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Tony Awards Deep Dive No. 2: The Plays

Humans, TheLaura Pels Theatre
The Humans on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus

Twenty nonmusical plays — nine new ones and 11 revivals — were produced on Broadway this season. Only three in each group were complete duds: MiseryChina Doll, and Our Mother’s Brief Affair among the new ones; The Gin GameSylvia, and Hughie among the revivals. Two of those even managed to produce a Tony nomination: one for Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes in Misery, and one for Christopher Oram for his Hughie set design. Still, if this made for a generally fine season, there was almost no doubt as to what plays would be nominated. Four of the new plays were clearly superior to the rest of the field, and all were selected. The five revivals that got nods — Tony rules allow an extra nomination when more than nine productions are eligible — were all excellent, and a sixth, Fool for Love from Manhattan Theatre Club early in the season, could well have joined them if there were room. 

You might think the Tonys would want to highlight this excellence, but the telecast usually dismisses nonmusicals with a turgid, condescending speechlet and a video montage. That’s money talking: Plays brought in only about 13 percent of Broadway’s $1.4 billion take this season — and most of the plays, being limited runs, are already gone or soon to go. (Stars borrowed from Hollywood must return to their West Coast aeries, and the big resident theaters have schedules to stick to.) Some voters feel that Broadway plays are in essence noncommercial, and to the extent that many of them are produced each year by the Roundabout, Manhattan Theater Club, the Public Theater, and Lincoln Center Theater, that’s true. But they are no less difficult for that. That those companies produced or originated six of the nine nominated productions this season is reason for celebration.

Best Play

Conventional wisdom holds that Tony voters favor productions that can still benefit from a win. One of the nominees for best play — King Charles III — has already closed; The Father will follow on Sunday; and Eclipsed closes on June 19. Only The Humans, by Stephen Karam, is an open-ended commercial production, but that may be the least of the reasons it is likely to win. It also has the vast preponderance of critical opinion (including mine) in its favor, and the power of its producer, Scott Rudin, who knows how to run a Tony campaign. Still, I have heard enough voters quibble over its genre-mash-up and its mysterious ending to suggest that one of the others has a chance.

Not that it would be so upsetting if Eclipsed won. A Public Theater production beautifully remounted for Broadway, it is a play with political ambitions, even if its sharp focus on the collateral damage to women during the Liberian civil war attaches it to events of 2003. The producers, working with the playwright Danai Gurira, have made sure we know that it remains, however, current in a larger sense, by (for instance) dedicating performances to the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram just two years ago in Nigeria. While this undoubtedly reflects the values of the director Liesl Tommy and the cast headed by Lupita Nyong’o — many with strong connections to Africa — it is also a smart Tonys move, underlining the play’s topicality and urgency. 

The downside, for me, is that it underlines these things at the expense of artistry, even as the production has been fine-tuned in the other direction. Downtown at the Public it seemed a bit schematic, each character representing a clear and distinct response to the terrifying situation they all faced. The Broadway version, perhaps simply because it takes place in a larger theater, disguises that flaw, recalibrating the balance between the women as characters and the women as symbols. It is still proudly earnest, though, and may appeal to Tony voters as such.

But earnestness is not a characteristic of most of the very best plays. (Nor is stuntishness, a failing that diminishes the otherwise skillful King Charles III and The Father.) The Humans is neither a placard nor a trick. Though it is about a middle-class American family in economic distress — and every other kind of distress, too — it has no message and no moral. Its five characters represent only their complicated selves; they are loved by the playwright but not approved or demystified. For that reason, The Humans is not just a play for now, but potentially a play for all time. 

WILL WIN: The Humans
SHOULD WIN: The Humans

Best Revival of a Play

Often, a highly competitive category is an underpowered one. Not so this year with Best Revival of a Play; all five nominees are fully deserving. Two Tony traditions combine to make Noises Off the least likely winner; it closed in March, and it is a comedy. (In fact, it was the most flat-out, belly-laugh fun I had in a theater all season.) The other four are rather less amusing, involving incest and murder among immigrants (A View From the Bridge); communal hysteria among the Puritans (The Crucible); alcoholism, drug addiction, and tuberculosis in a theatrical family (Long Day’s Journey Into Night); and the aftermath of a man’s sexual relationship with an underage girl (Blackbird). 

The first two of these are both, of course, by Arthur Miller, who is in the midst of a much-deserved and largely favorable centennial reevaluation that continues next season with The Price. (He was born in 1915.) Certainly Ivo van Hove’s decontextualized direction of the pair made very strong cases for them not as period pieces but as piercing portraits of eternal (and infernal) human nature. Joe Mantello’s devastating direction of Blackbird — based on an earlier production he mounted for Manhattan Theatre Club — did much the same, but for a play that perhaps could not make that case on its own. What reads on the page as an “issue” play came across the footlights as Strindberg on steroids. (Mantello also directed The Humans.) And though Long Day’s Journey Into Night has long been part of the pantheon of great American plays — many critics in fact consider it the greatest — it is not a work that needed to convince us of anything, except perhaps Jessica Lange’s stage chops.

For that reason (and the related fact that this is the fifth Broadway revival of the O’Neill play) I don’t think Long Day’s Journey will win. As I mentioned in yesterday’s dive into the best musical categories, voters seem to favor, and perhaps rightly so, revivals that radically change our way of seeing a work rather than those that beautifully tell us what we already know. That brings us back to the two Arthur Millers, both of which were eye-opening, often in the way a terrifying carnival ride is: as if you feared you were meeting your fate. Of the two, The Crucible (also in its fifth Broadway revival) has proved somewhat more divisive and slightly more uneven. Voters seem to favor A View From the Bridge, even though it closed in February. Traditions, like classics, are meant to be rethought.

WILL WIN: A View From the Bridge
SHOULD WIN: A View From the Bridge

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the races for performances in a musical.
The Tonys will air on CBS on Sunday, June 12.