Backstage: Gunderson’s ‘I and You’ wins Steinberg award


Rachael Tice and Thaddeus Fitzpatrick played in the Olney Theatre Center’s production of “I and You.” Lauren Gunderson’s play won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for shows that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2013. (Stan Barouh/Olney Theatre Center)
April 8

A play with ties to Washington has received the nation’s highest (fiscal) honor for theater scripts; it just wasn’t the new play that most theater people in the area thought it would be.

“I and You,” by Lauren Gunderson, won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for shows that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2013. Gunderson accepted the honor Saturday at the Humana Festival of New Plays held in Lexington, Ky.

Gunderson, 32, takes home the $25,000 award, and Olney Theatre Center looks particularly prescient for booking a second staging of “I and You.” California’s Marin Theatre Company hosted October’s premiere, but The Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley was impressed with the local production of this “crafty drama” about two teenagers — one African American and one white but chronically ill — who collaborate on a homework assignment about Walt Whitman. “Everything’s primed for pathos,” Pressley wrote, “yet Gunderson taps into a buoyant spirit.”

Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, said he received more positive e-mails from patrons about “I and You” than any other show he has produced at the theater thus far. “We are so proud to have played a role in launching Lauren’s beautiful play into the canon,” he said.

A panel of theater critics from across the country read a giant stack of scripts before naming the six Steinberg Award finalists in February. In theory, it’s a writing prize, and very few judges have actually seen the scripts produced. That may have put “Stupid F---ing Bird,” by Silver Spring-based playwright Aaron Posner, at a disadvantage. The profane riff on Chekhov’s “The Seagull” premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last summer, and was praised for, among other things, breaking the fourth wall in ways that might be difficult to envision based on the text.

Also losing out: “H2O,” Jane Martin’s two-person play that The Post’s Celia Wren deemed the strongest offering of last summer’s Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Speaking to The Post last month, Posner said he was thrilled to be nominated, and he was serious. All those who missed “Bird” last year will have a chance to see the play next month. Woolly’s remount of the show opens May 27.

Second chances, discounts

“Stupid F---ing Bird” will get a another shot at a new play prize on April 21 at the Helen Hayes Awards, Washington’s 30th annual theater prom honoring the best performances of 2013. “Bird” is up for best new play, one of 26 honors that will be doled out before a dolled-up crowd at the National Building Museum.

TheatreWashington, the oddly-spelled umbrella organization that puts on the award show, has christened the seven days leading up to the awards show “theatreWeek,” and launched an ad campaign to promote theatergoing in Washington. At 20 Metro stations, passersby will see ads promoting 19 companies that joined the advertising coalition. Potential patrons who then link to the organization’s Web site will find a list of ticket discounts and special events.

“This is about, at its core, raising awareness about Washington as a theater destination,” said Jennifer Clements, communications and development manager for TheatreWashington. Yes, she admitted, they are hoping the campaign helps get some cherry-blossom-tourist butts in seats. But they also want to snare locals who aren’t regular theatergoers.

“There is theater in Washington that’s a good fit for everyone, no matter your interest or budget,” Clements said.

The list of discounts and deals varies widely. Some member companies simply posted “Pay What You Can” preview nights that fall during theatreWeek. Other venues are offering 10 to 20 percent discounts, including Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre and Round House Theatre. Lower-budget deals include 2-for-1 tickets to see “The Fantasticks” at Rep Stage, $15 tickets to see “The Love of the Nightingale” at Constellation and half-price tickets for “Once on This Island” at Olney.

The official partners for theatreWeek include Destination DC and The Washington Post.

A Signature honor for Tunick

“Passion,” Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical set in 19th-century Italy, is hardly the Broadway composer’s biggest hit. But it was all love at the Italian Embassy on Monday for Jonathan Tunick, the man who orchestrated “Passion,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company” and many more musicals. At a black-tie gala, Tunick was honored with Signature Theatre’s fifth annual Stephen Sondheim Award.

Sure, Sondheim wrote the memorable melody to “Send in the Clowns,” but it was probably Tunick who decided that the song should open with the mournful strains of an English horn.

“Jonathan is one of the unsung heroes of the American musical, and it’s not every day that you see an orchestrator honored in this way,” said Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director.

Past recipients of the award include Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury. To honor Tunick, Signature hired an 18-piece orchestra and invited Tunick to the stage to conduct the overture from “Follies.” Pamela Meyers, Heidi Blickenstaff and Nova Y. Payton were the guest soloists.

On the podium, Tunick told the well-dressed crowd of 420 about the night in 1970 when he first met Sondheim before agreeing to orchestrate “Company.” They arrived at a small Italian restaurant near Sondheim’s apartment and each ordered one Scotch, and then a second. “I’d better stop at two or I’ll make a fool of myself,” Tunick recalled thinking.

Sondheim ordered a third, and to this day maintains that Tunick doesn’t drink.

The event raised nearly $600,000 for Signature, Boland said.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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