“The play’s the thing,” because plays are the best.
1. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
Do you like dark comedies? Think about the darkest comedy you know, and then multiply it by roughly a zillion and you get The Pillowman. The play is about a short story writer who’s being interrogated by two policemen about the short stories he’s written, all of which involve gruesome acts and children. What it’s really about, though, is storytelling, and every character in the play is a storyteller of some kind.
How it will change you: This play will give you a deeper understanding of how storytelling is powerful and part of everyone’s lives.
2. A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
While seeing the play is something all on its own, reading A Raisin In The Sun — the stage directions are almost like a novelization — really paints a picture of what loving someone means. This play is about family, race, and what’s really worth fighting for.
How it will change you: It reinforces what’s really worth taking a stand for.
3. BFE by Julia Cho
Fourteen-year-old Panny is stuck in suburbia with an agoraphobic mother addicted to plastic surgery, and an uncle who feels a stake in helping raise Panny. The play takes a lot of dark twists and turns but is ultimately about standards of beauty, self hate, and acceptance.
How it will change you: While the plot itself is unusual, the themes are extremely relatable and will remind you that words and images have power.
4. Red by John Logan
Set in the 1950s, this play about artist Mark Rothko and his relationship with his protégé paints (see what I did there?) a portrait of what it means to create art, and how an artist sees their work. The dialogue is intense and often eye-opening about the creative process.
How it will change you: This play is like stepping into the mind of a truly creative person, and seeing how different their POV is.
5. Stop Kiss by Diana Son
Sara has just moved to New York from St. Louis when she meets the woman who will change her life, Callie. This play deals with homophobia and acceptance of one’s true self, among other things. But the real reason to read this play is the structure, which does such a great job of building suspense that you won’t be able to put it down.
How it will change you: This play is a reminder that our time is limited, and letting fear get in the way of happiness isn’t worth it.
6. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker
This play is funny, odd, and delightful. Set in an acting class led by a married couple, through their acting classes each character comes closer to discovering themselves and, in doing so, they reveal secrets that may have been better left unsaid.
How it will change you: Baker’s play is a reminder that people change, and there’s life after change.
7. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
If you’ve never read Hamlet, you’ve probably seen some iteration of the story. Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, and is told to avenge his death. In order to do so, he arranges a play for his dear old Uncle Claudius, who murdered his brother the king. It’s tragic, suspenseful, and has such memorable lines as, “To be, or not to be: That is the question.”
How it will change you: Aside from OFFICIALLY knowing where all of those famous Shakespeare lines come from, the issues of mortality and consequences after death are definitely something you’ll think deeply about.
8. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
You may have seen the HBO adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, which is a full seven hours (!!!) when performed live. But if you haven’t, Angels in America takes place in the ’80s during the first outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.
How it will change you: Through the story of a straight married couple and a gay couple, you learn about the bonds of community, religion, and sexuality. It’s powerful and gut-wrenching, to say the least.
9. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? by Edward Albee
If you want to get married, or interact with someone of the opposite sex in general, you might rethink reading this play. Because men and women are just not meant to be in the same room, let alone live under the same roof, or at least that’s what you’ll think after meeting George and Martha. When they decide to have guests over one late evening, the true relationship of their marriage quickly unravels before their guests’ eyes. You will laugh in horror, and cry just a bit too. It’s all brilliant.
How it will change you: It’s a reminder that nothing is quite as it seems, and there are secrets lying under every shiny surface.
10. God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
In 2009, God of Carnage won the Tony Award for Best Play and it isn’t hard to understand why once you read this story about two couples meeting to rationally discuss a fight their young sons got into. But no one can discuss anything rationally, because fighting doesn’t end at childhood, as seen in this play.
How it will change you: This play is explosive, and shows through action and dialogue that we’re really all just animals in the end.
11. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer
This semi-autobiographical play is about and written by Kramer. It chronicles Kramer’s harrowing experiences during the AIDS epidemic in New York in the ’80s, and his journey as one of the founding members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, (which was one of the first organizations to bring awareness and demand government support). Get the tissues and be ready to have so many feels.
