The Playgoer: THE TONYS--ACT II

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005


There is some news this year, actually, even if a snore to most-- Revenge of the Designers. As the Times confirms today, the Tony committee this year has added three more design categories (hence, opportunities to win) by offering separate awards for designing plays and musicals. This continues the trend over the last decade of splitting up Musicals and Plays. First there was the question of Revivals (a new category to begin with) and then the Directing award was divvied up. What's going on here? It's hard to object to more hard-working theatre artists getting statuettes, so more power to 'em. And those still hankering for the glory of "the drama" should be pleased not to be drowned out by musicals always....But do I sense some potential ghetto-ization here??? I can imagine the folks at CBS are thrilled at the idea of three more untelegenic designers taking up air time away from JAG to thank their loved ones. (To a TV executive, this is the Oscar technical awards but less sexy.) Remember, for a while CBS "outsourced" the whole first hour of the show to PBS, to dispose of such unimportant citations as, oh, directing and writing, as well as design. Somehow, a couple of years ago, they decided they could afford the whole three hours again. But you gotta wonder--how long will it be before they just bump all the non-musical awards. Whatever national audience there is for the Tonys, they figure, only cares about who sings & dances, so just imagine, Tune into CBS from 9-11 for the Musical Tonys, and meanwhile catch the "Legits" on overnight C-Span...

Does Billy Crystal really need a Tony????
Well, that's what it seems all this "Special Theatrical Event" is good for. It was created a few years back--at the beginning of the acknowledged "Crisis of the American Play"--when it seemed the only non-musical things happening on Times Square stages were Jackie Mason and Defending the Caveman (remember that??? I wish I didn't). Yes, they had the good sense not to recognize Jackie Mason as a "playwright". But why does he need a Tony at all? Well he doesn't, but his producers want them--and that's how we know who this is all about in the end. But whatever integrity the Tonys may have once had is now complicated by Mario Cantone's made-for-Showtime stand-up act being described as a "special theatrical event." Funny, I remember applying that phrase to Peter Brook's Mahabarata. Guess times have changed...

Speaking of actual Plays... Playgoer won't weigh in yet on the "leading" nominees (Doubt and Pillowman) having not seen either. But what a nifty little debate has already sprung about among the heavy hitting critics over this comparison--with a special eye to de-valuing Pillowman as "entertainment over ideas." Christopher Isherwood's Times essay seems to follow Charles McNulty's Voice blast against both Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute for good measure, belittling both as cynical, overpraised (i.e. by Ben Brantley) hacks. Still, a Tony award might trivialize either one, seems to me... As for the other nominees. it's hard to begrudge such major artists as August Wilson and Michael Frayn another nod. Just funny that no one in the Broadway establishment seemed to care much for either play. (They may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons--again, filling the category. I'm still racking my brains for what other non-revival plays actually opened on B'way this year (that is, since last May). Anyone want to chime in?

Lastly, some "cheers & jeers" for individual nominees: As ubiquitous and rightly loved a designer William Ivey Long is, his work on the overall misguided Streetcar was exceptionally odd. That Dilbert-esque short sleeves and tie for Stanley Kowalski? Sure didn't help poor John C. Reilly's "it" quotient... A hearty cheer for actors Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the hardest working Off-Broadway classical actors finally getting his due in Pillowman, and for Dan Fogler, an old colleague of mine at B.U. whose explosive and expert funniness has long been obvious to those who know him, and so it's no wonder everyone who has seen Spelling Bee responds to him so viscerally... And while every year the Regional Theatre Award is a cause for celebration--and for showing up the Broadway establishment for what it's not doing--Minneapolis's "Jeune Lune" will greatly benefit from the exposure. They're a great example of the "other" American theatre--experimental, physical based, classically oriented yet thoroughly hip--that most Times Square ticketbuyers have never seen.

(Correction: After some cursory research, I discover there was indeed one other non-musical, non-revival play to open in a Tony-eligibe house this season: Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy. No one seems particularly outraged about that omission this week, but I bet some people liked it more than Democracy or Gem of the Ocean.... Oh, and the Theatre History voices in my head remind me that the "Crisis of the American Play" did not start ten years ago, but basically whenever there first was--or wasn't--an American play...)

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