The Best New Play of the Year

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T. Charles Erickson / Philip Rinaldi Publicity / AP

Will Rogers, left, and Mary Beth Hurt in When the Rain Stops Falling

The trouble with most new plays I see these days — not just commercial fare but also the supposedly more adventurous work off-Broadway — is that they are too simple: the characters too familiar, the stories too formulaic, the messages too spoon-fed. Donald Margulies' new Broadway offering, Time Stands Still, to take a typical example, won warm praise from most critics, but I found its alternately jokey and sanctimonious portrayal of a photojournalist and her war-correspondent boyfriend one giant media-friendly cliché. And I had to laugh at New York Times critic Ben Brantley's praise of Next Fall, Geoffrey Nauffts' new comedy-drama about a gay couple at odds over religion, as "that genuine rara avis, a smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary New York comedy."

Come again? From where I sit, smart, sensitive, utterly contemporary New York comedies are virtually all we get these days: plays populated by the same modern, upper-middle-class urban sophisticates who, for the most part, are sitting in the audience. What you rarely get — but do in When the Rain Stops Falling, an extraordinary new play by Australian Andrew Bovell now having its U.S. premiere at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater — is something that really throws the audience out of its comfort zone. This challenging play has the most complicated time-shifting dramatic structure I've seen in years. Nothing really falls into place until about halfway through its dark, intense, intermissionless hour and 45 minutes. "I guess what I was interested in doing," Bovell told an interviewer before the play opened, "is giving the audience a bit of work to do." To which I say, Hallelujah.

The disorientation starts in the very first minute. The play opens in the future — the year 2039, according to the program — as an elderly man stands amid an apocalyptic deluge of rain, and a fish falls out of the sky. We then move back and forth in time, in seemingly random order, with characters from different time periods — sometimes older and younger versions of the same person — often overlapping on the stage. Only gradually do the stories emerge of two apparently unrelated families, one in London and one in Australia, who have been scarred in different ways by tragedy and abandonment.

Gabriel Law, the Londoner, has been raised by his mother ever since the abrupt departure of his father when he was just a boy. Gabrielle York, the Australian, has endured the murder of her 8-year-old brother and the subsequent suicide, years apart, of both her parents. The two meet at a roadhouse in Australia, fall in love and unravel some unexpected connections.

Time travel is hardly a stylistic innovation in theater these days. One pretty good new off-Broadway play, Clybourne Park, dramatizes the racial changes in an inner-city Chicago neighborhood by twinning two scenes 50 years apart: the arrival of the neighborhood's first black family in 1959 and the invasion of the first gentrifying white couple in the now all-black neighborhood in 2009. But When the Rain Stops Falling goes far beyond such schematic parallelism. Bovell's time-hopping structure is intricate but surprisingly natural — never strained or purposely obfuscating. Rather, as in the works of Faulkner, it is a powerful metaphor for the impossibility of escaping the past, for the way we are all shaped by what came before — and are living in the shadow of what comes next.

David Cromer — the Chicago-based director who won acclaim for his recent off-Broadway revival of Our Town — handles all this with sensitivity and solemnity. (This is a real rara avis in New York theater: a play without laughs.) A cast of mostly Americans (among them Mary Beth Hurt and Victoria Clark) conveys the British and Australian milieus with as much authenticity as you're likely to find on these shores. The play is unrelievedly bleak but with a denouement of unexpected hope: a moving, almost revelatory evening of theater, and easily the best new play of the year.