The 2004 John Heilpern Awards-And the Envelope, Puh-leeeeze!

And so, to the moment the nation has been waiting for! Before announcing the winners of our 2004 Theater Awards, here is Mrs. Kockenlocker, the beloved matriarch of our distinguished firm of accountants, Kockenlocker, Kockenlocker and Kockenlocker, to explain the rules.

“Good evening, everybody. Here are the rules as set out in subsection 2(b), paragraph 52(g) of the Awards Committee Constitution. To avoid disappointment, let it be noted that the Committee is not duty-bound to give awards in every category. I mean, you find a Best Musical. Be that as it may, and not withstanding the exceptions contained within clause 382(h), paragraph 69, pertaining to the Appeals Procedure, all decisions of the Committee are final except when an extremely generous bribe is offered. (See extremely generous and cash, paragraph 69).”

Thank you, Mrs. Kockenlocker. And who, incidentally, is the Committee?

The Committee be me. It’s me! But rest assured, my theater-loving friends, I have consulted diligently with myself, and all has been fairly adjudicated as much as bias will allow. And so, the envelopes, please!

Our annual Foot-in-Mouth Award has always been won by Ben Brantley, chief drama critic of The Times. You try to be fair. You try to be nice and give everyone a chance of a little glory, and our Ben somehow walks off with the award every year. Let’s see whether he can pull it off again. I can feel the tension rising. The winner of our Foot-in-Mouth Award 2004 is ….

Oh, my goodness! We have a surprise. The winner is Frank Rich, the portly pepper pot of The Times. It was back in May that the overexcited Mr. Rich acclaimed the short-lived revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins with the staggering headline, “At Last, 9/11 Has Its Own Musical.”

Frankula’s puff piece firstly informed us that the failed Sondheim–John Weidman musical of 1991 had now “returned to New York to much acclaim” and “enthusiastic reviews.” Mr. Rich, a friend of Mr. Sondheim’s, had somehow overlooked the negative reviews of The New Yorker’s John Lahr, The Post’s veteran drama critic Clive Barnes, New York magazine’s John Simon and myself.

The Awards Committee nevertheless met with myself to discuss a possible conflict of interest and decided the hell with it. Mr. Rich deserves the award. He graciously mentioned en passant that he was reversing his original opinion of the 1991 production (and wisely didn’t repeat the substance of his complaints: “slender and sketchy,” “tired gags,” “never delivers”). And lo! It came to pass that Assassins, the failed musical that never delivers, was miraculously reborn as 9/11’s very own musical.

So it’s hearty congratulations to Frank, and better luck next time to Ben. And now, to serious business!

With fierce competition from admirers of Sam Shepard (Caryl Churchill’s A Number) and Brian F. O’Byrne (John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt), our Best Actor Award goes to Ruben Santiago-Hudson for his magnificent little Caesar in Gem of the Ocean.

His galvanizing performance as August Wilson’s swaggering, turn-of-the-century cop and collaborating Uncle Tom is a model of greatness personified in a comparatively small part. This wonderfully gifted actor proves the old theater adage, “There are no small parts-only small people.” With his shiny tin badge of authority and big bombastic gun, Mr. Santiago-Hudson is scary and funny and whenever he’s onstage, he owns it.

Our Best Director Award goes to Edward Hall for giving us one of the happiest experiences we’ve ever had at the theater with his all-male A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As the scholarly Dame Edna knows, it wasn’t the first cross-dressing Shakespeare and it won’t be the last. In its open-hearted spirit and wit, in the ultimate tenderness of it all, Mr. Hall’s magical production about the transforming power of love was “more than cool reason ever comprehends.” It was, quite simply, a joy.

The ensemble of Mr. Hall’s Dream was of the highest order, but I saw another young troupe who were its extraordinary equal. I had gone on an impulse to see Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the theater of Riverside Church. A favorite director of mine, Karin Coonrod, was directing a group of 16 Columbia University acting students, and I was interested to see what she and the playwright Nilo Cruz could bring to the great drama that was written in blood and bitumen black.

