NEW YORK — When the Tony Award for best new play of the season is announced on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall, it won’t be for the best new play of the season.
It’s one of the least appreciated aspects of the Tonys, though, that the theater world’s most visible honors are limited to only those plays and musicals that a producer found a way to book into one of Broadway’s 40 or so commercial and nonprofit theaters during the previous 12 months. And the slate of new plays this year, in particular, looks and feels especially unrepresentative of the best of the best: a stage sequel to a popular fantasy franchise (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”); two other imports from London — the mediocre Mark Rylance vehicle “Farinelli and the King” and a more interesting Lucy Kirkwood play, “The Children”; John Leguizamo’s stand-up show, “Latin History for Morons”; and Ayad Akhtar’s underwhelming drama about fiscal shenanigans, “Junk.”
Not every harvest is going to be a bumper crop, of course, and some of the other marquee races this time around, like that for best musical, are less than exciting: “The Band’s Visit” by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses is the only rational choice (over “Mean Girls,” “Frozen” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical”). The evening’s safest of safe bets — along with the Tony that absolutely has to go to the indestructible Glenda Jackson for her bravura performance in the revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” — are that the singing appearance of newly minted Broadway star Bruce Springsteen will be the ratings highlight of the show, and that the two-part “Harry Potter” extravaganza will take home the statuette for best play.
If, however, the Tonys really did survey the American theater landscape and single out the most outstanding work being done in the land, the category that would least resemble what you’ll see Sunday night would be best play. Or at least that’s how I see it, from a perch that allows me to sample a wider variety of the sometimes impressive new work mounted on the stages of off-Broadway and beyond. Here is what my list of nominees for best play might look like this year, in a vastly different qualifying universe:
“Yerma.” This dazzling and devastating drama written and directed by Simon Stone, takes only from its source, Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play, a central premise: a woman driven to madness by her inability to conceive a child. Otherwise, Stone has thoroughly reconceived the tale of a character called Her, and played by Billie Piper, in the performance of the year. Staged in a glass box designed by Lizzie Clachan that resembles a terrarium, with the actors’ voices amplified with astonishing crystalline clarity by Stefan Gregory, this London-bred production came to Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory for a month in the spring and became the galvanizing experience that everyone talked about.
“The Niceties.” At a new-play festival in the West Virginia panhandle last summer emerged a taut, penetrating two-person piece about a student of color at a prestigious university who challenges in blistering fashion the pieties of a white liberal history professor on the subject of slaveholding during the American Revolution. Eleanor Burgess’s piece, in a muscular staging by director Kimberly Senior for the Contemporary American Theater Festival, exposes the generational and political fissures on the left on the volatile issue of race. And it does so in a nail-biter of a play that leaves you wrung out and reassessing your own pieties.
“Dance Nation.” If after Sarah DeLappe’s wisdom-saturated “The Wolves,” there remained any lingering doubts about a new generation of female dramatists ready to assert its power, then Clare Barron’s funny, ingeniously imagined comedy-drama should help put them to rest. Seven women and one man of varying ages portray Ohio middle-school kids on an extracurricular dance team, exhorted, cajoled, comforted and bullied by a soft-spoken tyrant played by the wonderful Thomas Jay Ryan, at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. (Though it officially opened in early May, just after the awards deadline, I’m including it here.) With warmth and a canny grasp of the rituals — both sacred and profane — of American girlhood, director Lee Sunday Evans and her cast take an audience on a guided tour of a bruising adolescent world, and the adults on the margins who barely understand it.
“The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons.” Baltimore actor Eric Berryman had the inspired notion to make the voices of some musically gifted prisoners on penal farms of the ’60s sing again. He brought the idea to off-off-Broadway’s celebrated Wooster Group, and the result was this poignant performance piece, in which a trio of actors, under Kate Valk’s direction, sing along to a 1964 recording of the inmates’ work songs by folklorist Bruce Jackson. The effect is both moving and transporting. I’ve made mention of this show elsewhere as a musical, but that’s a stretch. As an elegiac vocal reckoning with the past, it creates its own dramatic category.
“Mlima’s Tale.” Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, has an urgent mission in this sleek exposé, directed by Jo Bonney, and that’s to illuminate the nefarious international trafficking in ivory that continues to threaten elephant survival. Her artful elucidation of the issue at the Public Theater — with the graceful contributions of Sahr Ngaujah (“Fela!”) as a slaughtered pachyderm — makes this the conscience play of the season. It’s impossible in this beautiful, quasi-documentary work not to feel as if we all have a stake in Mlima’s fate.
There you have it, my list, the one that can never be. Still, let me offer my congratulations to all of these non-winners. Because in my book they are the real winners.
The Tony Awards will be broadcast Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.