The John Heilpern Awards 2000:And the Winners Are…

Here are my eagerly awaited Theater Awards of the Year. Remember, the only rules are no rules. Good luck to everyone concerned. I can feel the tension rising as we speak. And the envelopes, please!

The newly named Annual Ben Brantley Award for the Most Amazing Observations in the History of Theater goes to … Ben Brantley! “Shall we start with Eileen Atkins’s right leg?” he startled the world when he began his review of The Unexpected Man . “It is, like her left leg, slender and shapely, and it has no doubt served this fine actress well over the years as something to stand on.”

Congratulations to our Ben, whose amazing new body-part aesthetic went on to wrestle with the masterly acting performance of Alan Bates’ shoulders, to be followed by a touching tribute to Hallie Foote’s feet in The Last of the Thorntons . “Watching her feet move becomes enough to make you cry,” Ben wrote.

What can I say? There are no words. To serious business! Our Award for Best Play of the Year goes to David Auburn’s Proof . When it first opened off Broadway I rated Mr. Auburn’s fresh and humane and lovely play about the fragility of life and love much higher than the thirtysomething predictability of the recent Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies. Though Proof ends on a sentimental note, we feel that we have not met Mr. Auburn’s characters before, and no new play has given us such pleasure.

This has been the year of the actress-Mary-Louise Parker’s dropout daughter in Proof, Juliette Binoche’s enigma in Betrayal , Janie Dee’s actoid Tin Man in Comic Potential , Linda Lavin’s kvetcher in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife , Laila Robins’ seductive richest lady in the world in Tiny Alice . There are, as they say, no winners or losers at this level. They’re all terrific actresses. I’m just opening the envelope now …. The Best Actress Award goes to Mary-Louise Parker. She delights us in her grungy displacement and intelligent yearning. Her bright, wrecked daughter alongside Larry Bryggman’s adored, nutty father possesses an appealing Salinger-esque quality. The two of them might easily be looking for bananafish together; Ms. Parker finds them.

I must add with regret that the most underrated performance of the year belongs to Ms. Binoche. Here’s a supreme actress astonishingly labeled as “miscast” by The Times when she’s the beguiling focus of every key scene of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal . Ms. Binoche’s undervalued mystery is that she plays ambiguity with utter naturalness. If you play Pinter naturally-as the great Michael Gambon also does in the London revival of The Caretaker -some people mistakenly look for the famous pauses “pregnant with meaning.” Ms. Binoche is acting wonderfully in two foreign languages-English and Harold Pinter-yet she’s criticized for not being “Pinteresque.” Don’t get me started.

The proud winner of our Quote of the Year goes to the original gay Teletubby, Nathan Lane, for announcing in this newspaper that the trouble with drama critics is that they all have “very small penises.”

Our Wittiest Closing-Night Speech Award winner is George C. Wolfe, who announced cheerfully from the stage of the Virginia Theatre after the early closure of Wild Party : “When they run you out of town, you can always pretend you’re leading a parade!”

The Best-Dressed Award goes to Isaac Mizrahi, who made theater history in his one-man show, Les MIZrahi , by being the first performer to model a little something he’d whipped up on a sewing machine during the show before segueing into a charming rendition of “A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich, and You.”

The Wise Decision of the Year Award goes to Lincoln Center’s André Bishop, who, following certain protests, graciously reversed his lousy decision to turn down Tom Stoppard’s new play The Invention of Love , which Lincoln Center is now due to produce next year.

Our award for Best Production of the Year goes to the Theater for a New Audience, for dusting off King John and bringing Shakespeare’s rarely produced play back from the dead. Karen Coonrod’s refreshingly uncluttered production of this political drama that swims in murderous expediency didn’t force its topicality on us or deck itself out with the usual tricks. It was a major contribution and the best Shakespeare (English or American) I’ve seen in many a season.

