With Tension Mounting, It’s Tony Tip-Off Time!

And the envelope please! Here are my tips for this season’s Tony Awards in a number of major categories. The

And the envelope please! Here are my tips for this season’s Tony Awards in a number of major categories. The awards will be announced to a breathless nation on June 4 and, for a change, I shall be resisting my annual vaudevillian turn on the insanity of the entire proceedings. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the Tony Awards Nominating Committee nominated Joan Rivers for best actress in a play. She was in a monologue about Lenny Bruce’s mother. The miracle was that she didn’t win. But there’s too much at stake this season to fool around.

In the strong competition for best actor, the battle will be between the Irishman Gabriel Byrne in A Moon For the Misbegotten and the Englishman Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing . Those two fine American actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, both nominated for their terrific work in True West , will split their vote, and the fifth nominee, David Suchet for Amadeus , must be considered a long shot.

Mr. Dillane’s performance as Henry, Tom Stoppard’s alter ego in The Real Thing , could scarcely be better. I found him more convincing, too, than Jeremy Irons’ previous Henry glibly poncing about the place in a silk dressing gown (as writers always do, of course). The secret to Mr. Dillane’s brilliance and charm is in his reticence. But then, Mr. Byrne is a wonderfully unshowy actor, too, and the role of Eugene O’Neill’s tragic fallen angel, James Tyrone Jr., is surely one of the biggest challenges an actor could take on. The long, awesome confessional in Act 2 alone would break the back of a lesser man.

In my original review of A Moon for the Misbegotten , I wrote that Mr. Byrne’s amazing performance is one for the ages: “Self-pity isn’t his game. He understands those sufferers who have already died of self-disgust, and will die again. Mr. Byrne’s lacerating honesty is in perfect tune with Eugene O’Neill’s, and he is giving the performance of a lifetime.” I so much hope that he will receive our thanks with the Tony Award.

Best actress? The splendid Rosemary Harris, who did a lot of crocheting in Waiting in the Wings , is competing against her immensely talented daughter, Jennifer Ehle, who’s lovely in The Real Thing . But I think the battle will be between Jayne Atkinson for her Lizzie Curry in The Rainmaker and Cherry Jones for her Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten . The fifth nominee, Claudia Shear of Dirty Blonde , is popular with some. But again, Eugene O’Neill’s Josie is the most challenging role for an actress in the entire modern repertoire. She is O’Neill’s fantasy woman, a farm worker, a beautiful slut, a virgin, daughter, substitute wife, Mother Earth and female Christ. Only the greatest actresses can do justice to the sheer strength and yearning and transcendent love of this near-impossible role. Ms. Jones’ contribution is stunning in its grace and compassion. She’s a most generous actress, and deserves our thanks, too, with the Tony for best actress.

Gosh! It’s getting exciting. But I am in earnest. The best play will be Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen for making us feel good about thinking we truly understand quantum theory and the uncertainty principle. But Copenhagen ‘s intense moral and scientific debate about Nazi Germany and the invention of the atomic bomb, the nature of friendship and betrayal, or truth, deception and the fate of 20th-century history, are somewhat larger issues than the pursuit of happiness and the redemptive power of Mae West impersonators in another nominated play, Dirty Blonde . Sam Shepard’s True West , another nominee, is considered a new play although it was first produced off-Broadway in 1980. It is therefore an old play that we’re all pretending is new. It changes according to our perceptions (compare Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). The real reason True West is included is this: According to Tony rules, if a play is new to Broadway, it’s new. If King Lear were produced on Broadway for the first time, it would therefore be a new play. Unless it were deemed a revival, or a musical.

The award for best revival of a play will be a close call between The Real Thing and A Moon For the Misbegotten . Both of them are first-rate. But on balance, I go for Daniel Sullivan’s production of the O’Neill. It’s a wonderful contribution on every level, including a third supreme performance from the veteran, Roy Dotrice.

Best director of a play? Matthew Warchus did fine work on True West . I thought James Lapine’s contribution to Dirty Blonde somewhat overpraised. David Leveaux’s direction of The Real Thing is superior to the Mike Nichols production in 1984. Mr. Leveaux freed the stage of the habitual book-lined study in chintz and got first-rate performances from everyone in the cast. But so did Michael Blakemore with his three star actors circling each other onstage in that clinical amphitheater of ideas. A decade ago, Mr. Blakemore in Copenhagen was nominated in two categories: best director of a play ( Lettice and Lovage ) and best director of a musical ( City of Angels )-but didn’t win in either category. He’s up for two Tonys again this year. I’m marking my card for Mr. Blakemore as best director of a play, as well as best director of a musical for his unbeatably sophisticated work on Kiss Me, Kate .

A vote for Kiss Me, Kate is a vote for sanity! Many people find The Music Man a great night out, too. But not as many as Kiss Me, Kate . I know these things. I’ve done the counting. The revival of Jesus Christ Superstar is a joke; Tango Argentino is a relic. Cole Porter or “76 Trombones”? My vote for best revival of a musical goes to Kiss Me, Kate .

And so, on to the controversy surrounding Susan Stroman’s Contact , the Lincoln Center production that’s considered the favorite to win best musical. Most of you will know by now that the issue is whether Contact should even have been eligible as a musical. Last season, the issue was whether Swan Lake on Broadway was a musical. You probably thought it was a ballet. The Tony Awards Administration Committee wasn’t sure, however, and thought the matter over. They decreed that Swan Lake defied all categories of play, revival or musical. Whatever it was, it wasn’t eligible. But here’s the catch. The committee decided that the director of Swan Lake , Mathew Bourne, could nevertheless be nominated as best director of a musical. And he won! He was elected the best director of a musical that isn’t a musical.

Let’s look at Contact . Before it opened, Ms. Stroman described it solemnly as a “dance-play,” or a play that’s danced. In the essentials, a dance-play is no different from any modern dance choreographed by, say, Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp. Contact has no original musical score and no one in the cast sings. Its music is a compilation of Grieg and Puccini and others, with pop standards on a prerecorded track. (There’s no orchestra.) It is an evening of three danced sketches or vignettes. They’re vaguely about contact through swing dance, and John Weidman is credited with writing the book.

There are those who do not think Contact is much of a musical, least of all a revolutionary one. And some even see it as a dated piece, dance critics among them. But tell me: Aren’t musicals for singing? And don’t we like to applaud the singer as well as the song? If Contact was conceived as a dance-play, when did it transform itself into a musical? If it’s now eligible for a best musical award, why not a dance piece by Twyla Tharp? Why not Swan Lake ? How about Copenhagen ?

Good luck to them all, anyway, at the Tonys.

With Tension Mounting, It’s Tony Tip-Off Time!