The Good, the Bad and The Foot-in-Mouth

And so, to the moment the nation has been waiting for: Before announcing the winners of our 2003 Theater Awards, it is our solemn duty, as always, to state the rules set out in subsection 2(b), paragraph 52(e), of the Awards Committee Constitution. This 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 except when an extremely generous bribe is offered. (See extremely generous , paragraph 69.)

Who is the Committee?

The Committee be me! But rest assured, my theater-loving friends, that all has been as fairly adjudicated as much as bias will allow. The envelopes, please!

Last year, the Committee instituted the newly named Foot-in-Mouth Award, whose first proud winner was Ben Brantley, chief drama critic of The New York Times . The inimitable Ben drew ahead of a strong field with his staggering opening remark about David Mamet’s Boston Marriage : “If David Mamet were a color, what color would he be?” (His answer was “pink.”) And so, to the Foot-in-Mouth Award 2003. The winner is-oh my goodness! You’re not going to believe this. It’s Ben Brantley!

You know, you try to be fair . You try to be nice and give everyone else a chance for a little glory. And look what happens. But once again, our Ben has proved himself a winner with a series of bewildering pronouncements. There was his light-headed comparison of the veterans Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, in their evening of Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett plays, to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hard to think of Fred and Ginger during Beckett, but still. Ben then went on to compare the stage partnership of Mr. Murray and Ms. Seldes in Counting the Ways to performing The Carioca and finally settled on Let’s Face the Music and Dance . Omnium Gatherum was for him “a mess, but I thought it worked because it was a mess.” He raved over Melanie Griffith’s Roxie Hart in Chicago , which “proved you don’t have to be able to sing or dance to dominate a musical.” And, topping it off, he concluded that Tony Kushner’s tragic fable of American history, Caroline, or Change is “almost too good to be good” and defined it as “the brooding person’s Hairspray .”

All this was too good to be good. So it’s congratulations to the one and only Ben Brantley on his second Foot-in-Mouth Award-and on to serious business!

Our Best Musical Award goes to Caroline, or Change . It exists, quite simply, on a different planet from anything currently on or off Broadway. Beautifully directed by George Wolfe at the Public, Mr. Kushner’s partnership with composer Jeanine Tesori represents a quiet and monumental achievement. Caroline, or Change -itself a parable of change-succeeds in something extremely rare by managing to be both unsentimental and immensely moving. It’s honest, unshowbizzy heartbeat and artless naïveté are a joy to us, making it the finest musical theater to come our way in a long, long time.

The nominees for the Best Actor Award are Danny Glover for his South African hero and victim of belittling racism in the revival of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold … and the Boys; Simon Russell Beale for both Uncle Vanya and his Malvolio in Twelfth Night; Kevin Kline for Falstaff in Henry IV ; and Robert Sean Leonard for his consumptive Edmund in Long Day’s Journey into Night . And the winner is … Kevin Kline. The singular achievement of his Falstaff, nature’s eternal child and Lord of Misrule living in enviable, perfect freedom, was its restraint . The star touched all the notes, including the tragedy of an old man cruelly rejected by his surrogate son. But for all Falstaff’s boozy girth and heft, Mr. Kline knows that wit is best served light. And the outcome was magnificent.

On the other hand, the Anglophiliac of the Decade Award goes to Henry IV ‘s director, Jack O’Brien of San Diego. Mr. O’Brien was pleased to announce why his production of Henry IV , Parts I and II at Lincoln Center, had been condensed into one. Unlike the British-he claimed-American audiences just wouldn’t be able to understand enough references to merit staging both parts! Hence Jack’s simplified twofer for all us dim New Yorkers.

While we’re handing out the most important awards, the nominees for Best Guy in a Frock are Kiki in Kiki and Herb: Coup de Théatre ; Eddie Izzard in his Sexie tour; Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife ; and practically the entire cast of Taboo . Kiki will be mortally wounded, I know, but our winner is Eddie Izzard, the transvestite wizard, whose form-fitting bustier was a thrilling new departure, along with his sparkly black skirt slit provocatively to the waist to reveal a somewhat muscular thigh in a fetching fishnet stocking. Mr. Izzard-who also shone on Broadway this season playing the despairing father in Peter Nichols’ vintage A Day in the Death of Joe Egg -is a doll who happens to be the funniest man on earth. Kiki and Herb receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be no consolation to the moody Kiki whatsoever.

