Kennedy Center's 'Streetcar,' 'Ragtime,' 'Osage County' top Hayes Award Nominees

By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Kennedy Center turned in a triple-threat performance Monday night as the nominations were unveiled for the Helen Hayes Awards, the annual honors for Washington-area professional theater. The arts center scored big with the Sydney Theatre Company's star-powered revival of a modern classic (Cate Blanchett in "A Streetcar Named Desire"), Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre touring the original production of Tracy Letts's 2008 Pulitzer-winning "August: Osage County," and the home-grown staging of the musical "Ragtime," which bravely transferred to Broadway last fall before closing earlier this month.

Blanchett, whose jittery, gripping portrait of Blanche DuBois powered a sold-out run of "Streetcar," will go up against four separate women from "August," including Estelle Parsons, in the category of outstanding lead actress in a non-resident production. Fantasia in "The Color Purple" didn't make the grade, but then again, nominations were scarce for performers in such touring musicals as "Spring Awakening" at the Kennedy Center and "Jersey Boys" at the National Theatre.

Drama ruled: "Streetcar" actors are taking up four of the five non-resident supporting actor slots, and Joel Edgerton was nominated, too, for his brutish turn as Stanley Kowalski. "Streetcar" earned seven nominations while "August" and "Ragtime" each earned six, and the Kennedy Center led all local companies, with 20 nods.

On the other hand, it was a peculiarly off year for a troupe that typically dominates the Hayes ceremonies, Signature Theatre. Last spring the Arlington-based musical theater specialists won 10 Hayes trophies (from 39 nominations) and then received the nationally coveted Tony Award as outstanding regional theater.

By comparison, then, this year's eight nominations -- all for performers, none for production or direction of such offerings as Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See" and "Giant" or the revival of "Show Boat" -- looks thin.

Signature's relative absence left room for the Keegan Theatre's exuberant production of "Rent," which earned five nominations, and MetroStage's "Cool Papa's Party," with six. "Rent" was one of seven nominees for outstanding resident musical; others include "Ragtime" and two Arena Stage shows, the evergreen "The Fantasticks" and the gospel cash cow "Crowns" (a big winner in 2004, but eligible again because it has been substantially re-staged).

The heavy individual hitters were led by Synetic Theater's surprisingly funny version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of the troupe's typically successful ventures in performing Shakespeare minus the words; that show topped all comers with nine nominations. The Folger Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" reeled in eight nominations, while the Shakespeare Theatre's formidable "King Lear," co-produced with Chicago's Goodman Theatre and starring Stacy Keach, earned seven. "Lear" accounted for half of the Shakespeare Theater's 14 nominations, tops among all troupes other than the Kennedy Center.

Hat tricks were scored by Irina Tsikurishvili (as usual), a three-time nominee for choreographing Synetic productions, sound designer Veronika Vorel and local favorite Holly Twyford, who received three separate nominations as leading actress in a resident play (for "Arcadia," the comedy "The Little Dog Laughed" at Signature, and Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" at Theater J). Among the other performances in that category is Valerie Harper's for "Looped" -- a show that wouldn't seem to qualify as a resident production, since Harper had previously appeared in the comic Tallulah Bankhead bio in Los Angeles and since it begins performances on Broadway next month. Still, the version presented by Arena at the Lincoln Theatre last summer was deemed different enough, and not conceived primarily for New York, to warrant inclusion in the resident category.

Forum Theatre's much-praised staging of Tony Kushner's two-part "Angels in America" presented challenges to the voters: how to distinguish between achievements in Part 1, "Millennium Approaches," and Part 2, "Perestroika"? Some discrimination was possible; a nomination went to Jeremy Skidmore for directing "Millennium," but not to Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove's staging of "Perestroika." On the other hand, lead actor Karl Miller was nominated for the same role twice -- once in each play. The cast was also nominated twice, for outstanding ensemble. Together, the "Angels" rep hauled in eight nominations for the ambitious but budget-challenged Forum.

Buffs hoping for Hayes recognition of Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays" at the National Theatre or the Helen Mirren-led "Ph├Ędre" at the Shakespeare Theatre are out of luck; neither of those two brief star attractions ran long enough to be considered. The Hayes Awards are more like Hollywood's Oscars than Broadway's Tony Awards in that they consider works from the previous calendar year, but there is no box office bump to campaign for, because all the shows have closed. The balloting, done by 63 judges selected by area artistic directors, is a one-stop process: The votes for nominees (announced Monday in the National Theatre's Helen Hayes lobby) also determine the winners. The outcome will be revealed in a gala ceremony Monday, April 5, at the Warner Theatre.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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