With the 68th Annual Tony Awards set for Sunday night — and a number of categories too close to call, especially the race for Best Musical — it seems fitting to analyze another of the evening’s top categories, that of Best Play, with an eye to the new writing that’s emerged on New York’s most prestigious stages this year. In a year when thirty-something off-Broadway darling Annie Baker took home the Pulitzer for her unexpectedly poignant play The Flick, the year’s Broadway offerings — with one notable exception, itself omitted from the list of nominees — played it much safer, especially in terms of form. Baker’s Beckett-Pinter mumblecore masterpiece for the indie cinema age rocked the theatrical world by eliciting frequent walkouts due to the languorous, experimental nature of the piece and even prompting an explanation from Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwright Horizons (oh, how vindicated Sanford must feel now that his daring theatrical baby has taken home the top prize of the year).
On Broadway, however, there was to be no such ire-inducing drama (even last year featured minor controversy thanks to Catholic protesters at Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary). The plays nominated this year for the Best Play Tony in particular played it safe — each is an exercise in formal restraint, and one (Mothers and Sons) even takes place in real time in keeping with the Aristotelian unities — but were engaging nonetheless. James Lapine’s Act One portrayed the rise of playwright Moss Hart as a theatrical force to be reckoned with, while Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way charted the trajectory of LBJ’s presidency. Mothers and Sons pitted a formidably icy mother against the newly-married lover of her late gay son (who died from AIDS), while Casa Valentina, perhaps the most daring in terms its subject matter, followed a weekend in the lives of a (mostly) heterosexual transvestite enclave in the Catskills (based on a real place), where men went to pass as women. The last nominee, Outside Mullingar, sought to capture the difficulty of love in middle age between two plain stuck-in-their-ways Irish farmers.
If none stands out particularly, it’s because they’re all fairly by-the-books entries in a Broadway season that encouraged sturdy, well-made plays. The nominating committee, which, due to the vote margin, expanded the number of nominees in the category from the usual four to five in accordance with new rules this year, reportedly “loathed” (according to The New York Post) the season’s most daring entry this year, the star-studded production of The Realistic Joneses, which marked veteran off-Broadway playwright Will Eno‘s Broadway debut. In his late 40s, Eno, had he been nominated, would have been the youngest of the pack.
As it stands, this year’s five nominees are all white men between the ages of 59 (Harvey Fierstein) and 75 (Terrence McNally). This lack of diversity comes as no surprise. There have only been two female winners in this category — Yasmina Reza, who won for Art in 1998 and again for God of Carnage in 2009, and Wendy Wasserstein, who won for The Heidi Chronicles in 1989. Looking for non-white winners yields similarly disheartening results. August Wilson is the sole African-American winner for Best Play, having won for Fences in 1987, and David Henry Hwang is the only Asian winner, having taken home top honors for M. Butterfly the next year.
This year is also the first year in more than a decade with no nominee for Best Play making his or her Broadway debut. In most of the last ten years, writers treading the Broadway boards for the first time have been in the majority — or there has been at least an even split between veterans and newcomers to the scene. This year, each nominated playwright has either won at least two Tony Awards for writing or has (at the very least — gasp!) won a Pulitzer Prize. With no disrespect to the nominated writers, the narrow demographic of the race as a whole only serves to highlight the increasingly disparate gap between off-Broadway’s thriving non-profit theatre companies and commercial Broadway’s dearth of challenging, formally daring, intelligent non-musical offerings.
With the weight of its historical subject matter in tow, and having already received the Outer Critics Circle Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and Drama League Award, All the Way has emerged as a frontrunner over the past few weeks, but Act One, which will appeal to voters as a paean to theatre, is a dark horse that ought not be counted out of the race. Though Joneses would have been my personal pick were it nominated, my pick of the chosen nominees is Outside Mullingar, which, despite its humble scope, managed to pack a lasting emotional wallop. Especially thanks to an anchoring lead performance from Debra Messing (sporting, to my untrained ear, a credible Irish accent), Shanley’s romantic comedy deserves to be read by those who missed its production earlier this year.
