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THEATER CRITIC

Buried in Monday's announcement of the 2010 Pulitzer winners was the news that the board that, in effect, decides these matters had been up to its old tricks with the drama award. In honoring "Next to Normal," Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's musical about a household grappling with a mother's mental illness, the mandarins at Columbia University's journalism school, where the prizes are administrated, ignored the advice of its drama jury in favor of its own sentiments.

It's a familiar story, but as chairman of this year's jury -- which also included Duke University drama professor John Clum, playwright Nilo Cruz, former chief theater critic of Variety David Rooney and Chicago Sun-Times theater and dance critic Hedy Weiss -- I can't help being ticked off. Two points, in particular, rankle: the blinkered New York mentality and the failure to appreciate new directions in playwriting. The board had an opportunity to correct these long-standing shortcomings, and it blew it.

In an era in which important new dramatic works rarely get their start in New York, the board's geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away is especially disheartening. Does anyone really believe that "Next to Normal" would have been chosen had it been submitted when it was at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.?

The last time the Pulitzer bigwigs shook their collective head at the recommendations of the drama jury was in 2007, when David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" won over its less heralded rivals. In 2006, the board decided not to bestow any award on a play. This nuclear option has occurred with more frequency for drama than it has for fiction, poetry and music. In fact, the number of drama snubs (15) equals the total of snubs for novel/fiction (10), poetry (1) and music (4), if you start counting from when the categories were inaugurated.

The new guard

Perhaps I should just be grateful for the board's magnanimity in bestowing a drama prize at all. But though I'm not at liberty to disclose anything about our private deliberations, I haven't signed a gag order as a theater critic. I'll grant you it's a strange job, but what's the point of having it if you can't advocate for finalists as talented as Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Kristoffer Diaz's "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" and Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play"?

These works represent the new guard of American playwriting. And their authors -- diverse in background and courageous in style -- are discovering fresh ways of connecting politics and poetry onstage. They take their place with writers such as Christopher Shinn, Will Eno, Young Jean Lee and Tarell Alvin McCraney, to name just a few of those contemporary dramatists who care about theater as an art rather than as an expensive diversion.

Historically, the Pulitzer for drama has never been at the forefront of theatrical breakthroughs. The board's inability to see that the quality of a play has less to do with content than how that content is dramatically expressed has led to some head-scratchers over the years. How Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" won over John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" remains a mystery to me, but then I wouldn't be tempted to purchase a season subscription featuring revivals of such past winners as Donald L. Coburn's "The Gin Game" and David Auburn's "Proof" either.

The last play to win the Pulitzer before receiving a New York production was "Anna in the Tropics" in 2003, written by my fellow jury member Cruz and first produced at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Fla. For the most part, plays that manage to win before opening in New York (Horton Foote's "The Young Man From Atlanta," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches") arrive at the Pulitzer office with an assured pedigree.

Beyond relative obscurity in two cases, our nominations had to overcome the fact that they were produced either far from New York or at an untimely point in the Broadway season. "The Elaborate Entrance" had its world premiere at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, "Bengal Tiger" debuted at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City and "In the Next Room" opened at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre before receiving a Lincoln Center Theater production on Broadway, which closed too early in the year to derive much advantage from being written by one of the lone female playwrights on the Great White Way.

No one is arguing that these finalists are flawless. (If that were the standard, the drama annals would be a blank.) Nor is this intended as a slam against "Next to Normal," which deserves a second wind at the box office, just as it should have won the Tony for best musical over its commercial competition. Sig Gissler, the administrator of the prizes, said Monday that "Next to Normal" was mentioned favorably in our report and that the board decided to take a look at it based on that mention.

On a strictly bureaucratic level, Pulitzer protocol requires a majority vote from the board on the nominations. Perhaps the theater, with its democratic origins harking back to 5th century BC Athens, simply divides people more passionately than other art forms, creating gridlock of congressional proportions. But it's hard to see how a Rodney Dangerfield complex isn't an occupational hazard. Even in 1963, when Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was in contention, no play was deemed worthy by the fastidious board, which selected William Faulkner's "The Reivers" as its fiction winner, a work that has hardly had the same posterity.

Fortunately, nonprofit theaters continue to be interested in the finalists. ("Bengal Tiger" opens April 25 at the Mark Taper Forum in a return engagement of Moises Kaufman's acclaimed production.) But the climate everywhere for serious drama is forbidding. The odds are stacked against the next generation, and the Pulitzer board's penchant for crowning those who have already received their coronations isn't helping matters.

Production vs. drama

Nevertheless, congratulations to "Next to Normal." The musical's rock score may be generic and it's understanding of mental illness simplistic, but there's a searching emotional quality to the piece, which was expertly staged by Michael Greif in a production dominated by Alice Ripley's raw, Tony-winning performance.

Too bad the board doesn't have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work.

Veteran Pulitzer watchers may laugh at my expectation that those in charge will be equipped with such a sensibility. Why should the theater be exempt from the general stodginess? Yet bold vision is as fundamental to playwriting as reliable sources are to reporting.

It was fortuitous that Bill Clinton and his family attended "Next to Normal" just prior to its winning the prize. But for the award to carry artistic weight, it must be able to recognize the new before it rises to the level of an event deemed worthy of a presidential visit.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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