Broadway and Beyond: The Tonys Get Serious

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Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife

It's Tony Awards time (this Sunday on CBS at 8 p.m. ET), and that means time for the annual lamentations about the state of the Broadway theater. Most of the angst this spring has been directed at the dearth of straight plays, at least those with enough beef to legitimately compete for a Best Play award. Two of the four nominees this year (Anna in the Tropics and The Retreat From Moscow) closed months ago. And the favorite to win is I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s rather trumped-up monologue about an East German transvestite who recounts her life under both Nazism and Communism, which seems mainly the excuse for a bravura performance by Jefferson Mays.

Still, this is hardly the year to complain about a lack of seriousness on Broadway. Start with the fourth Tony nominee for Best Play: Frozen, a brooding three-character drama about a child molester and two women who relate to him in very different ways. Each of the three — the pedophile, the mother of a 10-year-old girl he has murdered, and a scientist who uses him as a subject for her research into the criminal mind — speak directly, and separately, to the audience, in that dreary minimalist mode of so many new plays. But Irish playwright Bryony Lavery breaks the formula by bringing the characters together for a few key confrontations, and the superb actors (Brian F. O’Byrne, Swoosie Kurtz and Laila Robbins) help keep our eyes transfixed on events almost too terrible to contemplate. The fact that this bleak and unsettling play transferred from off-Broadway to the land of Mamma Mia and The Lion King (where, even if it wins a Tony or two, it has slim chance of surviving) is a sign there’s at least some daring left on Broadway.

Even this season’s nominated musicals are not the usual load of high-kicking fluff. One of the four Best Musical contenders, Caroline, or Change, is somber meditation on race relations, focusing on a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1960s and his family’s black maid. The second-biggest nomination getter (after the musical Wicked) is Assassins, Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical about the killers or would-be killers of American Presidents. Even the new revival of Fiddler on the Roof has been reconceived in darker tones than many audience members (and critics) were prepared for.

And let’s not forget the shows that the Tony nominators ignored. I was happy to see Sixteen Wounded, Eliam Kraiem’s drama about a Jewish bakery owner in Amsterdam who befriends a Palestinian terrorist on the lam, make a stab at Broadway, even though it bombed. Though formulaic, I thought the play had potential when I saw it at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in early 2003. But it went badly awry on the road to Broadway, with some misguided rewriting, recasting of the lead role (Judd Hirsch replacing the more credible Martin Landau) and a set that divided the stage into unwieldy halves and dissipated the focus.

As for Prymate, the most hated play of the Broadway season, let's be charitable. An admittedly odd drama about a pair of scientific researchers fighting over a gorilla who has been taught to speak in sign language, it did just about everything it could to offend everyone (casting a black man, Andre DeShields, as the ape; staging an interspecies sex scene that ranks as one of the bad taste highlights of the new millennium). And, predictably, the critics hooted it out of town. But Mark Medoff’s play had some ideas, it packed a lot into its speedy 100 minutes, and I give it points for nerve.

The Tonys, meanwhile, can't pay tribute to the real Best Actress currently on Broadway — Laura Linney, in Sight Unseen, a Manhattan Theatre Club revival that arrived just a couple of weeks too late for Tony consideration. Who's doing their scheduling? Donald Margulies' 1992 play concerns a world-famous painter who pays a visit to an ex-girlfriend (Linney) now living in the English boondocks with her archeologist husband. Margulies' work (Dinner With Friends, Collected Stories) has always struck me as slick but rather pat. This play, however, has all sorts of intriguing tendrils, as relationships and backstory are unraveled slowly, in teasing scenes that jump back and forth in time. The cast of four is excellent, but Linney is a revelation. She's been a charmer in movies like Love Actually, and got a Tony nomination several years ago for The Crucible, but she has never been more incandescent or truthful, inhabiting every pore of a character whose wounds are opened up against her will. Let's hope the Tony nominators remember her a year from now.

And let's hope Broadway opens its arms to more of the serious but audience-pleasing drama playing just outside its doors. Exhibit A this spring is Intimate Apparel, a Roundabout Theater production that has been winning steady accolades (including the New York Drama Critics’ award for Best Play) since opening off Broadway in April. Set in New York City at the turn of the century, Lynn Nottage’s drama tells the story of a black seamstress (Viola Davis) who makes a living sewing fancy lingerie for rich society women. While patiently saving her money to open her own shop, she strikes up a correspondence with a laborer on the Panama Canal. He proposes marriage by letter, comes to New York to claim his bride, and proceeds to foul up her life. The play (first produced at California’s South Coast Rep) is almost painfully sad, yet feels alive with human warmth and American optimism. Nottage based it on the life of her grandmother; her achievement is to make it both a lovingly rendered family story and a fascinating and original slice of the American story. Watch for Broadway, and the Tonys, to discover this fine playwright soon.