The Playgoer: TONY v OBIE

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

TONY v OBIE

A tale of two awards.

Within 12 hours of each other, the alternate (not even parallel) universes of B'way and "theatre" announced their season's honors. Granted the Tony "awards" proper are still to come. But Obies thankfully don't bother with the two-stage process, so their multiple nominations are in fact their awards.

To compare these lists is (as it is every year) an object lesson in the incredible gulf between theatre as experienced by those who practice and follow it devotedly, and those for whom it is well... tourism, frankly. Or hobby, or industry.

To fill their rigid, sometimes anachronistic categories, the Tonys end up honoring almost anyone who has the money to get to Broadway--and can stick it out long enough to get through awards season. This usually works out since these days usually not many more than four or five musicals or non-musicals can manage that anyway. Only 39 productions opened at all on Broadway this season. 16 of them were nominated across the categories of new and revived musicals and plays as well as "Special Theatrical Event."

This has already been called--by the Producing establishment--the most successful B'way season ever. Compare that 39, by the way, to the 67 from what now seem the halcyon days of 1980-1981. If you can stomach that contrast, now imagine the triple-digit figures that were routine before the 1960s and 70s....Although, here's a thought--it's possible that more productions open outside of Broadway now (whether officially "off-b'way" or not) and that the aggregate of professional NYC theatrical productions in a season might still be over 100? In which case the Tonys would be excluding 2/3rds of that total...

As for The Case of Well... it's surprising to look back in the Obie archives and see it didn't win one of those either! (Only actress Jane Houdyshell was cited--and she probably will win the only Tony for the show as well.) So what do Lisa Kron and, more importantly, producer Elizabeth McCann think this morning? It was McCann who pushed ahead against the odds to bring Well to B'way, in no small part to seek this very imprimatur. (The conventional thinking always is that since so few plays make it to B'way, anyone that opens has a shot!) Unfortunately she couldn't even keep the show running long enough to benefit from the nominations. To make the irony even more bitter, though, the closing of Well probably functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: the Tony poobah's don't like to nominate shows that have closed. Remember, think like a producer: nominating a closed show sells no tickets to nothin'. It's better for your business to nominate something even not your show than something you liked better that's "failed." (After all what message does that send--the "Best Play" couldn't sell tickets??? Does not compute!)

That the committee saw fit to nominate Kron as Best Actress was a gesture, I suppose. (Especially in place of Julia Roberts.) But the fact that David Lindsay-Abaire's weeper "Rabbit Hole" was clearly selected as the token American to go up against the Brits & Micks seems clearly strategic. "Rabbit Hole" is running, has a couple of TV stars, and makes people cry. Better for the industry. But, as the man says in Chinatown, "bad for the grass."

[Okay, correction: As a reader quickly pointed out to me, Rabbit Hole has closed, too! MTC needed to make room in the Biltmore for their other nominee, Shining City. (Quite a comeback for MTC, btw. Nice mini-story there.)... So there goes my whole theory, I guess? Or does this make the Rabbit Hole selection even more questionable?]

One thing I love about the OBIE's is how it is so not stereotypically "experimental" and, thus, unpredictable. Where else could Fringe-maestro John Clancy share Directing honors with Mr Professional Daniel Sullivan? Sullivan may have lent his marketable sleekness to Rabbit Hole uptown, but also gave the Public's Brit-import of Stuff Happens a dose of the great American acting tradition.

Other notable OBIE's: Allen Moyer, the set designer bumped from Well in its pursuit of B'way gold; the electric Gary Wilmes of Red Light Winter; Michael Cumpsty's Hamlet; Dana Ivey in that downtown radical GB Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession; and Peter Francis James and Byron Jennings as those pathetic heroes of Stuff Happens, Powell and Blair.

OBIE named two Best Plays ("Achievement in Playwriting"): The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and The Lieutenant Of Inishmore. The runners-up ("Special Citation"): [title of show], In the Continuum, Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Eurydice...and Red Light Winter's Adam Rapp.

So I guess the OBIE and Pulitzer judges surprisingly saw eye to eye this year? At least they didn't feel obliged to genuflect for sub-par Durang. And at least they are able to include more worthy writers to balance out the overexposed Rapp and McDonagh.

2 comments:

Eric said...

Fine points, but one correction: "Rabbit Hole" is not currently running. It closed at the beginning of April and "Shining City," another Best Play nominee, has taken its spot at the Biltmore.

June said...

It's interesting that of the Best Leading Actress in a Play nominees, none of the shows are still running. (And in the Featured Actress category, just three of the five.)