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Tony Maunderings 2015 — Part Three: The Plays

06CURIOUS-slide-GSUI-jumboPredicting Tony winners for plays will be more intuitive this year than in others.

By depending on scuttlebutt and things I’ve heard from theatergoers, including those on the next bar stool, I think I can navigate through the 2015 nominees in the play categories. I admit to a lesser claim to authority because I saw only half of the plays, and some of them in London and cannot compare performances with the same detail I can write about musicals. Thanks to friends, press reps, and undisciplined profligacy, I saw most of them this year.

Oddly, the plays I chose to see did not garner nominations, strange considering the brilliance of Rosemary Harris, Firdous Bamji, and Romola Garai in “Indian Ink,” Ewan McGregor’s production saving performance in “The Real Thing,” and Glenn Close and Lindsay Duncan in “A Delicate Balance.” Duncan, through unnominated, remains my choice for Best Supporting Actress in a Play, no matter what Tony voters say. Weaving intelligence and insight into a drunken stupor and keeping it all attractive is a grand feat, and Duncan accomplished it with aplomb.

Finances forbid my usual number of excursions to Broadway. I regret missing Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Alessandro Nivola in “The Elephant Man” and the chance to see Helen Mirren for a third time as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Audience.” I was thrilled to see Richard McCabe nominated with Mirren for his warm and funny portrayal of Britiis Prime Minister Harold Wilson. If I were a billionaire or had a grant, nothing, not even wild elephants (or wild elephant men) could induce me to pay for a ticket to see anything by Lisa D’Amour, Tony nominations or not.

For what it’s worth, here is commentary on the plays I did see and some educated opinions about the Tony prospects of the ones I did not.

 

PLAYS

 

Best Play: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Disgraced, Hand to God, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 — Any time the difference between literature and theater is shown with impeccable clarity, a wonder occurs.

In the novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” author Mark Haddon chronicles the physical and psychological journey of an autistic teenage boy and acquaints you with the mystery and extent of the lad’s afflictipn while engrossing you with a story about a young man who want to be shed of a Bristol neighbor’s horrible accusation he killed her dog and goes on a trek to find solace with his mother, whom he believed to be dead, in London.

Haddon’s book is a wonderful, witty read, but it is narrated in a standard fictional form. The storytelling may be nuanced and peppered with inside information about autism, but it is direct.

In turning “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” to play for Britain’s praiseworthy National Theatre, writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott brought theatrical expertise into the mix. Their production of “Curious Incident” stand with other National Theatre adaptations of beloved children’s stories — “War Horse,” “Coram Boy” –is a beacon of playcraft and theatrical creativity.

You share the boy’s journey as well as his angst. The better you know the British Rail system, Bristol’s position on the English landscape, the London tube, and Paddington’s position in London geography, the richer the experience Stevens and Elliott guide becomes. Many things on stage are shown in a maplike grid that approximates the boy’s thought process as he wends his way from a safe home with his father in Bristol to the riskier world of his mother in London. Along the way, you see how autism affects the boy and how, in some ways, it adds to his success in the quest. “Curious Incident” is alternatively cheering and heartbreaking. Haddon, Stevens, and Elliott all understand and elicit its intrinsic dramatics. But the most piercing and gutwrenching moment is saved for the end when the boy, Christopher Boone, asks his psychologist about his future.

On all levels, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a monumental achievement that moves theater and storytelling forward. Best of all, it earns accolades for its artistic brilliance while remaining entertaining throughout. If someone doesn’t appreciate or care a jot about theatrical savvy, he or she can revel in intelligent, affecting narration.

Christopher’s meeting with the kind neighbor who tends to him and tells him his mother is alive, is amazing touching. As Christopher embarks on his Londonward trek, we want to care for him as parentally as the neighbor does. Each challenge or buffet stirs some emotion in us, especially when Christopher encounters particularly dense police officers.

Haddon thought of everything, Stevens found a way to cram it all into neat, accessible, moving play, and Elliott, who also directed “War Horse” brings all to vibrant life.

“Disgraced,” for all of its power, “Hand to God” for all of its madness with a method in it, and ‘Wolf Hall” for all of its royal pageantry, may be in the same award category, but they are not in the same league as “Curious Incident” because they remain well-conceived, well-presented plays while “Curious Incident” is a theatrical joy, that amalgam of arts — literary, scenic, and theatrical — that is rare and exhilarating while rooted to the basics of the story and situations at hand.