Below, we give additional facts and tidbits about the nominated Best Plays that represent both the achievements of and the limits of the commercial American theatre as represented on the Great, Decidedly White Way.
ACT ONE by James Lapine
Production History: Lincoln Center Theater (world premiere, March-July 2014).
James Lapine’s Past Awards: Lapine has won three Tonys as a writer, for writing the books of the musicals Into the Woods (1988), Falsettos (1992), and Passion (1994); he also won the Pulitzer (with Stephen Sondheim) for writing the book for Sunday in the Park with George in 1985.
Awards and Nominations This Season for Act One: Nominated for Outer Critics Circle Award.
Based On: Moss Hart’s classic memoir of the same name, first published in 1959.
The Cast: Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, and Andrea Martin lead a cast of 22 that takes on over thirty roles. Shalhoub, nominated in the Best Actor category, plays three major roles, including Moss Hart as an older man, Moss’s father, and George S. Kaufman. Other notable characters making appearances include Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, and Langston Hughes.
Exeunt‘s take: Lapine’s sprawling play, which tracks playwright Moss Hart’s trajectory from his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn through to his Broadway debut with Once in a Lifetime, is full of charm and certain to inspire a sense of recognition amongst theatrically-inclined audiences who romanticize Hart’s career as a playwright and the golden days of Broadway. In addition, it’s smart and swift-moving as directed by the playwright and played across Beowulf Boritt’s massive rotating set. If the play is occasionally heavy on narration and might try the patience of Hart neophytes at nearly three hours, its charms outweigh its detractions.
Best Line: “Antoinette Perry cannot act. I don’t understand her appeal.” (Dore; Act II, Scene 1).
ALL THE WAY by Robert Schenkkan
Production History: Commercial production (February-June 2014), original produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (world premiere, July-November 2012, with Jack Willis as LBJ) and A.R.T. (September-October 2013, with Bryan Cranston).
Robert Schenkkan’s Past Awards: Schenkkan’s play The Kentucky Cycle was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 1994; the same play won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.
Awards and Nominations This Season for All the Way: Won Outer Critics Circle Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and Drama League Award.
Based On: President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and win reelection in the same year.
The Cast: Bryan Cranston as LBJ leads an ensemble cast that also includes John McMartin, Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird, Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, and Roslyn Ruff as Coretta Scott King. All in all, twenty actors take on 49 roles.
Exeunt‘s take: “The complicated fight for Civil Rights propels Robert Schenkkan’s historical-political drama, All the Way. … The wheeling-dealing Capitol Hill machinations here have, at the play’s best moments, the heat of Frank Underwood’s dirty dealings on Netflix’s House of Cards. It’s only in the play’s quieter moments, when flashes of ‘the real Johnson’ emerge, that we wish there was something more here than there is. In spite of this, there’s a value in the ‘living history’ of the play’s events that ought to inspire a greater knowledge of history – and a new discussion of the struggles of the past – both in audiences old enough to have lived through the 1960s America depicted and those born since.” Read the full review here.
Best Line: “When you go to sell a horse, you don’t start by talking about it bein’ blind in one eye and got the heaves.” (LBJ; Act I).
CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein
Production History: Manhattan Theatre Club (world premiere, April-June 2014).
Harvey Fierstein’s Past Awards: Fierstein has won two Tony Awards as a writer, for Best Play for Torch Song Trilogy (1983) and for writing the book for the musical La Cage aux Folles (1984). He’s also won two Tonys for acting, for Leading Actor in a Play for Torch Song Trilogy in 1983 and for Leading Actor in a Musical in 2003 for Hairspray.
Awards and Nominations This Season for Casa Valentina: Nominated for Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama League Award.
Based On: Casa Susana, a book edited by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope that highlights of a New Jersey house that served as refuge for an underground community of (mostly heterosexual) cross-dressers.
