NEW YORK — Sunday night, we will finally get the answer to a tense theater season cliffhanger: Will the Kennedy Center win its first Tony Award in 15 years?
We already know that Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has one in the bag: The 25-year-old company headed by Michael Kahn has been named the recipient of the statuette for outstanding regional theater, a prize that went to another D.C. area troupe, Signature Theatre, in 2009. And Woolly Mammoth Theatre is a potential winner-once-removed. A work to which it gave a crucial early boost, the Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park,” is competing in several categories, including best play, in the awards ceremony’s 66th installment, to be hosted in the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theatre by Neil Patrick Harris.
But the Washington institution with the most on the line — gratifyingly and nail-bitingly — is the Kennedy Center. With the highly praised revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies,” which it transferred from the Eisenhower Theater to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, it is a nominee eight times over. Alongside “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” — another import to Broadway from a nonprofit, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. — “Follies” is considered a front-runner for best revival of a musical. And if “Follies” wins that award, it will be the first time in memory that the Kennedy Center will approach the stage, in the person of President Michael M. Kaiser, as a show’s originating and lead producer.
Let’s stipulate here that a Tony represents something other than a recognition of the best that American theater can offer, which may be why some serious theater folks turn up their noses. The awards are intended as much as anything as a marketing tool, limited to the new productions in any season filling 40 Broadway houses in a theater district stretching from West 41st Street to Lincoln Center. During the 2011-12 season, that amounted to a little more than three dozen new and old plays and musicals.
But let’s also acknowledge that everybody wants one. The visibility and validation that a Tony confers may be a result of factors other than preeminent quality, such as whether the show is still running or whether it has potential as a touring production. Yet the psychic rewards can be enormous for an actor, a writer or even an entire city. And D.C., whose performing arts virtues are underappreciated and misunderstood by outsiders, stands in the potential receiving line as a worthy honoree by association.
The theater town on the Potomac seems underprepared to trumpet its strengths. I am amazed at how little effort the companies have expended over the past month to promote their nominations and accolades; Tony time is the only fleeting interlude in the year when the nation pulls off its blindfold and gives the American stage more than a cursory glance. This, too, is the rare year in which “Washington” and “theater” could be uttered in combination several times during a nationwide broadcast.
Mindful of the hometown emotions that might be stirred by this year’s telecast, I undertake a survey here of the Tony sweepstakes in several of the most newsworthy and intriguing categories. These are not predictions; what I’d like to see happen Sunday night is likely to diverge from what does.
While the contest for best musical is a snooze — the sweet, offbeat “Once” should win over the conventional “Newsies” — best play is a delightfully lively race. It’s qualitatively a toss-up between Jon Robin Baitz’s crackling “Other Desert Cities,” the story of a Reaganite family torn apart by a daughter’s tell-all memoir, and Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,” a sophisticated, at times hilarious riff on the race issues raised by Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” (David Ives’s “Venus in Fur” is clever, but by comparison little more than a frivolous game. The fourth nominee, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” is a delightful prequel to “Peter Pan.”) Both “Cities” and “Clybourne” provide juicy acting opportunities, but on the basis of “Clybourne’s” ingenious structure and more profound social commentary, I’d present the trophy to Norris.
Here again, in a category that also includes Margaret Edson’s “Wit” and Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” (a production that also originated at the Kennedy Center), the competition is essentially down to two: director Mike Nichols’s moving “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield, and in a surprise, the terrific new staging of Gore Vidal’s comedy set at a political convention, “The Best Man.” As strong as this new mounting of Arthur Miller’s masterwork is, the achievement of “Best Man” director Michael Wilson — showing us how perceptive and prescient Vidal could be about backroom political-party chess moves — makes it the superior choice. And with James Earl Jones as a blunt and dying ex-president, reducing the phonies to quivering hulks, the show has bona fide star power. “The Best Man” for best revival!
The “Follies” men, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines, are up against each other in a field that also includes Steve Kazee, who gives a magnetic performance as a defeated street busker in “Once.” Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”) and Norm Lewis (“Porgy and Bess”) round out the nominees. Lewis was underrated in “Porgy and Bess” — I caught the show in Cambridge — and Kazee is already a winner by virtue of the impression he’s made in the role. For me, though, the revelation in this category was Burstein’s Buddy, the embittered traveling salesman married to Bernadette Peters’s indifferent Sally. From early in the “Follies” run in Washington, Burstein showed that he had Buddy’s number, making of the character a man truly cast adrift by the recognition that he’s lost the woman he loves.
Three performers in this category made critics swoon: Audra McDonald (naturally) in “Porgy and Bess,” Jan Maxwell in “Follies” and Cristin Milioti as the eccentric, empathetic musical savant of “Once.” (The other two nominees are Laura Osnes of the short-lived “Bonnie & Clyde” and Kelli O’Hara of “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”) McDonald, with four Tonys already, is like the Yankees: How many pennants can you root for? Portraying Phyllis, the ex-Follies girl who’s become an unhappily married socialite, Maxwell is the best in the role I’ve ever seen. Her scabrous “Could I Leave You?” is a vicious lullaby to shattered dreams. Milioti is absolutely just as memorable as the endlessly resourceful Girl, emotional mentor to Kazee’s Guy. If both Milioti and Maxwell can’t win, I’ll feel that justice is served if either one does.
Frank Wood, as a grieving Chicago homeowner in “Clybourne Park,” should have been eligible — and nominated — here. With or without him in contention, however, I’d give this Tony at least once during the ceremony, and maybe twice, to James Corden, the priceless point man of the season’s funniest play, “One Man, Two Guvnors” (which bizarrely was left out of the best-play race). Nominees such as Hoffman and Jones would also be deserving. John Lithgow, sturdy star of the disappointing “The Columnist,” a bio-drama about the Washington Cold War journalist Joseph Alsop, and Frank Langella of “Man and Boy” are the other choices. Corden’s slot is the bravura British one, secured in recent years by two-time winner Mark Rylance (for “Boeing Boeing” and “Jerusalem”). His sly shenanigans in “Guvnors” make for the merriest straight-play foolery in Midtown since Rylance went home. Would a Tony extend Corden’s work visa indefinitely?
Forget making a call; this is a tough category even to pick. All five actresses were more than good: Nina Arianda as a sultry manipulator in “Venus in Fur”; Tracie Bennett, playing an over-medicated Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow”; Stockard Channing, in a turn as an acidic Palm Springs matriarch in “Other Desert Cities”; Linda Lavin as the bluntest of empty-nesters in “The Lyons”; and Cynthia Nixon, portraying the dying professor of John Donne’s poetry in “Wit.” Okay, I’ll close my eyes and choose: Channing. Her stylish, biting performance was Broadway-savvy in ways that guaranteed the play’s laughs and potency.
The revival of “Evita” was a lurching bore, and the vanilla “Jesus Christ Superstar” was burdened with more technology than the Boeing Dreamliner. “Porgy and Bess” was well sung when I saw it up at Harvard, but director Diane Paulus’s concept left me cold; I didn’t choose to see it again after it moved to Broadway. But I was eager to see “Follies” again, and it was well worth the second visit after it moved from Washington to the Marquis. The changes by director Eric Schaeffer, and new cast members such as Jayne Houdyshell and Mary Beth Peil, righted what had been an enterprise without an even keel. It’s no indication of knee-jerk cheerleading to await the opening of the envelope by thinking, “Go ‘Follies.’ ”
Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.