Tough choices for the Tonys

A year of strong dramas, tragedies, and farce made for a tight race.

In the midst of the worst recession in decades, the Broadway theater industry faced a series of daunting financial challenges in early 2009. Box office grosses were down across the board, and nearly a dozen theaters had no tenants for the usually bustling spring season. So creative theater owners and producers sprang into action with a somewhat unlikely formula. Rather than assemble the usual raft of shiny, big-budget spectacles often adapted from famous film properties, they anticipated the mood of audiences and offered up a series of dark, serious dramas and pitch-black comedies, a number of which ruminate on alienation and death yet are shot through with illuminating wit.

To insulate themselves against losses, producers cast bold-face name stars (Oscar winners such as Susan Sarandon, Geoffrey Rush, and Jeremy Irons; TV icons such as James Gandolfini, Allison Janney, and John Goodman; and cinema legends such as Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury). All were eager to stretch their acting muscles by bringing to life complex characters in classic dramas or whip-smart tragicomedies. Producers also employed a tried-and-true blueprint for Broadway success – importing hit productions from overseas (among this season's entries: Frederick Schiller's "Mary Stuart" and Alan Ayckbourn's farce "The Norman Conquests").

What emerged was one of the most memorable seasons on Broadway in recent years, which will be celebrated on June 7 with the 63rd annual Tony awards honoring the best and brightest of the 2008-09 season.

With economic storm clouds gathering, black comedy was in abundance. Look no further than two of the top nominees in the most competitive Tony category, Best Revival of a Play: the first Broadway remounting of Beckett's classic "Waiting for Godot" in more than 50 years (starring Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, and John Goodman) and Alan Ayckbourn's 1970s trilogy, "The Norman Conquests." One of the most important artistic works of the 20th century, "Godot" combines the silly and the somber in its story of a couple of bedraggled hobos waxing nonsensical and poetical while facing the existential void. And while "The Norman Conquests" trilogy is ostensibly a sex farce about two characters' attempt to sneak off for a "dirty weekend" in the country, its ensemble of damaged and self-involved souls grasp for meaningful connection and a respite from the mire of their lives. As the three plays unfold, the hopes, unfulfilled dreams, and regrets of the characters are illuminated in increasingly profound ways.

Eugène Ionesco's absurdist comedy "Exit the King" is yet another of the season's explorations of humanity's often futile search for meaning and joy amid a cruel and unforgiving world. This one revolves around a long-serving megalomaniacal monarch whose incompetence and neglect has left his country in near ruins. Told by his wife and doctor that he will die soon, the king uses every tactic at his disposal to keep the Grim Reaper at bay, clinging to his existence with desperate lunacy. Even though the acclaimed production was overlooked for Best Play Revival, Geoffrey Rush is the favorite for Best Actor, thanks to an unforgettable performance that locates the dark truth beneath the raucous farce.

Another black comedy, Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage," about the more muted existential crises churning away in an urban middle-class milieu, skewers the hypocrisies and pretenses of the bourgeoisie. The action revolves around two couples negotiating a truce after one of their sons engages in a playground beat-down of the other, with the play unmasking the cruel, primal impulses beneath seemingly civil society. With its starry, pitch-perfect ensemble (Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis) chewing the scenery, "Carnage" has become a must-see show and is the front-runner for Best Play. Despite the uproarious mayhem, Reza's satire doesn't penetrate that deeply, especially since she's given herself four already wobbling targets to shoot down.

The best new play of the season is Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty," which dissects with unflinching clarity (and compassion) the breakdown of a relationship and the education of a well-meaning but insensitive Everyman.

LaBute's plays and films are populated with the kind of ruthless narcissistic creatures who seem to revel in their bad behavior. However, first with "Fat Pig," then "Reasons to Be Pretty," our modern misanthrope has traded his sadism for a healthy dose of compassion and empathy for the messed-up souls at the heart of his plays.

Despite the resonance of "Reasons to Be Pretty," the late playwright Horton Foote may be the sentimental favorite to steal away the Best Play prize for his drama, "Dividing the Estate," which focuses on a fading, old-money Texas clan melting down over a family inheritance that they've nearly bled dry.

Even the musicals competing for the top Tonys reflect today's rueful, contemplative zeitgeist. While several high-gloss spectacles of the glitzy, overcooked variety found their way to Broadway this season ("Shrek: The Musical," "9 to 5"), the most remarkable ones tapped into the spirit of the times with moving, melancholy stories grounded in real emotion and character.

"Billy Elliot," based on an unlikely hit film about a boy who secretly trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes, is the heavy favorite. The show, up for a record-tying 15 Tonys and already a huge hit in London, is set in working-class northern England during the 1980s coal miners' strike, which places deep hardships on Billy's family. Still, the heart of this musical remains its tale of outsiders marching to the beat of their own drum.

If "Billy Elliot" has a streak of melancholy, "Next to Normal," an improbable underdog that has a shot at scoring an upset for Best Musical, is suffused with that bittersweet emotion. About a woman with bipolar disorder and the family who must learn to cope with her manic ups and downs, the show avoids devolving into a schmaltzy Lifetime movie-of-the-week and could capture the awards for Best Book (Brian Yorkey), Best Score (Yorkey and Tom Kitt), and Best Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley).

In the Best Musical Revival category, the exuberant hippies of "Hair" should easily outpace the mildly affecting staging of "West Side Story." "Hair" captures the zeitgeist more profoundly, with director Diane Paulus finding the mournful and melancholic notes bubbling just below the show's euphoric celebrations of peace, love, and understanding.

The sheer strength of this Broadway season was underscored by the gripping productions that were completely shut out of the Tony race. The breathlessly acclaimed London import of Chekhov's "The Seagull" – with absorbing acting by Kristin Scott Thomas, Carey Mulligan, and Peter Sarsgaard – was one of the highlights of the season, yet garnered zero Tony nominations.

Also ignored was last fall's primal take on Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," helmed by envelope-pushing director Simon McBurney and featuring a trio of heart-wrenching performances by Dianne Weist, John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson.

In an unforgivable omission, Carla Gugino was shut out of the Best Actress in a Play race despite her smoldering performance in "Desire Under the Elms," a bold, soul-stirring production (with a foreboding farmhouse suspended over the stage) that also found no love from the Tony committee (even for perennial favorite Brian Dennehy).

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