The Cast: An ensemble cast of nine, including Patrick Page as Valentina and Reed Birney as Charlotte, is rounded out by veteran actor John Cullum, 2013 Tony winner Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, and Mare Winningham.
Exeunt‘s take: “There’s much warmth and humor, but only so much depth, in Harvey Fierstein’s entertaining new play, Casa Valentina… [Casa] bubbles on the surface thanks to the playwright’s signature wit but ultimately fails to track its characters’ journeys satisfactorily as it nears it conclusion. … Though, in the play’s final moments, we really come to understand these heterosexual men’s fascination — compulsion, even — to dress up as women and attempt to “pass” in society, this exploration is oddly lacking from much of the play’s first three-quarters, where the situation is taken for granted rather than exploited for its myriad of possibilities.” Read the full review here.
Best Line: “I once had a male form. I filled it out and sent it back.” (Bessie; Act I, Scene Five).
MOTHERS AND SONS by Terrence McNally
Production History: Commercial production (began February 2014, open-ended run), began at Bucks County Playhouse (June 2013).
Terrence McNally’s Past Awards: McNally has won four Tony Awards as a writer, for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1998), and for Best Play for Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) and Master Class (1996).
Awards and Nominations This Season for Mothers and Sons: Nominated for Drama League Award.
Based On: Mothers and Sons is an original play that serves as a follow-up to some of the events of McNally’s 1990 television drama Andre’s Mother.
The Cast: Tyne Daly as Katharine leads a finely-tuned ensemble of four that also includes Frederick Weller, Bobby Steggert, and Grayson Taylor.
Exeunt‘s take: “The looming shadow of the AIDS crisis hangs over Terrence McNally’s latest play, Mothers and Sons. … As emotions bubble over in the play’s second half, McNally’s talents buckle under the weight of the marks he hopes to hit along the way. There are several beautiful monologues, but a few of them feel somehow unearned within the context of the plot, existing more to tick off McNally’s ideological bullet points than to serve his characters. … Flaws and all, Mothers and Sons packs quite a punch.” Read the full review here.
Best Line: “We’re raising Bud to be gay. That’s our only expectation for him. God forbid we should let him turn out the way he wants to be.” (Will).
OUTSIDE MULLINGAR by John Patrick Shanley
Production History: Manhattan Theatre Club (world premiere, Jan-March 2014).
John Patrick Shanley’s Past Awards: Shanley won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer for Doubt in 2005.
Awards and Nominations This Season for Outside Mullingar: Nominated for Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award.
Based On: Outside Mullingar is an original play.
The Cast: Debra Messing and Brían F. O’Byrne, as an unlikely pair of possible lovers, lead a four-person cast that also includes Dearbhla Molloy and Peter Maloney as their respective parents.
Exeunt‘s take: A tender-hearted romance of two lost souls almost past their prime, Outside Mullingar is full of rich language and deeply human themes that are woven artfully into the texture of the piece as a whole. Focusing, on its surface, on Anthony’s inheritance of his father’s farm, the play’s fixation on land becomes a metaphor for interpersonal relationships in unexpectedly poignant ways. If Shanley’s attempts at writing in an “authentic” Irish voice occasionally feel forced, his intentions are clearly rooted in dramatic truth, the crux of which is highlighted by Messing’s rich performance, which expertly bridges the worlds of comedic and dramatic acting.
Best Line: “I hate the Bible. They should call it the book of awful stories.” (Rosemary; Act I, Scene 5).
Special thanks to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts‘s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive for access to Outside Mullingar for the purposes of this piece.
Pictured in the image above are Tony Shalhoub in Act One (Photo: Joan Marcus); Bryan Cranston in All the Way (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva); Patrick Page in Casa Valentina (Photo: Matthew Murphy); Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons (Photo: Joan Marcus); Debra Messing in Outside Mullingar (Photo: Joan Marcus).