The Playgoer: My Night at the Obies (I)

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My Night at the Obies (I)

Official OBIE site now complete and up, btw...

Some personal reflections on the proceedings last night and the shows/artists honored.

First I'd like to address Jason's complaints about the ceremony. Which I am largely sympathetic to, frankly. This was my first time, so I have no idea what the Webster Hall days were like, but obviously they must have been more fun. Plus, the Skirball Center is such a slick concert venue (and simultaneous boring NYU assembly hall) that it automatically dampens any of the inherent hipness and excitement of any downtown event. Not only would an open bar be nice. But also try keeping people (including the awardees, mind you) in their seats for 2 hours plus; such proper seating arrangements don't allow for easy flow of movement.

Still--even in this swanky setting it is definitely not the Tonys. And I thought to myself often last night how much nicer it is not to be at the faux-Oscars that TV event desperately tries to be. In fact, I appreciated how not for television the Obies still are. No musical interludes or dance numbers. (Unless you count André De Shields' impromptu The Wiz rendition.) Almost no statements or presentations outside of the awards themselves. And no embarrassing scripted "chatter" between the presenters. And the acceptance speeches? Untimed. No orchestral cutoffs or commercial cutaways.

All in all, it was a very dignified and classy event, even if too classy for some. And still, even in the formality, darkness, and stratified seating of that hall, it never lost the sense of being by and for the downtown theatre community. More precisely, it really felt like an actor's room. Many other kinds of artist were honored. But all actor jokes went down particularly well. Like the 82- year-old Alvin Epstein (Lifetime Achievement) breaking off midspeech to turn back to his presenter, 81-year-old Angela Lansbury to say "I think we did a reading together once, years ago."

Another pattern throughout the night to distinguish the proceedings from more commercial spheres--the number of acceptance speeches that included some version of the phrase, "I'm so glad some people saw this play" or "I know nobody saw this." Since the average life of the Off or Off-Off show is short, there's seldom hope of an award here translating into ticket sales. There's no Obie-bounce at the box office. Until your next show, perhaps...

Since there are no "nominees" for the Obies and no predetermined categories, there's also more than the usual suspense leading up to each announcement. Kinda fun. Not only do you get the normal tension of "the envelope please" (figuratively, not literally--no envelope) but you don't even know what the options are. So I found it fun to try to guess who the hell the presenters could be talking about when they start praising some unnamed actor or writer, describing the show, until you finally go "Aha! An office? It's The Thugs." "Revival of a play about a haggard matriarch of a 20s Midwestern family? Say no more, we're in William Inge country!" Or, of course, you get it wrong when they announce an alternative you never even considered, or saw. In short, good theatre.

So what about those awards?

I wasn't too far off in my predictions, actually. (Although I don't know why I said Wally Shawn, since The Fever was a revival and I'm sure he's won before.) And I should have guessed David Greenspan, who was indeed a devilishly entertaining Mephistopheles. I was very happy for Dark at the Top of the Stairs (citations for actress and for the company) and for The Voysey Inheritance, honored for Michale Stuhlbarg's lead performance. I realize I never got to write about Voysey but it was definitely a highlight for me, as a reminder of how contemporary the more adventurous old plays are when done with commitment and honesty. (A little trimming from Mr. Mamet probably didn't hurt, either.) Stuhlbarg was exactly the right moral center of the play--which in a Harley Granville Barker play actually means a bit of a prig, but ultimately one struggling to do the right thing. And I was especially pleased since I've been a fan of Stuhlbarg's ever since seeing his breakout role as Richard II at the Public, straight out of Juilliard in '94. One of the few actors of his generation with a true poetic sensibility, it's amazing no one has staged his Hamlet. (In NY at least)

I was off base in predicting something for the Mint, by the way, for their less spectacular staging of another Granville-Barker piece, The Madras House. Perhaps not as worthy, but still a great contribution in reintroducing (or just introducing) this Edwardian iconoclast into the NYC repertoire. (Kudos for that actually belong to Theatre for a New Audience for giving us Bart Sher's production of Waste back in '99, another Obie winner.) But I digress...

Interesting that the UK Propeller company's Taming of the Shrew got a nod, since I dissed their Twelfth Night which was in rep with it. I did hear this was the better of the two, so now I'm even more sorry I missed it....Another BAM winner was one I did like, but never wrote about--the Norwegian modern bourgeois take on The Wild Duck. It was indeed the very model of a modern minimalist Ibsen, making it fresh while simultaneously warm, and chilling. And what Ibsenite cred in sending the Norwegian consul to pick up the Obie! (Ok, Ibsen hated Norway, but no matter.)

I didn't go gaga over No Child as a show, but that Nilaja Sun is a force of nature and deserves something. Her story in her speech about making the commercial Barrow Street Playhouse accommodate Wednesday student matinees was quite a rallying cry, and a shaming of those theatres who don't do more to put kids' asses in the seats.

More to follow tomorrow...

1 comment:

Claire Downs said...

I love webster hall. I also go to that boring nyu lecture hall frequently. I tried to get tickets through my school but they pretended like the obies weren't happening there!

I plugged you on my Chicago theatre revew blog!