Our nominees for Best Actress include such great ladies of the theater as Vanessa Redgrave for Long Day’s Journey , Dame Eileen Atkins for The Retreat from Moscow, Pernilla August for Ghosts , and Clare Higgins for her repressed lover of Van Gogh in Vincent in Brixton . They must have won a million awards between them, and we prefer our own to go to a comparative newcomer. The first-rate revival of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July early in the year offered us one particular revelation in the unexpected, dazzling performance of Parker Posey. Best known for her independent movies, she’s beautiful and loose-a stage natural and born comedienne in the school of Carole Lombard. (Praise comes no higher in our book.)

Ms. Posey’s eccentric, rich hippie in Fifth of July -the role that won a Tony for Swoozie Kurtz in the original production-brought exciting new blood to the stage and she’s our Actress of the Year.

I have enjoyed reading Eleonora Duse , Helen Sheehy’s biography of the greatest actress who ever lived, according to the likes of Shaw, Chaplin, Stanislavsky and Chekhov, which is good enough for me; also, Play by Play , the theater essays and reviews of Jonathan Kalb, particularly when I disagreed with him; and Margaret Croyden’s Conversations with Peter Brook , which she began over 30 years ago and has yet to finish, I hope. But at this time of the year, I most enjoy books to sing to.

My happily arbitrary Book of the Year is therefore The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser (edited by Robert Kimball and Steve Nelson, Alfred A. Knopf, $49.95). Among so much that delights us, Loesser wrote the score and lyrics of one of the top five Broadway musicals of all time, his 1950 Guys and Dolls :

When you meet a gent

Paying all kinds of rent

For a flat

That could flatten the Taj Mahal-

Call it sad, call it funny,

But it’s better than even money

That the guy’s only doing it for some

doll!

The five nominees for Best Actress in a Musical are Donna Murphy, Wonderful Town ; Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, Wicked; Bernadette Peters, Gypsy ; and Tonya Pinkins, Caroline, or Change . They’re all superb, but for me this is the year of Caroline . Ms. Pinkins’ winning performance as the black illiterate maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, is a portrait of a proud, woefully anonymous woman whose spirit is murdered before our eyes, and we have never seen anything quite like it.

Unless we count Audrey, the people-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors and the singing drop-out puppets of Avenue Q , Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz has no competition for Best Actor in a Musical and wins the award by a mile.

I would like to have given Best Play to Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics (which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama), but must confess to disappointment when I saw it. This has also been the year of the new women dramatists, however, and young Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy , the play I enjoyed the most in a generally lackluster year for drama, was disliked by almost all of my illustrious colleagues. That’s good enough for me, too! Ms. Jones’ refreshing comedy of abundant ideas and jokes thrown away like poppy seeds in the wind was a gift. It took pleasure, giving us pleasure, in such irresistible things as enchanted English gardens, floppy, romantic idylls, Hamlet and erudite ghosts, eccentric, interfering neighbors, farcical lunch parties, nose jobs, dominating m-m-m-mothers and even the mating habits of bees. It may not add up to much in this cockamamie world, but Humble Boy out-Stopparded Stoppard.

The Most Overrated Play of the Year Award, I’m sorry to say, goes to Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife . Why audiences and critics are cheering the survival of the real-life German transvestite known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf-who collaborated for years with the Nazis and the Stasi secret police of East Germany-is a painful mystery to me. It is not enough to “survive.” I’m sorry, but Mahlsdorf has blood on his hands. Mr. Wright’s blurry sentimentality avoids the issue by making this morally dubious footnote to history appear to be heroic.

Compare Mahlsdorf’s pathetic tale to Dalton Trumbo’s admirable letters in Trumbo , a modest play-reading that burns with a principled heart and mind. The blacklisted Trumbo refused to cooperate in any way with his McCarthyite persecutors in scoundrel time and was financially ruined. But he won the war and, in time, he was saluted. Trumbo-not collaborators like Mahlsdorf-is one of the saints. Don’t get me started.

Finally, the Best Director of the Year-and many a year-must be Ingmar Bergman for his masterly farewell production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mr. Bergman, now in his 80′s, gave us a radical re-imagining of Ibsen’s ghostly domestic drama, distilling it into a furious, unspeakable tragedy. He has always pursued the purest essence of things, the marrow of bones, in search of meaning and substance and grace in the pain of being alive. If this is to be his last production, God love him.