“Disgraced” illustrated cultural differences in ways that slap you into consciousness. Ayad Akhtar exposes ideas almost engrained in his protagonist’s DNA and how they influence him even as he believes he is Westernized and leads a secular, more realistic life than his relatives and ancestors who stay so rooted in religion, traditional philosophy, and umbrage about how they are regarded in a West to which they chose to come and doesn’t want the changes they feel entitled to impose.

Akhtar reinforces fundamental schisms between the Muslim and Western minds. His work is eerie as his lead character sinks more deeply into his culture’s attitude towards women and veers further from the common sense attitude he holds as “Disgraced” begins.

Akhtar provided one of the season’s most thought-provoking, eye-opening plays. He touches many raw nerves, including some we in America have anesthetized in the name of ecumenicalism and brotherhood. “Disgraced” unfortunately upholds a date or olive does not far too distant from its tree. It is one story among hundreds of thousands, but Akhtar presents it as a cautionary tale. If his assimilated, relatively happy, contentedly successful attorney of a lead character can snap, what is the condition of someone who hold ancient notions about a man’s right in marriage, or the right to proselytize beyond asking a simple question an accepting the answer you get, going to do in a tense situation?

“Wolf Hall” knows its business well, and Hilary Mantel, writing for the theater with Michael Poulton, is capitalizing nicely on her ability to bring Henry VIII’s volatile court to life in print, on television, and on stage.

Fans of historical drama and of intrigue will equally enjoy Mantel’s deft way of showing the life and customs of one of England’s most fascinating monarchs, one of the few that can be recognized by the average bloke in our illiterate, culture-ignoring times.

“Wolf Hall” is an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t have the sheen of newness “Curious incident” or the topical heft “Disgraced” does.

“Hand to God” is an entity until itself. God anoints an everyday crunk to speak for Him on today’s Earth, and the Devil wants his due. Wit and creativity certainly infuse Robert Askins’s play and script. But all seems a bit precious. “Hand to God,” being a novelty, employing puppets, and being nastily funny, could attract the trendier of the Tony voters, the ones who want theater to be different for different’s sake. In a year of bland plays or period soap operas like “Wolf Hall,” I might agree. Give the unusual, the truly creative, its prize.

“Hand to God” may have its wit and its savage sarcasm. What it misses is humanity. It doesn’t put a mirror up to the world. It remains a good idea handled with skill. It earns its praise and attention.

It should not earn a prize, not when “Curious Incident” brims with so much humanity and shows the reality within the romance of the human spirit without having to go the handy, facile availability of God, Satan, or puppets to do it.

If “Hand to God” or “Fun Home” win Best Play or Best Musical, theater will have received a small but subtle wound that says pandering to modern whatchmajigism outweighs the timeless and beautifully crafted, replacing it with currently popular twaddle, however accomplished or well-done.

           Prediction: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Preference: The Same

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY: Geneva Carr in “Hand to God;” Helen Mirren in “The Audience;” Elisabeth Moss in “The Heidi Chronicles;” Carey Mulligan in “Skylight;” Ruth Wilson in “Constellations” — For the first time in ages, I am at a desperate loss to parse through these nominations. I only saw two of the performances in person, and one of them in London, although twice, and one, Mulligan’s, on a video at a movie theater that brings British theater stateside.

I kick myself for not seeing Moss, mainly because I enjoyed “The Heidi Chronicles” so much in 1999, I wanted to experience it again. Seeing Rosie Harris in “Indian Ink” and Glenn Close in “A Delicate Balance” trumped “Constellations” and “the next time” I kept promising myself never arrived.

Of the three I did not see in person, Mulligan has the best chance of receiving the Tony, but I was lucky enough to see the actress will most likely take home the award.

Helen Mirren is a wonder in “The Audience.” Do not for a moment think she relaxes at the potency that Queen Elizabeth II brings to any theatrical representation of her life.

NealBoxMirren earned an Oscar playing England’s beloved queen. She will probably receive a Tony as well. There is much acting craft in Mirren’s affectionate portrayal of Betty Windsor. She assumes different postures, different voices, and different tricks of expression as she plays Elizabeth II at various ages.

She has the queen respond to her auditor, so the tension between Mirren and Judith Ivey’s Margaret Thatcher is much greater than the casual approach between Mirren and Richard McCabe’s delectably loveable Harold Wilson.

“The Audience” is written, by Peter Morgan who also wrote the screenplay for “The Queen.” Mirren, like any actress, must maximize her lines within her character, and she does.

That the actress negotiates each performance without breaking a sweat or showing signs of effort and a testament to her Thespian skill and to the poise that would be trained into Elizabeth II.

