By: David Sheward
This time of year in the New York theater is crazy with the amount of prizes handed out. The week started with a one-two punch of award shows–the Drama Desks on Sunday May 19 and the Obies on Monday May 20. For the last few years, the two have been scheduled this close together and are amazingly different. The DDs honors on, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway and while fairly eclectic in their nominations, the winners tend to be pretty conventional.
The Village Voice Obies, which celebrate everything non-Broadway, are anything but conventional. They don’t even have categories, just citations for excellence, and they tend to go to the unusual. The DDs are formal with many attendees in tuxes (including me) and gowns while the Obiegoers are pretty casual and usually raucous. Last year, Linda Lavin had to pause in her acceptance speech for The Lyons to get the crowd to settle down. This year, the usually uncorseted Obies were restrained because just a few days earlier the Voice announced that Michael Feingold, its chief theater critic and chairman of the Obie committee, was being laid off. It was an emotional evening as the audience gave Feingold a standing ovation and winner after winner paid tribute to him.
The DDs were held at Town Hall and the weather was not cooperating with a nasty rain falling as celebrities gathered on the red carpet. But once everyone got inside, the atmosphere improved. The show opened with a number from Hands on a Hard Body featuring almost the entire cast using a grand piano in place of the truck the characters must keep their gloves on. This is one of my favorite musicals of the season and it deserved more than its abbreviated run. Hosting chores were shared by cast members from Old Jews Telling Jokes. It was refreshing to have comics explaining the rules of the awards and admonishing the winners to keep their acceptance speeches short. But the schtick of the Old Jews taking over emcee duties while a "real star" was being sought wore a bit thin. It did get nominee Tom Hanks (Lucky Guy) on stage in a funny ad-lib. Hanks later lost the Actor in a Play Award to Tracy Letts (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who revealed he never received his DD award for writing August: Osage County. Steve Martin (nominated for his musical contribution to the Delacorte’s As You Like It) also got into the act. He accompanied Andrea Martin on stage when she won for Pippin. "They said Andrea Martin," she mock chided him. Cicely Tyson received a standing ovation when she won for The Trip to Bountiful, and, referring to her long absence from Broadway said, "I don’t know whether to stay away another 30 years or just stay."
There were also moving performances from Katie Thompson of Giant (who should have been nominated), Lindsay Mendez of Dogfight and the casts of Working and Here Lies Love who also performed at the Obies the next night. That ceremony held at Webster Hall and hosted by Jeremy Shamos and Jessica Hecht of The Assembled Parties was full of surprises. I was so happy Detroit, my favorite play this season, shared the Best New American Play Award with Grimly Handsome, which had a short run at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery under the auspices of the Incubator Arts Project.
The highlight of the evening (aside from the standing ovation for Feingold) was Meryl Streep presenting lifetime achievement awards to veteran actresses Frances Sternhagen and Lois Smith. Both have had long careers, mainly on stage, and appeared this season as difficult matriarchs–Sternhagen in Liz Flahive’s The Madrid at Manhattan Theatre Club and Smith in Sam Shepard’s Heartless at Signature Theatre. Cyndi Lauper broke up the crowd as she read the erudite presentation speeches prepared for her in her thick Brooklyn accent, stumbling over the words and stopping with a wry "You’re kidding, right?" The Kinky Boots songwriter handed out Obies to David Byrne and Fatboy Slim for the score of Here Lies Love, Dave Malloy for the score and Rachel Chavkin for the direction of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and costume designer Clint Ramos for sustained excellence. Ironically, Lauper had done the vocal of "Eleven Days" on the concept album of Love.
The owners of the Voice did announce they intend to continue with the Obies which include cash grants to theater companies and for Feingold to keep contributing to the publication and chairing the committee. Let’s hope the Obies keep celebrating the unusual, the strange, and the outlandish.
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