10 Contemporary Plays That Should Be on Your Shelf


Tomorrow marks the release of much beloved, left-of-center author Daniel Johnson’s new book, entitled Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse . Like many of his readers, we are most familiar with Johnson through his novels ( Tree of Smoke ) and short stories ( Jesus’ Son ), so we were psyched to jump into this new-to-us format for the author. Inspired by Johnson’s plays, we started thinking about all of the wonderful contemporary playwrights out there whose work deserves a spot on anyone’s reading list, whether they’re a theatre junkie or just an average lover of fantastic literature. Click through to check out our list of contemporary plays that everyone should be reading, and if we’ve missed your favorite, be sure to add to our recommendations in the comments!

Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse , Denis Johnson

These plays are everything you’d expect and want from a dramatic creation written by Denis Johnson — grit, poetry, passionate prose, a host of devilishly dirty characters steeped in backbreaking honesty, and a whirlwind ride that takes us to the polar reaches of the human experience.

4000 Miles , Amy Herzog

Herzog’s brand new play about Leo, a 21-year-old guy who shows up at his 91-year-old grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night, had us laughing and nodding somberly in equal measure. The decades-apart duo each has their own crosses to bear — Leo has just lost a friend, Vera is displeased by the aging process — but their relationship shines.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes , Tony Kushner

Well, we couldn’t put together a list of contemporary drama without including this instant classic, one of the deepest and most profound plays in recent memory. If you haven’t read this one already (or at least seen the TV movie), you’re missing something spectacular.

The History Boys , Alan Bennett

We love us a good unruly schoolboy story, and Bennett’s play is that and more — a funny, rambunctious, and ultimately subtle meditation on the value of education. Sure, the plot is familiar — a young teacher shakes up the lives of his students by questioning the status quo — but the execution is simply brilliant.

Doubt: A Parable , John Patrick Shanley

We could have chosen almost any of the prolific Shanley’s many great plays, but we’ll go with his most stunning achievement, which (incidentally) won both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, the story revolves around a nun who suspects the progressive parish priest of sexual misconduct with a student. It’s all doubt from there on out, and we predict you’ll be mulling it over in your mind for weeks after reading.

The Pillowman , Martin McDonagh

In this highly disturbing but fantastic play, a short story writer whose prose is filled with grisly violence against children is arrested after a string of real-life attacks on kids resemble his stories a bit too much. As his story unravels, the author resigns himself to his fate but attempts to save his stories from obliteration. It works — at least, we know we will never forget them.

August: Osage County , Tracy Letts

This dark comedy, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, takes place in the Oklahoma home of Violet Weston, a sharp-tongued matriarch who is addicted to various prescription drugs and battling mouth cancer. When her husband dies, a cast of eccentric family members and hangers-on invade her world in a nonstop series of plot twists, love-hate relationships, and barb-trading. Good for anyone who has ever had a family to contend with.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? , Edward Albee

One of our all-time favorite playwrights, the 82-year-old Albee is responsible for modern classics like The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. In his hilarious and experimental 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, a married middle-aged architect falls in love with a goat, and the story unravels from there. Chock-full of language games and grammar jokes, as well as challenges to almost every moral standby you can imagine, the play is just as thought-provoking as it is amusing.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo , Rajiv Joseph

In this play, which ran on Broadway last year starring Robin Williams in the title role, the ghost of a tiger wanders through Baghdad during the Iraq War, searching for the meaning of existence and casually haunting his killer. Strange but ultimately moving, it’s one of the best literary portrayals of war we’ve ever read.

Wit , Margaret Edson

Edson’s modern one-act classic tells the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, an English professor dying of ovarian cancer. The play, which we recommend reading with a large volume of John Donne poems close at hand, weaves the great poet’s symbolism and language in with Vivian’s pain and struggle to maintain her humanity in the hospital setting. Devastating but beautiful, this play is one to endure through the ages.