Saturday, June 7, 2008

My Tony picks - the plays

I didn't have a chance to see as many of the Tony-nominated plays this year. I especially wish I'd made it to Boeing-Boeing and The Seafarer. In fact, I didn't see any of the nominees in the category of Best Performance by a Featured Actor, so no picks there. Still, I saw the most memorable one - August: Osage County, and several others that I enjoyed very much - Thurgood, Cyrano and The 39 Steps (in Boston).

* denotes a show I didn't see.

Best Play
August: Osage County
Rock 'n' Roll

The 39 Steps

*The Seafarer

A family patriarch disappears and three daughters return home to deal with their cancer-stricken, pill-popping mother. You wouldn't think this would be the stuff of comedy or razor-sharp social satire, but in the hands of playwright Tracy Letts, it is all that and more. Over the course of 3 1/2 hours, August: Osage County, this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, manages to be sidesplittingly funny as well as achingly sad. If you've ever been part of a family, you'll find something that will resonate. I can't think of another show I've seen with so many unforgettable performances, so much witty, insightful dialog, so much real emotion. August: Osage County is an immensely entertaining work and I'm honored to have seen the play, from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with its original cast, including the playwright's father, the late Dennis Letts.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play
Laurence Fishburne Thurgood
Rufus Sewell Rock 'n' Roll
Patrick Stewart Macbeth
*Mark Rylance Boeing-Boeing

This was the first time I'd seen a one-person show in the theatre, and I wondered whether 90 minutes of one actor alone on stage would hold my interest. Well, he did. I don't know if it was my interest in the subject matter or my great vantage point on the aisle in the third row, but Laurence Fishburne totally held my interest. I just thought his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, the great civil-rights lawyer and the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice, was mesmerizing. It captivated me, engaged me in a way that the other two nominated performances I saw simply failed to do. In Fishburne's hands, Marshall is a terrific storyteller and a commanding presence. When Fishburne sat in a chair at the edge of the stage, looking out into the audience, I felt like he was looking right at me, and I couldn't take my eyes off of him.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Deanna Dunagan August: Osage County
Amy Morton August: Osage County
Kate Fleetwood Macbeth
*S. Epatha Merkerson Come Back, Little Sheba
*Eve Best The Homecoming

I've been torn between Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton, but I finally decided that the Tony belongs to Dunagan, as the matriarch of the Weston clan. I loved Amy Morton's brilliant, honest portrayal of a woman trying to balance the roles of mother, daughter and wife under the most stressful circumstances. But Dunagan is the character everyone else plays off of. Violet Weston is judgmental, overly critical, and desperately afraid of being abandoned. And her daughters are desperately afraid of having to deal with her. From the moment Dunagan enters, still in her pajamas, her walk off-kilter, her speech slurred, her face twisted into a scowl, she's remarkable. Not only does she have mouth cancer, but almost everything that comes out of her mouth is acerbic, vindictive and cruel. She's created an unforgettable portrait of a sick, addicted, bitter, miserable, lonely woman.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play
Rondi Reed August: Osage County
Sinead Cusack Rock 'n' Roll
*Mary McCormack Boeing-Boeing
*Laurie Metcalf November
*Martha Plimpton Top Girls

One of my favorite parts of August: Osage County is the banter at the beginning of Act I between Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken, played by Rondi Reed, and her husband Charlie, played by Francis Guinan. Reed was hilarious, and it was my first inkling that August: Osage County was going to take some unexpected twists and turns with my emotions. There are performances that fade over time and ones that stay with you, and this one definitely made a lasting impression. All I have to do is pick up my copy of the play, turn to page 20, and read the lines of dialog where Mattie Fae asks Charlie to feel the sweat dripping down her back. I can just picture the two of them on that couch, and I start to laugh.

Best Direction of a Play
Maria Aitken The 39 Steps (Boston)
Anna D. Shapiro August: Osage County
*Matthew Warchus Boeing-Boeing
*Conor McPherson The Seafarer

I don't imagine you see many 3 1/2-hour, three-act plays on Broadway, or elsewhere, these days. It's a mammoth undertaking for everyone involved. There's a lot going on in August: Osage County's massive three-story set. Sometimes, things are happening in different parts of the house at the same time. Director Anna D. Shapiro deserves a heap of credit for making all of the action, and the large, talented ensemble cast, come together on stage so perfectly.

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Todd Rosenthal August: Osage County
Anthony Ward Macbeth
Peter McKintosh The 39 Steps (in Boston)
*Scott Pask Les Liaisons Dangereuses

As soon as I walked into the Imperial Theatre and got a look at the set of August: Osage County, I was captivated. It was the most fascinating set I'd ever seen on a stage - the interior of a three-story house crammed with shabby furniture, taped-up windows and books piled up everywhere. It just looked so lived-in, so real. What a perfect setting for the messy events that were about to unfold. I can't explain it exactly, but it just looked like the kind of house this family would have grown up in. And the set us used so well - your eyes are drawn everywhere. I especially loved the third floor and how it's used by characters as kind of a quiet sanctuary.

Best Costume Design of a Play
Gregory Gale Cyrano de Bergerac
Peter McKintosh The 39 Steps (Boston)
*Katrina Lindsay Les Liaisons Dangereuses
*Rob Howell Boeing-Boeing

I really loved Gregory Gale's lavish period costumes for Cyrano. But I think what Peter McKintosh achieved with The 39 Steps was more interesting and a greater achievement. With very quick costume changes, he enabled two actors, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, to play hundreds of roles. They wore many hats, literally and figuratively. This is such a clever, inspired, inventive show, and the costume design is a part of it.

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