The Playgoer: THE ANTI-TONYS

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Thursday, May 19, 2005


The Village Voice announced their "Obies" this week.

(For the record, for anyone new to this: the O stands for "off", the B stands for "b'way" and the -IES, well... Voice co-founder Jerry Tallmer has a funny story about confusion over the name here)

What a perfect antidote to Tony season. Here is a concept of "awards" as celebration, actually saluting the outstanding work of theatre artists--as opposed to pitting them against each other in a nonsensical competition. (Hmm, which was a more "special theatrical event"--Mario Cantone or Whoopi Goldberg?) Here is a definition of "theatre" as performance that might happen outside of the quadrant of 40th to 55th streets and 9th to 6th avenues--and maybe even in places that seat fewer than 500 people! (yes, in other words, productions which might not sell a lot of tickets.)

While the difference might be simply understood as: the Tonys do Broadway, the Obies don't, and so why can't we all get along... it's worth considering how murky that line is increasingly becoming. Doubt, for instance, can be considered for both awards because it was premiered by the Off-Broadway, non-profit company Manhattan Theatre Club. What is on Broadway now is essentially the same production, which means it was initially financed by government & foundation grants and private donors--in other words few Broadway producers would have taken a chance on such a play about controversial material (in this case the American Catholic church) without it being tested (not just for quality, but for prestige factor) in the non-profit sector... Anyway, a little digression there about the importance of subsidized theatre in America. But you see how the Tonys capitalize now on (depend on) the development of material in the non-profit realm. (The eligibility for Tonys of such mega-non-profits as Roundabout and Lincoln Center does complicate--or even prove!--this theory. It is also to the consternation of commercial producers that such institutions can win tonys for shows they're not really "investing" in)

Some might notice the absence of musicals from the Obies this year, and perhaps many years. Certainly, the "big" musicals are factory products made for Broadway (big Broadway houses and big Broadway budgets). But don't forget--such mega-hits as Avenue Q, this year's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and a modest hit from the recent past, Urinetown, all were hatched in off-broadway non-profit houses. The fact the Obies chose not to recognize Spelling Bee this year, for instance, is their choice--in other words, just because it sells a lot of tickets doesn't mean it's extraordinary and a reason we go to the theatre...

But notice how the OBIES can recognize what the Tonys cannot. The Tony nominations for Best Play, again, are: Doubt, Democracy, Gem of the Ocean, The Pillowman. Not a shabby selection-- but, again, just four out of the five (that's 80%!) of the new plays that opened on Broadway this year! August Wilson and Michael Frayn, worthy as they are, are now perennials who would (and do) get nominated (and produced) for everything they write. Frayn and Martin McDonagh are basically London playwrights, so according to the Tonys, Shanley and Wilson wrote the only two American plays of note this year.

Compare to the Obies list of awards in "Playwriting"...
(Notice the award goes to the playwright, not the producer. Did you know for a brief time in the 60s the Tonys gave separate statuettes to and Best Play and Best Producer??? Even today, with musicals, one show (like Urinetown) can win for Best Score and Best Book--in other words the best content--and another show (that year, Thoroughly Modern Millie) could still be Best Musical.)

[And, by the way, there are no "nominations" in Obie-land, just awards--but multiple awards, no one winner. (The suspense and competitiveness of nominations only drums up excitement and publicity--doesn't help the art.) Even categories are not fixed--the judges decide each year not just who gets the awards but what they will call the awards. So no arbitrary filling up of obsolete categories, either...]

So, the Obie in "Playwriting" this year goes to:

Christopher Shinn Where Do We Live
John Patrick Shanley Doubt
Caryl Churchill A Number
Lynn Nottage Fabulation

Isn't it nice to honor all four of these at once? What an interesting, and informative, list. None of them (except Doubt, I suppose) will make any money. (The other three have closed!) But here's an honest statement of what these judges thought were the most notable achievements by a playwright this season. Yes, it--like the Tonys--includes one well-established Brit (Churchill). But to anyone who saw it, A Number (in a very American production starring Sam Shepard and an amazing set by Eugene Lee) was the theatrical event of the year. Chances are people outside of New York never got to hear about it. It ran for about 5 weeks at New York Theatre Workshop downtown. But the Tonys allow no way for this to be recognized--which is fine if the Tonys want to continue being the Tonys. But it will just become increasingly irrelevant to what's actually going on in New York (let alone American) theatre.

As for Nottage and Shinn, their plays this season were not universally acclaimed, will have no movie deals, and, again, will draw a blank to most people who even call themselves theatre fans. But bless the Obies for saying, "Here are two young American playwrights that are keeping the artform alive and are writing about what is actually going on in America today in a compelling way." What better purpose for a stupid awards show is there?

And, finally, the Obies, too, have a "Special" citation. But notice here, that could be an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of a modest, perhaps even flawed, endeavor like Sin: A Cardinal Deposed--a documentary retelling of Cardinal Law's obfuscators testimony on the church's child abuse scandals. I would rather give an award to an imperfect play that hits a nerve and connects with an audience over a crucial public issue... than to a summer resort lounge act posing as a "night at the theatre," no matter how "special" Dame Edna may be.

Again, here's the Obie list. I urge you, dear reader, look it over, and ask you to think back on this past season not as one dominated by a flying singing car, a foot-impaired tv starlet, and repackaged naughty 60s British comedy.... but for a daring re-staging of Hedda Gabler, an excellently acted new play by prolific American dramatist Lee Blessing (Going to St. Ives), loving rediscoveries of at least two neglected classics (Elmer Rice's Counselor-At-Law and WS Gilbert's Engaged)... and on and on in this yearly presentation, which shows up anyone who bemoans The Death of the American Theatre. Psst--it's just not where you're looking for it...

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