Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2011 Tony Awards: Best Actress in a Play

Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winner will be in orange.

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY

1. Nina Arianda
Born Yesterday 

2. Frances McDormand
Good People

3. Lily Rabe
The Merchant of Venice

4. Hannah Yelland
Brief Encounter

Vanessa Redgrave
Driving Miss Daisy

I didn’t see Driving Miss Daisy (I saw it more times than any reasonable person should when I interned a regional production many moons ago), but Vanessa Redgrave received such mix reviews that it’s cleary Tony was scraping for a fifth nominee with her.

And apparently a fourth as well. After almost a year of listening to countless raves and constant gushing over the “most magical” show in New York, I finally got myself to Studio 54 to see Brief Encounter. Neither the show, based on the much-adored Noel Coward film about a woman who meets a stranger in a railway station and is tempted cheat on her husband, nor Hannah Yelland‘s performance thrilled me as I thought they would. With so much “stage magic,” Yelland was like an actor in front of a green screen — there to assist the spectacle, not the other way around. The entire production strained to be romantic and lush and imaginative, and with such a skeleton of a book, Yelland had not much to do but emote by swinging across the stage on a chandelier to denote the ecstasy of love. With all that theatre going on, who’s got time to act?

Lily Rabe made for a supremely wise and witty Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Holding her own sharing the stage with force-of-nature Al Pacino, she infuses the trial scene with an anger and strength that rivets, and she walks away the winner. If the production hadn’t closed in February, Rabe would be considered much, much stronger competition for the movie star and the rising star that have since entered the scene.

How does Frances McDormand do it? Critics rave, audiences flock, and there she is, performing raw desperation and unapologetic pride with such un-showy humility that it looks the most natural thing in the world. She plays Margie, a life-long Southie gal, recently unemployed, caring for her mentally-challenged daughter. This tough cookie could easily by dislikable and unsympathetic, but not in the able hands of McDormand. Margie is pigheaded and confrontational, but McDormand carefully chips away at her armor, revealing that the layer of skin underneath isn’t so thick after all. It’s a stunning, multi-faceted performance.

McDormand’s is the performance you think will win, and you believe she deserves it too. But then you can’t help but fall giddily in love with the fresh-faced, bubbly talent of Nina Arianda. The recent NYU grad is pure comic joy as the giggly blonde bombshell who betters her mind through self-discipline and the careful dedication of her teacher-reporter in the revival of Born Yesterday. Lushly dressed in a flowy satin blouse and bold empire-waist trousers (thank you, Catherine Zuber), Arianda commands the stage with her brilliant comedic sensibility: each gutteral giggle and wide-eyed knee-slap elicits the same in us, and her innocence, crassness, joy, confusion, and honesty reveals a layered complexity that exists nowhere else in this production. Whether she’s absentmindedly humming “Anything Goes” to her own pitchy tune, or confidently defining “peninsula” as “that new medicine,” Arianda simply sparkles, giving life to an otherwise serviceable revival. Everyone is entirely taken with her, and Tony should be no exception.

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2011 by in Award Predictions, Broadway, Theatre, Tony Awards.

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