a theatre, film & pop culture review
This category overflows with generally outstanding performances. Of the five, only Jude Law (Hamlet) overanalyzes his titular character’s moral and mental dilemmas, but even his slightly inorganic performance impresses with its intelligence. The always wonderfully bizarre Christopher Walken elevates the latest — and sadly, very disappointing — offering from the usually fantastic Irish playwright Martin Macdonagh. In his portrayal of Carmichael, the macabre oddball searching for his missing hand (Why is it missing? Why do we care? The story given does not remotely satisfy), Walken infuses the vengeful lost soul with a surprising sadness that exceeds even his own particular brand of eccentric genius. the never-disappointing Alfred Molina manages to burrow his way into the tumultuous and troubled mind of the abstract artist Mark Rothko despite the dramaturgical deficiencies of Red. With a frenzied intensity and bluntness that draws you in and doesn’t let go, Molina physicalizes the inner-rumblings of an overly-analytical mind, whether fiercely barking orders to his fresh-faced assistant, furiously sweeping steaks of red across canvas, or simply standing, staring, contemplating. Similarly, Liev Schreiber (A View from the Bridge) ever-so-gradually builds Eddie Carbone from the inside-out: the one-time innocent affection for his beloved niece becomes alarming overprotectiveness, and this increasing inner-torment is demonstrated via Schreiber’s subtle physical transformation, from an easy smile to terse grin, gruff jocularity to too-intense play. It’s a frighteningly real execution of a character you know is doomed from the start, yet still can’t believe the tragedy even as it happens. Denzel Washington nails the charming arrogance of Troy Mason, and you can’t pry your eyes off of him whenever he’s onstage (practically the entire 2.5 hours). He’s already dazzled critics, and Tony voters are sure to follow suit. But though Denzel clearly possesses the intelligence needed to flesh-out the complexities of Troy’s braggadocio, he only offers us glimpses into the rage and fear hidden beneath, never fully embracing, or exploring, the darkness within.
I warned you this would be a sad category for me to predict. Having missed three of the five nominated performances (all three productions closed before nominations were announced), it comes down to two, which means it really comes down to one: Viola Davis, rather predictably at this point, is a revelation on the stage. Like co-star Stephen McKinley Henderson, she’s a reliable August Wilson regular (her only three Broadway credits are for Wilson plays) and perhaps because of this, she has a more intimate understanding of his women. As Rose, the neglected wife taken for granted by the man she gave her life to, the magnetic Davis has no problem holding her own opposite the near-blinding star power of Denzel Washington. Davis is one of the strongest actresses currently in New York, but beyond that, she is a strong woman, and when, though obviously heartbroken, Rose unwaveringly refuses to stand by her adulterous husband, you can’t imagine Viola to act any other way.
Though Davis is the clear favorite, Linda Lavin offers one of the most solid, affecting performances presented by an actress on Broadway this year, perhaps in many years. Lavin portrays Ruth Steiner, a celebrated short story writer in the decline of her career who takes on a fawning assistant-cum-protégée. Beginning with the bone-dry humor of a mature professional who no longer has patience for the young and eager, Lavin gradually softens Ruth to the possibility of a deep and perhaps even motherly relationship with the young woman, Lisa Morrison (a rather grating Sarah Paulson). You see her slowly discard the sarcasm and aloofness in favor of affectionate rapport and meaningful connection. And as she hesitantly opens up, you are already afraid of the hurt to come from the predictable betrayal. A remarkably unshowy and astute performance, Lavin’s nomination is well-deserved.
Many are predicting Douglas Hodge as the to winner here — he’s already earned an Olivier Award for the London production of La Cage, after all — and it’s true that he’s fabulous as the pouty, wickedly funny chanteuse-in-drag. But how can anyone deny the tour-de-force performance of Sahr Ngaujah? Was Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat star and Nigerian revolutionary, that irresistible of a showman or is it Ngaujah’s own tremendous magneticism? In the end, it doesn’t really matter: the actor-singer-dancer turns out the most dazzling performance of the year. Kelsey Grammer is charming as the conservative “straight” man to Hodge’s flamboyant Albin, and don’t you listen to what the critics say/don’t say/should say about Sean Hayes‘s ability to play Chuck Baxter (Promises, Promises). Amiable, funny, and yes, with just a slight sampling of Jack, Hayes is perfectly fine playing the leading straight guy in a musical — I only wish it was a better musical. And while Chad Kimball doesn’t seem to be getting much love from Tony voters, he’s quirky and boyish and has a drawwwl for days as Huey Calhoun, the radio DJ who challenges racial barriers through his love of music. Kimball strikes a chord with audiences thanks to his ability to tone down the civil-rights-earnestness and draw the focus to the irrepressible rhythm of the music and dance.
While all five women in this category turned out fine performances, none can be described as thrilling, and that’s largely due to the quality of the available musical female roles (all here, with the exception of Zeta-Jones’s Desiree Armfeldt, have no real depth of character to even begin to explore). Sure, Montego Glover is great as the sassy songstress, layering her two dimensional character with a thin cloak of tough armor and cool collectedness in Memphis. Kate Baldwin is lovely and whimsical in the equally so bizarrely-revived Finian’s Rainbow. Catherine Zeta-Jones, while emulating Glynis Johns’s vocal mannerisms a little too much, is well-cast as bold, beautiful, and just-out-of-her-prime actress who becomes sentimental over and old romantic flame. Even Sherie Rene Scott plays to her diva-like strengths in a bravura performance the oft-silly, sometimes wickedly clever, semi-autobiographical Everyday Rapture. Though she’s likely to garner few Tony votes, Christiane Noll (Ragtime) offers a fierce performance as the cooly naive housewife turned independent, open-hearted Mother that rivals original production’s Marin Mazzie.