Even more than Mulligan, Geneva Carr could surprise by being handed the Tony. Her performance is shrewd and astute and requires some invention Mirren’s doesn’t.

             Prediction: Helen Mirren Preference: Helen Mirren

 

 

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY: Steven Boyer in “Hand to God;” Bradley Cooper in “The Elephant Man;” Ben Miles in “Wolf Hall;” Bill Nighy in “Skylight;” Alex Sharp in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” — Look at this dynamic, three relatively unknown actors going against current movie superstar Bradley Cooper and the august stage and film veteran, Bill Nighy.

Again, I am at a loss, I saw two of these performances in person, one on video, and two not at all. Instinct tells me the Tony folks might want to give luster to the their awards by honoring Cooper, one of the few household names among the nomination pack. From what I hear, Cooper would be a legitimate choice. He and the production of “The Elephant Man” have been roundly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.

Few actors are overlooked for award nominations while playing Henry VIII, but except for Charles Laughton in 1933, I can’t think of any actor who has been given a prize for playing the mighty Tudor.

Miles will follow suit, If Cooper’s celebrity is not enough to catapult him forward, Nighy’s honesty and humanity in “Skylight” speaks for him taking the award, and Boyer has the role of the year in terms of inviting awards.

Alex Sharp, who garners so much empathy as Christopher in “Curious Incident,” should also be a major contender, but his bid might get lost among that of the more recognized contenders and Boyer’s ingenuous flash.

This may be a competition beyond my ken to call.

But when did a little thing like total ignorance and recklessness stop me?

I will go out on some limbs.

The dexterity, manual and mental, Boyer displays in “Hand to God” suggests he may be a fan or vote favorite. Sharp, on the other hand, appeals to the heart and Nighy to both the emotions and the intellect.

I can only go with gut here.

               Prediction: Steven Boyer Preference: Alex Sharp

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY: Annaleigh Ashford in “You Can’t Take It With You;” Patricia Clarkson in “The Elephant Man;” Lydia Leonard in “Wolf Hall;” Sarah Stiles in “Hand to God;” Julie White in “Airline Highway” — instinct is one thing. This time I’m going by the seat of my pants. Don’t believe a word I say. I’m flying blind and informed only by Broadway wag hearsay. Especially since I’ve convinced Lindsay Duncan should be taking home this award.

Carole Shelley was given a 1979 Tony for Best Actress as the primary female character in “The Elephant Man.” As much as I admire Patricia Clarkson’s work — She was a gem in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Connecting Doors” — I have not heard one word saying she will receive this year’s Tony.

Buzz has centered about Ashford and Stiles, although Leonard has also been praised. White, a Tony recipient in 2007, barely gets picked up by the radar.

Hmmmm.

           Prediction: Sarah Stiles Preference: Lindsay Duncan

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY: Matthew Beard in “Skylight;” K. Todd Freeman in “Airline Highway;” Richard McCabe in “The Audience.” Alessandro Nivola in “The Elephant Man;” Nathaniel Parker in “Wolf Hall;” Micah Stock in “It’s Only a Play” — Tony nominated six! How generous!

Matthew Beard, as the son affected by his mother’s relationship, is an interesting choice. I didn’t consider him while watching “Skylight” on video, but I think he’s a genuine contender (in addition to being a nominee).

My prejudice goes to Richard McCabe, to whom I gave the Helen and Morris Zoren Award for International Theater in 2013. McCabe is darling as an affectionate, out-of-his-depth Wilson, a prime minister who hates the pomp of the palace and the infighting of Parliament.

McCabe is funny and wins you over as completely as Wilson captivated the queen. There’s great human feeling to his performance, and you can see how much he likes and relaxes in front of Her Majesty.

Nivola has to be taken seriously. He is a fine actor who rarely garners attention for his consistently excellent work.

Word on the Rialto has been slight about Freeman, Parker, or Stock, so I’m going to interpret that as them being unlikely to earn the Tony.

             Prediction: Alessandro Nivola Preference: Richard McCabe

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY: Stephen Daldry for “Skylight;” Marianne Elliott for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time;” Scott Ellis for “You Can’t Take It With You;” Jeremy Herrin for “Wolf Hall;” Moritz von Stuelpnagel for “Hand to God” — If justice prevails, Marianne Elliott must receive a Tony for directing “Curious Incident” for the complexity and felicity of her work. He made Steven’s play move at a wonderful pace while keeping it moving emotionally.

Von Stuelpnagel could sneak in a trendsetter’s victory. Daldry also has a remote shot.

                 Prediction: Marianne Elliott Preference: Marianne Elliott
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