Our Special Award goes to the magnificent ensemble of August Wilson’s Jitney . The nine-member cast of Marion McClinton’s production has committed itself memorably to Mr. Wilson’s world of small and profound lives in mortal struggle and good humor and amazing grace. Their characters, which speak to us so eloquently of the black American experience, live in hope of denied dignity, and no finer ensemble acting exists.

The Broadway musicals this year-the tatty low humor of Full Monty , the laborious Masterpiece Theatre slog of Jane Eyre , the suicidal Seussical -don’t amount to a hill of beans, my friends. I know it, you know it, all God’s children know it. One astonishing music-theater piece, however, was the most innovative theater I’ve seen since the extraordinary new work of Robert Lepage. The award for Best New Work by a Mile goes to John Moran, whose hourlong Book of the Dead (Second Avenue) at the Public Theatre was a revelation in its imaginative perception and playful design. Mr. Moran’s ritual dance of death isn’t as dark it sounds, though. His fabulous work fills us with hope, at least for the future of theater.

The Theater Book of the Year has me searching for phrases to sing its praises. A celebration of more than a thousand lyrics of our greatest songwriters-or popular poets-has been edited and lovingly collected by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball in Reading Lyrics (Pantheon). It’s a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It accentuates the positive. It would make a nice last-minute Christmas prezzy. I’ve been savoring every page sip by sip for weeks, particularly the mordant, scintillating lyrics of my favorite, Lorenz Hart:

When love congeals

It soon reveals

The faint aroma of performing seals,

The double-crossing of a pair of heels,

I wish I were in love again!

Or this:

Your looks are laughable,

Unphotographable,

Yet you’re my fav’rite work of art.

Is your figure less than Greek?

Is your mouth a little weak?

When you open it to speak

Are you smart?

The Best Actor of the Year is Ralph Fiennes for his effete, petulant fool of a King Richard II, poncing about the palace in embroidered silk. But Mr. Fiennes rose to tragic stature when his demi-god lost the crown-growing bigger as his tormented, usurped Richard grew smaller, to become a meaningless nothing, a mere citizen of this “all-hating world.”

Which brings us to our last prestigious category for 2000. The winner of the Unexpected Man Award goes to Tony Kushner, of all innocent people. Permit me to explain. Last summer, I happened to be attending the graduation ceremony of a young friend of mine at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., when Mr. Kushner appeared. To be honest, I was dreading it a little. The speakers at the two other graduations I’ve attended elsewhere were Cokie Roberts and David Gergen. I was expecting the extremely hot Tom Brokaw-or someone -at Miss Porter’s School, but as we all gathered in the tent and the brass band played, I was stunned to see the name of Tony Kushner printed in the program.

It spelled disaster. Miss Porter’s, a name that suggests a finishing school of the old order or a traditional WASP bastion never breached, didn’t seem a natural theater for the revolutionary dramatist of Angels in America . Or so I thought as he walked solemnly in pale procession to the dais. The graduates of the all-girls school were seated in sedate virginal white on each side of him. We-proud mums and dads and relatives and friends-beamed at them from the surrounding seats. Tony Kushner’s cousin was one of the graduates, which was how he got himself into this mess. But I didn’t know that at the time.

When he rose to speak, I actually felt nervous for him. How on earth was he going to handle it? But-my goodness!-he gave the best speech I’ve ever heard. It was certainly the boldest. He introduced himself as a Jewish homosexual socialist dramatist and took it from there. I could see some of the faces in the audience tightening a bit at what he had to say. They were my in-laws, actually. But soon, more or less everyone was on his side, and no one cheered him louder than the delighted graduation class of 2000, who rose at the end to lead the standing ovation.

“Whenever anyone says to you something isn’t possible in life,” Mr. Kushner exhorted the youngsters in prophet-like mood, “don’t listen to them! When they say it can’t be done, tell them, ‘You are the devil! You are the devil and stay away from me! And leave me alone.'”

We can all drink to that.

Happy holidays everyone!