Comedy of errors

This year's Tony nominations just seem plain odd

by Linda Winer

Newsday (MCT)

13 May 2009

Geoffrey Rush, Lauren Ambrose, center, and Andrea Martin star in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist comedy, "Exit the King," at Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, February 20, 2009. (Ari Mintz/Newsday/MCT) 

NEW YORK — Let’s be a little gentle with the nominators for this year’s Tony Awards.

With 43 productions, the most since the 1982-83 season, the rotating group of theater professionals — 26 people selected by the Tony administration committee — had to evaluate an extraordinary range of quantity and quality this year.

It seems fair that “Billy Elliot” has received 15 nominations, tying the record set in 2001 by “The Producers.” But it’s also madness that “Rock of Ages,” a doofus of a jukebox musical about ‘80s big-hair metal bands, got five nominations — stealing the best musical slot that saner heads would have given to the routine but competent “9 to 5.”

Here are some odds and ends at the end of an oddly remarkable Broadway season.

Timing is everything, after all. We scoff at producers who bunch up their openings in the spring, especially in the last weeks before the cutoff for Tony Awards eligibility. Surely, these guys don’t think the nominators are unable to remember quality plays and musicals that had limited runs in the fall. Right? Right?

I guess wrong. Almost nothing that opened before January was on the list of Tony Award nominations announced last week. The most shocking omission is Kristin Scott Thomas and everything else from Ian Rickson’s emotionally luscious production of “The Seagull.”

The actress, best known in this country as the handsome, unfaithful wife in “The English Patient,” made a glorious Broadway debut in Anton Chekhov’s moody rapture of Russian melancholy. And what about Carey Mulligan, as Nina? And Zoe Kazan’s Masha? They’ve all been crushed and forgotten in the stampede of spring frolics.

And where is Daniel Radcliffe, who quietly transfigured himself from Harry Potter, adorable boy wizard, to horrifically unstable teen stable boy in “Equus”? Not a mention. And how about Dianne Wiest and John Lithgow in Simon McBurney’s dizzying, hallucinatory revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”? Gone. Frank Langella’s omnivorous old-school grandeur as Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”? Not this season.

Considering the stunted memories around here, why would anyone open anything between today and, say, next March?

And the best play of the season is ... not at the Tonys. Why is “Ruined” not nominated for a Tony? Lynn Nottage’s shattering play about women in the brutal Congo war has already won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. How is this omission possible?

It is possible because “Ruined” is running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway theater, not at its Broadway venue, and thus, isn’t eligible to be declared the most important and satisfying play of the season. So when people watch the Tony telecast June 7 on CBS, they will be told that the “best play” is either Yasmina Reza’s dazzlingly performed but hardly profound “God of Carnage,” Horton Foote’s pleasantly old-fashioned “Dividing the Estate,” Neil LaBute’s atypically soft-edged “reasons to be pretty” or Moises Kaufman’s high-toned disease-of-the-week drama, “33 Variations.”

“Ruined” hasn’t been invited to the party thrown by the commercial theater in New York. How good a party can that really be?

Is there a sexier word for ensemble? Clearly, the people behind the Tonys don’t want to make a separate award for ensemble acting. Perhaps the word seems boring. Maybe our star-driven culture is supposed to prefer being able to identify “winners” as opposed to appreciating a production that works so beautifully as a whole that it seems wrong to single out one actor over another.

So here we are with competing multiple nominations in the same acting categories, which means that actors are elbowing out their fellow actors from the expertly wrought ensembles of “The Norman Conquests” and “God of Carnage.” This also means these companies are filling out slots that should be filled with accomplished individuals from many other shows.

By this, I mean Lauren Ambrose and Andrea Martin (and maybe even Susan Sarandon) in “Exit the King,” and Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane and John Goodman from the underrepresented and wonderful “Waiting for Godot.” On the other hand, if Tony had an ensemble category, “Godot,” “Mary Stuart” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” would fit nicely in there, too.

And the award for most repulsive marketing gimmick ...

What are they thinking? I’m sorry, but someone making decisions for “reasons to be pretty” has decided to contradict the whole point of Neil LaBute’s drama in a pathetic attempt to sell tickets in its desirable — and still elusive — demographics.

Audiences are asked to turn on their cell phones before the performance so they can rate themselves — and the person sitting next to them — on a scale of 1 to 10. The results are texted back at intermission and posted online.

“reasons to be pretty” is not my favorite drama by LaBute, a playwright whose dark and twisted work I much admire. But this one, you should know, explores the perils of judging people by their looks. The play’s press release calls the new marketing brainstorm an “unprecedented interactive” theater campaign. I can think of better descriptions for it — and they’re all ugly.

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