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Theater awards -- do they really prove anything?

By John Beaufort / June 22, 1982

New York

The rites and revels of the 1982 theatrical awards season are now ending. The season began April 12 when the Pulitzer Prize jury bestowed its drama laurel on Charles Fuller's explosively stirring ''A Soldier's Play.'' The first Sunday in June saw the televised hoopla of the commercial theater's self-celebration, the annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards. The industry's 620 voting professionals selected ''The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'' as the season's best play and ''Nine'' as the best musical, and conferred honors in 17 other categories.

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The New York Drama Critics' Circle continued the awards season June 17 by presenting scrolls to ''Nickleby'' as best play and ''A Soldier's Play'' as best American play. The critics spurned the season's musicals by giving no award in that category.

Besides the Pulitzer, the Tonys, and the Critics' Circle prizes, there were also the Drama Desk, Obie, and Outer Critics Circle awards, to mention the most representative. The New Drama Forum Association will ring down the curtain on the 1982 prize givings later this month with its Rosamond Gilder Award.

Such honors admittedly do less than justice to all that may have been achieved in a given season. But they at least acknowledge the achievement itself. They create a momentary sense of triumph, accompanied by a permanent memento. And they stir plenty of lively debate.

Take, for instance, the case of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' the Royal Shakespeare Company's 8 1/2-hour, two-session, $100-a-ticket spectacular. There was some feeling in the theatrical community that a special Tony Award would recognize its vast accomplishment, at the same time placing it above the general competition. Such a move would have cleared the field for widely praised but more conventional works like Ronald Harwood's ''The Dresser,'' Athol Fugard's ''Master Harold . . . and the Boys,'' or Beth Henley's ''Crimes of the Heart.'' (The Deep South Henley comedy had already received the 1981 Pulitzer and Critics' Circle Prizes.)

But the Tony administration decided to include ''Nickleby'' with the other best-play nominees. And when its turn came, the Critics' Circle arrived at the same conclusion. Meanwhile, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle had gone the other route by honoring ''Nicholas'' with special citations.

Such are the diversities and dilemmas of prize giving. One of the basic difficulties in any effort to choose the ''best'' or the ''outstanding'' lies in the necessity to make comparisons among excellences that are not really comparable. Tony voters were faced with choosing the outstanding performance from among Tom Courtenay's sharp, devoted valet in ''The Dresser,'' Milo O'Shea's humorous yet troubled priest in ''Mass Appeal,'' Christopher Plummer's incomparable Iago in ''Othello,'' and Roger Rees's deeply affecting Nicholas in ''Nicholas Nickleby.''

Mr. Rees won the Tony. But it would be hard to argue that these four superb actors appeared in roles that were histrionically comparable. I voted for Mr. Plummer, not only for his excellence in a major Shakespearean role, but because he also happened to be the finest Iago of my particular playgoing experience.