Drum Roll, Please … Announcing The 2002 Heilpern Awards

And so, to the moment the nation has been waiting for. Before announcing the proud winners of our 2002 Theater Awards, however, it is our solemn duty to state the rules according to the provisions set out in subsection 2(b), paragraph 52(e) of the Awards Committee Constitution. Thus duly noted, and, notwithstanding the exceptions contained within clause 382(h), paragraph 69, pertaining to the appeal procedure, all decisions of the Committee are final.

Who is the Committee?

The Committee be me. But rest assured, my theater-loving friends, that all is as fairly adjudicated here as bias will allow. Before opening the envelopes, however, we have an important announcement: After long and careful deliberation, the Committee has decided to retire the ever-popular annual Ben Brantley Body Parts Award.

We appreciate how disappointed everyone will be. But, unfortunately, the chief drama critic of The New York Times has been the only winner of the award named after him. Mr. Brantley, of course, is the inventor of the unique body-part aesthetic that first caught the Committee’s eye with his rave review of the performance of Maxwell Caulfield’s penis-”once again on unabashed display (every inch of him)”-in the unforgettable gay romp, My Night With Reg . Our Ben has since sewn up the coveted Body Parts Award every season. To choose one outstanding, nostalgic example as we say a fond farewell, his description of the masterly performance of Eileen Atkins’ right leg in The Unexpected Man raised the bar to unbeatable heights by wrong-footing those of us who have always believed that Ms. Atkins’ left leg is the better actor of the two.

“Shall we start with Eileen Atkins’s right leg?” Ben began his review in typically confident mood. “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.”

In order to give everyone else a fair chance, the Committee has therefore retired the beloved Body Parts Award and instituted the newly named Foot-in-Mouth Award. And so, the envelope, please!

The Committee is pleased to announce that the first winner of the Foot-in-Mouth Award 2002 is … Oh my goodness, it’s Ben Brantley!

You know, you try to be fair. You try to be nice . And look what happens. But our Ben drew ahead of a strong field with his staggering opening remark about Boston Marriage : “If David Mamet were a color, what color would he be?”

“Now think,” he went on-and think we certainly did. “Most people who know the work of Mr. Mamet, the testosterone king of American theater, would choose a manly color to define him: a sooty, urban gray, perhaps, or a woodsy brown.” Ah, those macho woodsy browns. But here comes the surprise: “Yet the hue that clings stickily to the memory after you have seen ‘Boston Marriage’ is pink.”

So it’s congratulations to the inimitable Ben Brantley once again. And now, on to serious business!

The Play of theYear is Caryll Churchill’s Far Away . The Committee has steadfastly resisted those forces in favor of small domestic dramas concerning heterosexual goats and gay baseball players. In its extraordinary menace and intelligence, its barbaric moral seriousness and apparent apocalyptic frivolity, Ms. Churchill’s 55-minute Far Away is a fantastic play and metaphor that plunges us into universal chaos and brings the messed-up outside world urgently onstage.

Our Best Actor of the Year Award goes to Edward Norton for his fresh, electric reading of the unhinged romantic hero, Pale, in the revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 Burn This . Mr. Norton found a jittery, recessive comic fury within the convulsive antihero that was in confident contrast to the showmanship of John Malkovich, who famously originated the role. Mr. Norton’s more restrained version responds to things as they unusually are-like his pleasure in surreal hurricanes, or the fastidiously nutty necessity for a perfect pot of orange pekoe tea. It’s as if his quieter shade of Pale were some kind of deranged artist manqué -or playwright-caught in an inspired improvisation while teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The nominees for Actress of the Year are Edie Falco for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune ; Fiona Shaw for Medea ; Kate Valk for To You, the Birdie! ; and both Lena Endre and Pernilla August for the Ingmar Bergman production of Maria Stuart . And the winner is the extraordinary and beautiful Kate Valk, whose disintegrating Phedre in the Wooster Group’s ultramodern version of Racine touched genius. Ms. Valk’s mythic heroine was a Phedre swamped in elemental shame and foulness-like a pathetic wind-up doll plopped on a royal porto-potty in crappy decay as fussy courtiers tended her incurable needs. She made her Phedre, gagging on sin, human. We’ve never seen a performance quite like it.

There’s too little competition to award a Best Musical this year-unless, as some hope, Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème qualifies as a musical. In which case, La Bohème beats out Hairspray and Dance of the Vampires , and we can say: “Keep up the good work, Puccini-you sure know how to scribble a hummable tune.”

The award for Best Design of the Year goes to Catherine Martin’s lovely, melting sets for La Bohème . Ms. Martin also takes Best Costume Award, while Best Choreography goes to Twyla Tharp and the Movin’ Out troupe for bringing the spirit of Jerome Robbins back to Broadway.

The Best Brecht Award goes to Erica Schmidt’s purely Brechtian staging of the eternal American fable, Debbie Does Dallas , and the Worst Brecht Award to the producers, director and entire ensemble of the Al Pacino Arturo Ui .

Our Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Gerard Alessandrini and 20 fabulous years of Forbidden Broadway . His affectionate, lethal satires of Broadway musicals are a showbiz tradition and delight. After all, this is the first show in the history of theater to send up a turntable: The manic, dizzying turntable that keeps whizzing round and round in Les Misérables is the jewel in Forbidden Broadway ‘s crown. Among so many other delights, Mr. Allessandrini’s Porteresque lyrics to the music of the slimmed-down production of Beauty and the Beast take the strudel:

Just a little change

Says the Disney beast

Profits growing thin

Downsizing is in

Beauty’s been decreased ….

A Special Citation goes to the refreshing and fun Queen’s Company, the downtown troupe that wittily reverses the all-male Shakespearean model and thus is all-female. The ensemble’s full of young talent breathing risky new life into the classics-and apart from the natural cross-dressing, they actually enjoy speaking verse, which is really perverse of them.

The Best Foreign Play Award goes with love and honor to the modest, hypnotic ensemble of Iranian performers who were our guests at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. We could see why the performances of the ritual Ta’ziyeh have influenced avant-garde directors in the West, including Grotowski. In its naïve, utterly transparent simplicity, Ta’ziyeh achieves a near-unattainable magic of storytelling. It’s something better than art: It’s an artless art, which for us is unpretentiously the best thing of all.

And so to our toughest category this year, Best Director. The nominees are Baz Luhrmann for La Bohème ; Martha Clarke for Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited) ; Ingmar Bergman for Maria Stuart ; Elizabeth LeCompte for To You, the Birdie! ; and Stephen Daldry for Far Away .

And the award goes to Ingmar Bergman, who transformed Schiller’s overwritten power play into an extraordinary new version of erotically charged power. The master of female psychology went after Schiller’s sexual subtext to unearth the play’s timeless stalkers of dominance and love in an unbeautiful world. Knowing that Schiller can test our patience, Mr. Bergman cut the four-hour play by two hours! Rage and sexuality defined his burning interpretation of the tyrannical power struggle. Men-mere men-were more like preening supporting roles in the epic battle of wills between the Virgin Queen and Maria (two of the greatest roles ever written for women).

But every aspect of Mr. Bergman’s supremely acted production re-invented the classic drama and made it new. The legendary director and the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden remind our own lackluster nonprofit theater what can be inspiringly achieved beyond a dozy diet of Our Town and Dinner at Eight . At 84, Ingmar Bergman still walks the high wire without a safety net-and shows the way.