How it will change you: It will give you a new perspective on determination and the AIDS epidemic.
12. No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre’s existentialist play follows three deceased people who are spending the rest of their afterlife days locked in a room together. They couldn’t be more poorly matched, personality-wise, which leads to a lot of bickering and the conclusion that they’re likely in hell.
How it will change you: Because Sartre was a philosopher and existentialist, much of No Exit deals with themes of freedom and choice. It’s simply a powerful play.
13. Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick
Jeffrey quits having sex cold-turkey out of fear that he’ll contract HIV. He then meets HIV-positive Steve who is perfect for him, but he refuses to give in because of Steve’s status.
How it will change you: Jeffrey ultimately chooses to risk everything with Steve because, after all, it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It’s a play about the very real dangers (physical and emotional) of queer love in 1980s/early ’90s New York.
14. Tribes by Nina Raine
Have you ever been accused of not listening or paying attention? What about smaller things, like silences, are you still hearing those? Tribes aims to address that very thing through the story of a young British man, Billy, who’s deaf and born to a family who can all hear. Rather than learning to sign, Billy is taught to read lips and speak. That is, until he meets a girl who teaches him sign language.
How it will change you: Tribes shows that families are built on hierarchies, and some of those are meant to be broken.
15. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
This is a classic for a reason. It’s hilarious, and all while touching on the ideas of having to live a double life in order to conform to certain norms.
How it will change you: It will teach you that taking yourself, or anything, too seriously is always a bad idea.
16. Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
This play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and it’s all about a real estate agent named Shelly Levane who decides to sell a lot in Florida to a couple with suspicious credit. As you can imagine, things don’t end so well…
How it will change you: The message of how much you’re willing to do for the price of success is not lost here.
17. Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Fellow playwright Edward Albee described this Pulitzer Prize-winning play as “the greatest American play ever written.” It takes place in a small town in the 1900s, and, because it’s before the technology boom, is a great reminder to really take in each and every moment.
How it will change you: There’s a message overall that life is about the small things, and taking time to appreciate those is what makes it worth living.
18. Middletown by Will Eno
The New York Times suggested that Eno took inspiration for Middletown from Wilder’s Our Town. That’s because it’s similarly set in a small town, and deals with the themes of life and death when leading a seemingly unsurprising life. But that unsurprising life, where we’re all constantly in the middle of something, is the very heart of this play.
How it will change you: Eno makes profound observations about daily life through his mastery of dialogue, and it’s absolutely a worthwhile read.
19. ‘night Mother by Marsha Norman
Have you ever become more anxious about a possible outcome than when the actual outcome happens? Such is the story in this Pulitzer-winning play about a mother who’s trying to stop her daughter from killing herself.
How it will change you: The two-character drama is a true lesson in what anticipating drama can do to a character (and a reader, for that matter).
20. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Time is fluid in Arcadia, as it shifts between scenes in the English countryside during the present day and the early nineteenth century. And trying to summarize the plot would take a few pages. But it manages to balance elements of dark undertones with farce, and comedic mishaps with heartbreaking characters.
How it will change you: The themes of time, whether truth actually exists, and not simply taking facts at face value, are what makes it worth reading.
21. Noises Off by Michael Frayn
If you’re looking to read an absolutely masterful farce, then Noises Off has got you covered. This play about a group of actors putting on a play has dizzying stage directions and timing that manages to read as hilarious without even needing to see it. (Though you absolutely should see it after you read it.)
How it will change you: You’ll laugh uncontrollably, then be in awe of the amount of coordination involved in a piece this staggeringly airtight.
22. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill
If you were having a dinner party and could invite ANYONE you wanted — famous, historical, or from the way deep past — who would you invite? Marlene, our lead, hosts a dinner party to celebrate her new promotion, and she invites a host of successful women from history to join her. (Pretty boss, right?)
How it will change you: Even though this is set in the ’80s, the bigger message of what it means to be a successful, career-driven woman still rings true today.
23. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
When a lead’s name is “Rooster,” you know you’re in for a good time. Our lead, a former daredevil motorcyclist named Johnny “Rooster” Byron, makes a final last stand against suburban development when he discovers that he’s about to be evicted from his mobile home. But what he’s also taking a stand for is people who simply LOVE life and live it to the absolute extreme.
How it will change you: This play is wild, exhilarating, and channels a very rare type of person who may not seem endearing at first, but absolutely is so.
24. Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
Evolution versus Creationism. It’s a debate that still rages today, even though this play is set in the ’20s and tackles that very thing. It’s about a high school teacher named Bert Cates who decides to teach evolution to his class (even though it’s against state laws to do so). This leads to Bert being put on trial, which is where the play takes place.
How it will change you: The play explores themes like the freedom to choose, and what it means to be an individual going up against what an entire society thinks.
25. Miss Evers’ Boys by David Feldshuh
This play is shocking in that it’s based on an actual 40-year study of syphilis that began in 1932, where black sharecroppers were denied treatment for the disease (but believed they were being treated). Miss Evers, our lead, is a black nurse who recruits men for the study, and is based on a real-life nurse whose job was to do just that.
How it will change you: It’s a look into what it meant to be black in America during an incredibly dark time, and is much more layered than you’d ever imagine.
26. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Lincoln and Booth (as in Abraham and John Wilkes, but not actually those historical figures) are brothers whose family specialty is three-card monte. Only they’re both past the point of being slick manipulators, and have fallen more toward being tired of the hustle.
How it will change you: This Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about family, the choices we make, and the expectations that come with those choices.
27. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
This play is thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy ever written, and as such, Shakespeare comes off as a much grittier and more violent playwright. It tells the story of a Roman war hero whose honor code clashes with the society he’s thrust into. In other words, it probably reflects a lot of how Shakespeare felt as a young, punk kid just trying to make his way. Bonus points: You can read it in its entirety online.
How it will change you: Being able to read Shakespeare’s early work, and compare it to his later plays, is something really inspiring.
28. True West by Sam Shepard
This play is sibling rivalry at its finest, except funnier. Set in a California desert shanty, two brothers, Austin and Lee, argue over the direction of a film script that Austin is writing.
How it will change you: The dialogue is completely engrossing and serves as a fantastic study in character development.
29. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
This play is about two characters who are waiting for Godot to arrive, (it’s been thought that “Godot” is God), but he never ever shows. In that sense, the play is about nothing happening, but what it’s really about is destiny and fate in the most absurd form.
How it will change you: The play is simple, and so close to reality that it will make you reflect more deeply on the themes of faith, purpose, and politics.
30. The Theory of Everything by Prince Gomolvilas
Wanna know the best place to go UFO watching? It’s on top of a Las Vegas wedding chapel, or at least that’s the best spot according to The Theory of Everything! Seven Asian-Americans meet on top of the chapel every week to go UFO spotting, and when one of them eyes a strange ship, it makes everyone question past life experiences (including issues of race, sexuality, and faith) that they’ve previously repressed.
How it will change you: Denial is a massive part of this play, and watching as the characters remember their experiences for the first time will make you question your own memories and feelings.
31. Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein
When five women meet for a college reunion a lot of the chatter turns to the past, and so begins a series of flashbacks that tell the stories of each character and the life they knew in college, versus what waited for them after college. It speaks to what it is to be an adult and a woman, and tells the stories with deft humor and wit.
How it will change you: If nothing else, this play and the stories told are a glimpse into the female experience, and how your past choices can influence your future happiness.
32. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Ever wonder what purgatory is like? How about what it’s like for Judas Iscariot, the dude who sold Jesus out? It’s probably pretty interesting, especially when he gets an appeal trial, which is exactly when the play takes place. The humor is biting and irreverent, and all leads to an explosive end.
How it will change you: Hearing a unique and strong voice, like Guirgis’ voice, is rare and important. It will make you a better reader, writer, and creative thinker.