Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2012 Tony Awards: Best Actor 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 winners will be in orange. Those that are listed but not ranked are performances that I was not able to see.



1. James Corden

2. James Earl Jones

Philip Seymour Hoffman

John Lithgow

Frank Langella

Should be here: Samuel L. Jackson, The Mountaintop

What is this category? Was there really that much talent this year that Samuel L. Jackson’s brilliantly subtle MLK Jr. gets elbowed out? Yes. Yes, there is. Incredible.

And so, of course, the hilarious bit is that I missed three of the performances. Well, I missed two and abstained courteously from the third. Sorry, John Lithgow, but this gal ain’t givin’ up her hard-earned cash for a David Auburn play (Proof: zzzzzzz). As Joseph Alsop, once-celebrated newspaper columnist, folks say that two-time Tony winner Lithgow offers a penetrating character study, searching out the humanity in the querulous, obsessive and unlikable writer. He’s especially lauded for making Alsop a fascinating character though the play is not (much of a play). But this is the only nomination for the Daniel Sullivan-helmed production, so that’s never a good sign (unless you’re Linda Lavin).

When I heard Frank Langella was nominated for Man and Boy, my response was, “Hold up: wasn’t that last season?” But no, it opened in October and promptly closed in November. Needless to say, voters aren’t going to remember that mess, especially when Langella’s is the sole nom for the production. But perhaps they should, because according to some, Langella was so good as ruthless financier Gregor Antonescu in Terence Rattigan’s play that the rest of the cast barely registered, thus throwing the whole production off-balance. Not exactly a bad review for the three-time Tony winner — too bad it wasn’t for a better play/production.

Sure, he’s anachronistically playing a black ex-president years before the Civil Rights Act in The Best Man, but when James Earl Jones is that fucking good, who cares? Two-time Tony winner (really, is that all?), Jones is wonderfully funny, sharp as a tack, and consistently surprising as the ex-President being courted for endorsement by two front runners for the party’s Presidential nomination. Having a grand ol’ time, Jones crackles with feisty jocularity even as he swoops in for the kill with pointed observations that are as astonishing as they are prescient. It’s a marvelously natural performance by a seasoned professional who knows how to command the stage in a way that is never show-boaty, but always gracious and brimming with intelligence and vitality. Man, what a talent. (Sorry, it was my first time seeing him perform live, and wowza!)

And then there’s James #2 who takes the funny to a whole new, ridiculous level. Critics quite nearly lost their minds heaping superlative upon superlative to describe the star of silly slapstick-fest One Man, Two Guvnors. Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters was disallowed from being considered for the Best Play category (and it’s not exactly a revival), so all the productions eggs are in James Corden‘s deliriously funny basket o’ tricks. Brilliantly expressive, the exceedingly likable and “easily confused” Corden boasts physical comedy skills that are out of this world: whether getting in a knock-down, drag-out, fist-fight with himself; wooing audience members onto stage to lug an impossibly heavy trunk; or rockin’ out his mad xylophone skills, this checkered-suited softie is wildly, side-splittingly funny. There literally aren’t enough adjectives to describe this man’s comedic genius.

But it doesn’t matter how funny a guy is when there’s another one out there, gettin’ all tragic on Broadway’s ass. Yep, this is Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s award to lose, and he’s got a steel grip on this bad boy. Not that I would know, mind you, but the talk of the town is that PSH makes all the right choices in Death of a Salesman by portraying a violent and vulnerable Willy Loman’s anguished fall. But while most declare it a career milestone for this three-time nominee, there are some dissenters who grumble about the age-difference (PSH is 44; Willy should be in his 60s) and proclaim it an uneven performance.

Does it matter there were no quibbles with Corden? No. Ultimately, voters veer toward drama, especially classic drama, and especially classic drama performed by a universally admired talent such as Hoffman. I’m sure it’s not undeserved, but even so: sometimes, you just really want the funny guy to catch a break. Apples/oranges, y’all…


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