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Unlike most theater award ceremonies, which tend toward the precious and prissy, the Off Broadway–honoring Village Voice Obies — which marked their 53rd year last night at Webster Hall — are a raucous, rock-and-roll-type event, with no suspenseful categorical nominees (they just call out the winners of different awards!) and a loud, drunk crowd that alternately gabs through the proceedings and whistles and whoops, strip-show style, when friends win various kudos. So it was kind of perfect that, if any show “swept” the Obies last night, it was the black-dude-moves-to-Europe rock-show Passing Strange, which nabbed both a special award for its whole ensemble as well as the night’s final prize, for Best New American Theater Piece. Not to mention the fact that the cast and its rock band provided the evening’s entertainment, with the show’s creator and star, the uni-named Stew, driving the house into a frenzy with his amped, rock-star performance of the show’s anthemic “Keys/It’s Alright.” Twice Stew cried out, “It’s great to be drunk and below 14th Street!” (this could be the tagline for the Obies), and at one point, performing, he barreled up the center aisle, thrust his mike into the bartender’s face to get her to sing, then ran back to the stage, fell on the floor, and caterwauled directly into the klatch of cameras that had gathered to capture his inspired awesomeness.
At the after-party, we asked Stew if he was really that drunk. “No,” he conceded. “You want the audience to think you’re more drunk than you are, because then they think, ‘Ooh, anything could happen.’ It’s a tactic that Dean Martin and I sometimes pull off.” Wait, really? Dean Martin faked being drunk? “He used to drink apple juice onstage in Vegas,” Stew replied. “It’s a fact.” (And it appears that might just be so. We’re so naïve!) “He’d be in the hotel calling his wife when everybody else was out partying. It was all a façade. Showbiz, shtick, dude.” Guess there’ll be no passing out during Passing Strange. —Tim Murphy