A look at the past season; Theater awards that cause small wars

What was the best Broadway play of the receding 1982-83 season? Depending on your preference among three prestigious prizes, and observing the chronology of announcements, it was:

* '' 'Night, Mother'' by Marsha Norman - Pulitzer Prize for best American play.

* ''Brighton Beach Memoirs'' by Neil Simon - New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

* ''Torch Song Trilogy'' by Harvey Fierstein - Antoinette Perry (Tony) Circle Award.

It would be hard to imagine a more disparate trio. Allowing for the vagaries of prizegiving, this year's performance by selectors and electors could well deserve its own award. Maybe a special Tony.

The flak began to fly with the announcement that '' 'night, Mother' ,'' a taut dramatic treatment of the final 90 minutes in the life of a suicide, had received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Many in the theater community believed that the award should have gone to Mr. Simon's warm-hearted memory play.

This reaction was mild, however, compared with the astonishment and outrage that greeted the omission of ''Brighton Beach Memoirs'' from the slate of best-play candidates presented by the Tony so-called nominating committee. (The committee members vote in isolation without ever meeting. Advisedly, the Tony-sponsoring League of New York Theatres and Producers and American Theatre Wing are planning an overhaul of their policies and procedures.

Besides '' 'night, Mother', '' this year's nominated plays were Lanford Wilson's ''Angels Fall,'' about a group of people facing a common crisis; ''Torch Song Trilogy,'' a highly explicit portrait of a homosexual drag queen; and ''Plenty,'' British playwright David Hare's study of the post-war dissillusionment and breakdown of a young woman member of the World War II resistance.

The furor over the Tony announcements was a mere prologue to the May 19 meeting at which the Critics' Circle voted its awards. In the most heated session in the more than 10 years that I have been a member, the critics chose ''Brighton Beach'' by a narrow margin over '' 'night, Mother.'' The Circle named Off Broadway's ''Little Shop of Horrors'' as best musical, bypassing ''Cats,'' which subsequently won seven Tonys (including best musical).

Such crosscurrents in the awards department reflected the state of the theater - particularly Broadway - in 1982-83. It was not the best of times. Nor was it the worst of times. But along with some very considerable rewards, it included a conspicuous share of oddities and disappointments.

One of the positive signs of the times was the prominence of women in the season's more substantial achievements. For instance, Miss Norman was the second woman playwright in the last three years to win a Pulitzer. Beth Henley received the 1981 prize for ''Crimes of the Heart.''

The standing ovation accorded Jessica Tandy as she accepted her third best-actress Tony (for ''Foxfire''') was a deserved tribute to a great lady of the theater and a high point of the uneven ceremonies. But it also focused attention on the high incidence of women as protagonists in the season's theatrical fare.

The trend is not merely a matter of feminist influence, important as that influence may be. It is, perhaps, rather an increasing realization that ''attention must be paid.'' In addition to '' 'night, Mother,'' a sampling of the dramatic works in which women figured predominantly would include Caryl Churchill's ''Top Girls'' and ''Fen,'' David Hare's ''Plenty,'' ''Poppie Nongena'' from South Africa, and Robert Anderson's ''Monday After the Miracle.''

There were also Tina Howe's ''Painting Churches,'' William Mastrosimone's ''Extremities,'' Catherine Hayes's ''Skirmishes,'' the pseudonymously written ''Talking With,'' and the Mary Gallagher-Ara Watson ''Win/Lose/Draw.'' Typically , most of these were done Off Broadway and several were of British authorship. Twenty-four of the well over a hundred productions I attended in the 1982-83 season showed a concern for women.

That Off Broadway was the locale of so many of these productions provides a useful reminder of the extent to which professional playmaking lights up the New York City sky far beyond the limits of the Great White Way. As these paragraphs appear, a directory of some 50 shows is almost evenly divided between Broadway and Off Broadway.

Current Off Broadway hits include ''Breakfast with Les and Bess,'' ''Jeeves Takes Charge,'' ''Quartermaine's Terms,'' ''The Dining Room,'' and ''The Middle Ages,'' to name a few. In yet another sector, Off Off Broadway is alive and well and teeming with projects. Whatever the trials of the commercial theater, New York clearly does not want for stage activity at any number of levels.

And so back to the Tonys. The telecast ceremony is a promotion event in which the award giving itself seems at times almost incidental. This year's proceedings were devised as a tribute to George Gershwin. It was an appropriate enough gesture, considering that George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on the music and lyrics for the spectacularly revived ''Porgy and Bess'' as well as for ''My One and Only,'' a new version of their 1927 ''Funny Face.''

Near the end of the telecast, Laurence Olivier (from London) announced that the scene of this year's show, the Uris Theatre, would hereafter be called the George Gershwin. As part of the same move to honor the theater's major talents, the Alvin (home of ''Brighton Beach Memoirs'') is being renamed the Neil Simon and the Little (scene of ''Torch Song Trilogy'') will be the Helen Hayes. (The most recent playhouse named for Miss Hayes was demolished, along with the Morosco and Ritz, to make way for a hotel.)

Broadway's need of promotion, and especially for better product, surfaced a few days before the Tony-award bash. In its season-end summary, the League of New York Theatres and Producers reported substantial declines in attendance and box office receipts. Receipts dropped from $223 million in 1981-82 to $209 million in 1982-83. In the same 12 months, attendance declined from 50 million to 48 million. The number of productions rose slightly - from 48 to 50.

Anyone concerned with the American theater's artistic vitality must also be concerned with its commercial viability. Enormous production costs, rising ticket prices, and continuing competition from other entertainment forms all contribute to the problems facing those engaged in the perilous venture of putting on a show. While preservationists call for the rescue and rehabilitation of theatrical properties, owners and operators point to the fact that there are always empty theaters waiting to be occupied.

Yet even as the Tonys cast was singing a final chorus of ''Strike Up the Band'' at the newly christened Gershwin Theatre, trade publications were listing pages of projects in various stages of preparation. Earlier on, something of the playmaker's intrepid optimism was displayed by Mr. Simon in the message of acceptance he sent from California to be read at the Critics' Circle awards party. His gracefully witty response included these words:

''In all honesty, this is an award I covet most and appreciate with all my heart. If I lost it, I would still be back at the old stand selling my wares next year. I am a playwright first and last, both a blessing and a curse in life. I can't get away from it if I tried. . . . I wish good health to the distinguished body attending here today. I say that because 20 years from now I hope another pitched battle will be fought over my 40th play. If I can take it, so can you!''

There speaks the spirit of the living theater. Come success or failure, awards or lack of them, it never gives up.

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