How does the New York Drama Critics Circle vote on those "Best Play" citations that, in time, will distinguish a play as "the best" of its era?
Here, as recorded by Otis Guernsey Jr. in the latest of his annual volumes, "The Best Plays of 1976-1977," is the somewhat convoluted way the "best" of 76-77 was voted:
"After the first ballot, a new point-scoring rule adopted by the critics last fall required a winning play to receive not merely a plurality of points as in the past, but a point total equal to the number of voting members (in this case 21 including proxies) multiplied by three, divided by two, plus one, making this year's plurality minimum 31 points."
Noting that a critic's first choice gets three points, a second choice two points and a third choice one point, Guernsey continues:
"Otherwise Engaged" received only 23 points on the second ballot, but instead of declaring an impasse and no award under the new rule, the majority of those present voted to restrict third and fourth ballot candidates to plays that had already received 10 points on the previous ballot. This eliminated six proxy voters and brought the winning point total down to the 22 points finally eked out by 'Otherwise Engaged,' to 21 for 'American Buffalo' and 'No Man's Land' and 20 for 'Ashes.'"
If you're still following those convolutions, you may ask about those eliminated six proxy votes. Well, at the time of the meeting AP's William Glover, Kroll, Scripps-Howard's Raidy and The Wall Street Journal's Edwin Wilson were, most of them at least, in Canada for the Stratford Festival's six openings. Between them the six had given three first choices (nine points) to "The Shadow Box," already the Pulitzer winner, and one first choice each to "Gemini," "A Texas Trilogy" and "American Buffalo."
In short, without changing the rules and ignoring the proxy voters, there would have been no "best play" for 76-77.
It is striking that despite Dick Cavett's effort to continue "Otherwise Engaged" after Tom Courtnay's departure, Simon Gray's play has not been heard of since, and the "Best American Play" choice by the remaining critics, "American Buffalo," closed shortly after the award was announced.
On such complexities and happenings elsewhere do all laurel wreaths rest. The world of academe is no different. Unless you're present to make a pep talk, you won't get your honorary Ph.D. either.
Such intriguing footnotes to theatrical history are to be found by the careful peruser of the series begun by the critic Burns Mantle for the 1920-21 season. The initial publishers were Small, Maynard of Boston, succeeded at the 1925-26 season by New York's Dodd, Mead, which gallantly and with virtually no financial profit has been enlarging and enhancing the record ever since. Dodd, Mead added three volumes to cover 1894-'99, 1899-1909 and 1909-'19, and two indices. This means that an investigative mind with shelf space for the now 62 volumes can come across all sorts of curiosa.
As our theather widens its reach and perceptions, the complex dilemma of how the members of the New York Drama Critics Circle cast their ballots becomes more amusing than maddening. It really is hilarious to think of those earnest egos wrestling with their rule about multiplying by three, divided by two (which can't always be done evenly) then adding one and deciding how to chop off the heads of those not present because they are attending the finest theater company on the continent.
And to think that their two top choices expired while such works as "The Shadow Box" continue in New York and a score of productions from "A Texas Trilogy" goes on across America. Fortunately, editor Guernsey is not hobbled by the democratic dodges the critics have erected and makes his own choices. He clearly has a staggeringly catholic taste. His choices of "The 10 Best":
Larry Gelbart's "Volpone" variation, "Sly Fox"; David Rudkin's "Ashes"; the Meehan-Strouse-Charnin musical "Annie"; Neil Simon's "California Suite"; two plays from Preston Jones' "A Texas Trilogy," "The Oldest Living Graduate" and "The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia"; Trevor Griffiths' "Comedians," which Arena Stage will be doing next month; David Mamet's "American Buffalo" and Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box."
To this he adds "an outstanding new play produced outside New York selected by the 125-member countrywide American Theater Critics Association." First representative of these choices is "And the Soul Shall Dance," by Wakako Yamauchi, presented by California's East/West Players.
While the plays cannot be printed in toto, Guernsey's summations of action and pages of dialogue give excellent reflections of the works. I suspect "American Buffalo" in the playing had vastly more four-letter words than appear here. Wisely, "Annie" is presented through performance photographs and slices of Charnin's lyrics.
Statistically the total picture is richer than the plays might suggest, 18 percent more action along Broadway than in the previous season. This one grossed, in Variety's figures, "a whopping $93,406,082, which was 31.85 per cent higher than the previous year's all-time record of $70.8 million." Broadway shows on the road grossed $82,627,309 or 42.62 per cent over the previous season's all-time record. Guernsey notes that the top ticket broke the previous $15 barrier and reached through $17.50 to touch $20. (This season, one can predict is bound to zoom higher yet, whatever the plays' values may be. Prices are higher.)
The Dodd, Mead series continues to expand its "The Season Around the United States" coverage, with Ella A. Malin's compilation presentation revealing repertoire and increasingly respected companies from New England to the Sun Belt. There are extended reports on the Los Angeles area by Rick Talcover of the Valley News and on Washington by David Richards of The Washington Star. And for the first time there are two pages on dinner theater.
Enlivening reports, dialogue and statistics is a 26-page portfolio of Hirschfeld caricatures and superb cast photos. This year's price is the same as last year's, $17.95. Dodd, Mead's annual is the only ready source of our theatrical record, its nuggets of facts and reflections of art a priceless, yearly hunk of Americana.