Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2014 Tony Awards Predictions: Best 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.

BEST PLAY

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1. ALL THE WAY
Robert Schenkkan

2. CASA VALENTINA
Harvey Fierstein

3. ACT ONE/MOTHERS AND SONS
James Lapine/Terrence McNally

OUTSIDE MULLINGAR
John Patrick Shanley

Should’ve been here: The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno

Is this actually an award for Best Play, or is it an award for Best Production of a Play? Sometimes it’s hard to tell (except when War Horse won — then it was definitely clear). Regardless, are any of these nominees worthy of the title Best Play? No. Putting them into an ordered list was difficult because none of them stands out, and more than likely, none will be remembered/revived decades from now. (I couldn’t even decide which was better — worse? — Act One or Mothers and Sons, so they’re tied.) This — bested only by Best Musical — is the most depressing category of the season. Not the least because it’s the sole category that was stretched to five nominees. The Realistic Joneses was snubbed for these five? How can we impeach the Tony nominators?

Anyway.

I didn’t see Outside Mullingar, but I read it, and since this is its only nomination, I’m going to assume that Doug Hughes’s direction didn’t improve upon this average rom-com material centering on near-middle-aged Anthony and Rosemary, neighbors in rural Ireland, who after passive-aggressively fighting about land, fall in love. Time Out declared it John Patrick Shanley’s “best play since Doubt,” but what does that even mean? Outside Mullingar hasn’t a shot.

Act One, an adaptation of playwright-director Moss Hart’s best-selling 1959 autobiography that’s beloved among theatre folk, is lovingly brought to the stage by director-adaptor James Lapine. But despite two very fine performances by nominee Tony Shalhoub, playing three roles including the chilly, OCD George S. Kaufman, and Santino Fontana as a charming, younger Moss Heart, and a whirling, puzzle-piece of a set by Beowulf Boritt, this drama is decidedly undramatic. The multiple narrator device is more distracting than helpful, and the play, clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes badly needs an editor. Lapine was too faithful and precious with the material — he’s tried to include everything. The result is a listless work that works too hard to pack in all of the facts — but none of the heart.

In Mothers and Sons, a recently widowed woman visits her late son’s ex-partner. Over the course of one, unbroken scene, it’s revealed that she never visited her son while he was dying of AIDS; this is the now-cliché regretfully homophobic parent, guarded and defensive. But now it’s her turn to be on the margins, and playwright Terrence McNally has little sympathy for her type of mother in a play that, as sincere as it is, feels largely dated. Luckily, we’re given Tony-nominee Tyne Daly as the austere mother, and she mines her own emotional reservoirs to fill in the gaps (of sympathy) in the character that McNally left gaping. Daly is the main reason this play has any effect on the stage.

It seems a season can no longer pass without some participation from Harvey Fierstein — a book for a new musical, a performance, or a play. His first nonmusical play since 1987, Casa Valentina is set in 1962 in a Catskills retreat, where a group of heterosexual men enjoy their favorite pastime: dressing as women. In the midst of the expected Fierstein campiness and verbal bitchery is an exploration of sexual politics, most interestingly embodied by Reed Birney‘s Charlotte, who oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers — provided they’re not homosexuals. Directed by Joe Mantello, the production provides many laughs and a few very fine performances (Mare Winningham in addition to Birney). Rather than tying things up in a neat bow, the play nicely, and movingly, concludes on a more ambiguous note. Even so, Valentina doesn’t feel as important as it should.

That leaves Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about “accidental president” Lyndon B. Johsnon. In this production, directed by Bill Rauch, Bryan Cranston hurls himself as forcefully into his performance as LBJ heaved himself into Civil Rights legislation in 1963. Larger-than-life, this LBJ is portrayed as near-Shakespearean in his unfaltering crusade for Civil Rights. Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, smartly focuses on one year rather than the entirety of LBJ’s presidency and keeps the mass amount of historical info flying at us fresh and invigorating by alternating between direct address, soliloquies, and impassioned speeches that break down the fourth wall. The lively direction and Cranston’s beguiling bluster keep this epic (2 hours and 50 minutes) from being weighed down with all the exposition, ensuring that it never lags. The question, though, is: Could All the Way stand on its own without an impressive star turn? Regardless, it looks like Schenkkan will soon have a Tony to place next to that Pulitzer on his mantle.

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