Gearing up for the Tonys
Stoppard rocks, Mamet skewers and Twain returns from the grave.
David Mamet's political satire stars two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane as a U.S. President who will do almost anything to get re-elected. (Scott Landis / AP)
For the last five years, at least two of the four best play nominees began life in London and this season should be no exception. Last year, Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" won a record-breaking seven Tonys. This year the knighted playwright returned with "Rock 'n' Roll," a rumination on life in London as seen through the eyes of an expatriate Czech academic. This well-reviewed production starred Rufus Sewell in his Olivier Award-winning role.
Irish playwright Conor McPherson could be a contender again two years after his urbane drama "Shining City" competed. "The Seafarer" is a brooding tale of woe that features Olivier champ Jim Norton as a blind man and David Morse as his blind, drunk brother.
The third of the British imports, Patrick Barlow's adaptation of "The 39 Steps," won last year's Olivier for best comedy. However, this screen-to-stage version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, with a frantic foursome playing all the characters, could have a hard time being taken seriously by Tony voters, who tend to favor dramas in this race.
Flying the American flag is actor-turned-playwright Tracy Letts making his Broadway debut with the epic family drama "August: Osage County." This transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre met with critical acclaim, reigned over many Top 10 lists, and its large cast of stage vets could well dominate the acting races.
After two Tony nods in the 1980s for "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Speed the Plow," David Mamet seems overdue for recognition. His wry political satire "November" stars two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane as a U.S. President who will do almost anything to get reelected while Emmy favorite Laurie Metcalf is his dumbstruck speechwriter.
Almost 20 years after "A Few Good Men," TV and movie scribe Aaron Sorkin returned to the Rialto with "The Farnsworth Invention." While this fanciful look at the birth of television failed to win over critics or audiences, it may still figure in a few low-rung Tony races and see future life as a movie.
Apparently, Mark Twain was quite serious when he said: "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Nearly a century after taking his last breath, that immortal wag could well be in the running for his first Tony with the premiere of his once-lost play titled, curiously, "Is He Dead?" This farce found favor with the critics, who raved especially about Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz in yet another high-energy, low-brow performance.
The only new play yet to open is "Thurgood," George Stevens Jr.'s one-man show about the late Supreme Court justice starring Tony winner Laurence Fishburne.
With two nonprofit theater companies now in residence on Broadway, loads of old plays are getting new productions that appeal to their graying subscription audiences. These proven commodities with limited runs tend to attract stars hoping for Tony recognition.
Last summer, the Roundabout kicked off the season with a stylish remounting of John Van Druten's 1940 comedy of manners "Old Acquaintance" with Tony winner Harriet Harris and Margaret Colin in fine form as two friends who have a falling out over a man, among many other things.
The Roundabout also revisited "The Ritz," Terrence McNally's 1975 farce set in a gay bathhouse that won grand slammer Rita Moreno her Tony. In this uneven revival, the one bright spot was Rosie Perez, who hit all the wrong notes as failed lounge singer Googie Gomez.
Even less successful was the Roundabout's revival of that Shaw classic, "Pygmalion." In her Broadway debut, Claire Danes received decidedly mixed notices as Eliza Doolittle, while Tony winners Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines fared slightly better.
However, another screen beauty, Jennifer Garner, shone as the object of two-time Tony winner Kevin Kline's affection in "Cyrano de Bergerac," while one of last year's best actress nominees, Eve Best, stood out as the only woman in the testosterone-heavy 40th anniversary production of Harold Pinter's Tony-winning "The Homecoming."
A pair of 1950s classics returned with non-traditional casting. Anika Noni Rose could become the first woman to win a Tony for her work as Maggie in Tennesse Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," while Emmy winner S. Epatha Merkerson earned good reviews for her portrayal of the beleaguered wife of an alcoholic in Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of William Inge's"Come Back, Little Sheba." Still to come is "The Country Girl" with Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand headlining Clifford Odets' 1950 domestic drama. (The respective film versions of these plays earned Elizabeth Taylor her second Oscar nom; three-time Tony winner Shirley Booth her only Oscar; and Grace Kelly a first win for her second Oscar nod.)
Shakespearean shows last competed in this category in 2004 when Lincoln Center Theater's sprawling production of "Henry IV" triumphed over "King Lear," among others. Lincoln Center Theater could be back this year with its well-received remounting of the rarely seen "Cymbeline," starring Tony nominee Martha Plimpton and Jonathan Cake. However, if there is only room for one of the Bard's works, it will be "Macbeth," which opens at month's end with Patrick Stewart reprising his Olivier-nominated performance.