My, my! The Lorca ensemble sent sparks off the stage from their opening flamenco of awesome power and fury. They brought to the play such vitality and discipline and maturity that I was left astonished. To say these talented youngsters were as good as any professional ensemble would be patronizing. The Award for Best Ensemble of the Year gladly goes to the Columbia University School of the Arts M.F.A. Acting Class of 2005.

Best Line in a Play or Musical: “I miss the Cold War so much” (from Sam Shepard’s political satire The God of Hell); “There’s nothing like a PBS tribute to proclaim the death of an American art form” (from the sparkling new edition of Forbidden Broadway).

Weirdest line in a Play or Musical: “Mrs. Wilcox, there may be a difference between chimps and gorillas. There are over three billion nucleotides in the primate genome” (from Mark Medoff’s Prymate, the Broadway play about the gorilla named Graham).

The Award for Best Revival goes to Larry Kramer’s 1985 landmark AIDS play, The Normal Heart, for its blistering, uncompromised rage and conviction, for its unforgiving, broken heart.

There is no Best Musical Award this year. But we have a Best New Song. Three British girls known as Fascinating Aida imported that British specialty known as pleasure in lunacy and low humor with their rousing musical anthem for troubled times, “Stick Your Head Between Your Legs (and Kiss Your Ass Goodbye).”

The Worst Political Satire and Proud of It Award goes to Tim Robbins, the smuggest man in town. Mr. Robbins’ Embedded, a juvenile, utterly safe “attack” on the Iraq war, was the kind of lame, sophomoric wankery and movie-star self-indulgence that would transform a well-meaning liberal into a reactionary zealot. Don’t get me started.

The Set Fell Down Once Again Award goes to Michael Blakemore’s production of Democracy. British directors like to collapse the set at the end of a show, signaling the death of a time or civilization (or just the end). The Berlin Wall falls in Democracy, so the set falls down, too. The set also fell down in Sir Richard Eyre’s The Crucible, as did Sean Mathia’s set in the revival of The Elephant Man. Jonathan Kent collapsed his Medea set on the hitherto-innocuous line “unbar the doors.” And the set collapsed at the end of Sam Mendes’ Cabaret. Which brings us back to the granddaddy of them all-Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, which first stunned us all when its Edwardian house on the hill collapsed conveniently as the curtain fell.

The nominees for Best Play are Mr. Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Mr. Shanley’s Doubt, Ms. Churchill’s A Number and the late Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. The last three plays are each about 70 minutes in length. That isn’t a point against them, but a sign of the times. Short plays are more welcome than long, apparently. If so, there goes the entire dramatic canon from Shakespeare to O’Neill to Tony Kushner. Besides, many is the short play that has seemed like an eternity.

My Best Play Award goes to August Wilson’s underestimated Gem of the Ocean for one particular reason: I just can’t get it out of my mind. The other plays, however fine, have left me. But not Mr. Wilson’s eloquent, massive achievement and daring. Gem, which is set in Pittsburgh in 1904, is a raw play forged from the gut, but its canvas is like a ritual mass onstage, an epic howl of African-American history, an essential memory play, a bloodletting, a thousand stories, and a right of passage from chains into a hard, new beginning.

Finally, there are a number of actresses this season who would easily qualify for the Best Actress Award in any year: Phylicia Rashad as the mythical Aunt Ester in Gem; Cherry Jones’ righteous nun in Doubt; Laura Linney’s dropout in Sight Unseen; Mary Louise Parker’s innocent nut job in Reckless. They’ve all won countless awards between them.

My Best Actress of the Year is Ana Perea of The House of Bernarda Alba for her brilliant, unshowy, riveting performance as Lorca’s prowling tyrant, Bernarda. The immensely gifted Ms. Perea of the Columbia Class of 2005 has it all. Here’s to her God-given talent! Here’s to the future.

See you in the New Year, everyone. The 2004 John Heilpern Awards-And the Envelope, Puh-leeeeze!