautiful opera singer (who also happens to be a man). Gallimard, however, doesn't seem to notice his mistress's disguised gender... for 20 years or so. Based on a true story, M. Butterfly is an original piece about privilege and stereotypes, gender and exoticism, and the often blurred line between fantasy and reality. It all comes together to make one humorous and striking piece of theatre.
6. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun is one of those landmark plays that genuinely changed American theatre forever. It's a play about the struggles and dreams of one working-class family living in Chicago, and yet it encompasses so much more than just their one story. Lorraine Hansberry writes gut-wrenching moments of truth as well as snappy dialogue and fully-realized characters — there's not much more you could want out of a truly great play.
7. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Look, this list could easily have been all Shakespeare plays. Because, yes, everyone should also read Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. But Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy with quite a bit of comedy in the beginning, it's got romance and gorgeous verse and people getting stabbing with swords — this play is pretty much the full package, and it's one of Shakespeare's most accessible works to boot. So give it a shot, even if it made you roll your eyes back in high school.
8. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Arcardia is set in one place and two centuries. Tom Stoppard shuttles his audience back and forth between the 1800s and the 1900s, weaving a heady mystery of romance, math, and garden landscaping that will span the years and engulf all of his characters. If you've ever wondered how the heat death of the universe is related to tortoises and hermits, then this is the play for you.
9. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Two brothers named Lincoln and Booth (their names were given to them as a joke) are haunted by the past as they struggle to confront their current reality. Suzan-Lori Parks writes darkly comic and tense dialogue, never letting the momentum lag. It's a play that can be easily read in one day, but that will stick with you for weeks after. Topdog/Underdog is, in a word, powerful.
10. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Sometimes you just need a good old-fashioned farce, filled with quips, misunderstandings, and fights over muffins. That's when you turn to Oscar Wilde, the master of rapid-fire wit. Two women have both fallen in love with the same mythical suitor, and two men (both posing as the fictional "Earnest") are trying to win their affection with a great deal of lying and wry banter. Pure nonsense and fun.
11. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
It's the 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts... and you can pretty much guess what happens next. Elizabeth Proctor has been accused of witchcraft, and the townspeople are determined she be brought to justice. Arthur Miller's classic play about the Salem witch-hunts has stood the test of time: It's a play written in the '50s as commentary on anti-communist hysteria, but it's also a very human story of what happens when violence is socially sanctioned. The Crucible is eerie, intense, and emotionally affecting, from beginning to end.
Image: Huntington Theatre Company/Flickr