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AS THE TONYS APPROACH... Reflections on the Year That Was

Of the just-concluded Broadway season, one might say it began with a bang and ended with a whimper. The bang being the joyful ingenuity of Avenue Q, the season's first new musical; the whimper being the ignominious Prymate, the final opening of 2003-04.

There were also extremes at the box office. Frozen was ushered in quickly from off-Broadway on the strength of its New York Times review but has struggled to attract an audience, while Wicked opened to mixed reviews but has become so popular the rush-ticket lottery is getting as difficult to win as the real lottery. Hugh Jackman has created a cult of his own over at the Imperial Theatre, while Bombay Dreams was dismissed by critics and Tony nominators but is filling most of its seats.

The season was characterized by other dichotomies as well. When it came to performances, it was almost an embarrassment of riches; when it came to new non-musical plays, it was just an embarrassment.

Want to feel good about Broadway this year? Look at leading ladies in musicals. Tonya Pinkins has, according to some, given the performance of a lifetime in Caroline, or Change. Her Tony competition includes Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town, who has, according to some, given...the performance of a lifetime. Wicked's dueling divas-in-training, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, have also been roundly exalted. Nearly lost in the shuffle is Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who in another year would have run off with the Tony for simultaneously playing herself plus two puppet characters: one sweet and earnest, the other conniving and promiscuous.

Dramatic performances by men were another highlight this season, with acclaimed turns by two of our finest Shakespeareans, Christopher Plummer (King Lear) and Kevin Kline (Falstaff in Henry IV); the multi-character, multi-accented solo by Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife; Frank Langella outshining his material as Match's glib queen; and British fave Simon Russell Beale's performance one of the only things that made sense in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. Ned Beatty, whose performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may have been the definitive Big Daddy of all time, didn't even make the Tony final cut.

To dampen your enthusiasm, take a look at this season's crop of new plays. Match, Prymate, Sixteen Wounded, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks and Bobbi Boland—which together accounted for half of this season's new plays—played a total of 99 official performances; Boland never made it out of previews. (I'm still recovering from the drubbing to my theater-loving psyche that was Prymate.) Richard Greenberg's Tony triumph for last season's Take Me Out was deflated just five months later by tepid response to The Violet Hour. Anna in the Tropics arrived on Broadway as the latest Pulitzer-winning play, but proved memorable mostly as a literary exercise, about which "lyrical" was the best many viewers could muster. I Am My Own Wife is an interesting story and exquisitely acted (and designed), but as a one-person show was it "full-bodied" enough to deserve this year's Pulitzer?

Beyond what was good or bad, a commercial success or disaster, a number of other things left an impression on me this season. Below are ten markers of this past year on and off Broadway (three are grouped under one heading). These were not brand-new developments, but they did seem to occur either more frequently or in higher-profile shows this season.

Edginess gone awry. Should theaters provide a sickness bag at every seat as airlines do? You might have thought so at times this season, since audiences were asked to stomach some exceedingly discomforting material. And I'm not talking about the recurrence of pedophilia as subject matter (Big Bill, The Tricky Part, Beautiful Child, Frozen), or the fact that a man is hanged onstage in not one but two Broadway plays (Frozen and Assassins). No, it was the depiction of such ugliness as the precise sexual act that infects someone with HIV—which we had to witness in both The Long Christmas Ride Home and Prymate. Neither was a good play, either—and that makes the explicitness seem included just for shock value. In their apparent attempt to be "edgy," playwrights are getting adept at darn near nauseating their audience with blunt dialogue about highly intimate or disturbing topics. In Prymate, for instance, before we were actually treated to the sight of bestiality, Phyllis Frelich spoke matter-of-factly of a woman who masturbated a gorilla while it fondled her breasts. The married couple in Beautiful Child discussed how they gouged out their son's eyes. And who could forget (no matter how hard we try) a gay man offering his daughter-in-law cunnilingus in Match? I don't condemn any play for wading into unsettling territory, only when it's done gratuitously or in a work without much redeeming artistic merit, as many of these were. To the creators of these shows, I suggest: If you think you can't make your audience gasp in anguish or shock without grossing them out, go see A Raisin in the Sun.

Whither intermission? "...will be performed without an intermission" is becoming the most common phrase in Playbills outside of "...has appeared in Law & Order." During the homestretch of this season (i.e., the last two months), I went to 21 plays; fewer than half of them had an intermission. And of the 10 that did, seven were revivals. Plays used to go without an interval only if they clocked in under 90 minutes. This year Well, Assassins and Prymate were among the intermissionless shows that ran at least an hour and 40 minutes. I've been told that producers eliminate intermission to discourage walk-outs, a bad yet increasingly widespread habit among theatergoers. Free yourself of the remote control's influence, and let's cut down on walk-outs regardless of intermission. There's a lot of ground between middling/disappointing/peculiar and unbearable. And probably a lot of hyperbole if you're so convinced a show is a-w-f-u-l. It diminishes the theatergoing experience for all when seats empty at intermission, and it's discourteous to the performers.

President Punchline. Maybe if our intellectually deprived commander-in-chief went to the theater once in a while, they wouldn't take so many potshots at him. During BroadwayWorld's Standing Ovations benefit last month, host Michael Musto quipped: "If you don't vote for John Kerry, I'm going to make you watch my Prymate video!" We heard digs at George W. Bush in several other shows this year—and I'm not even counting Embedded. Hairspray started it last season with Tracy's complaint (after archrival Amber has her jailed right before their dance contest) that "Manipulating our judicial system to win a contest is un-American!" In the Avenue Q finale, "George Bush!" is one of the adversities that the cast reassures themselves is, mercifully, only "For Now." (Not surprisingly, neither Avenue Q nor Hairspray is on the list of shows that Republican National Convention delegates will attend the evening of August 29, in a so-called "Salute to Broadway"; also not surprisingly, they're opting for the Disney shows and retreads like 42nd Street instead.) Even genteel Miss Barbara Cook has gotten into the act. In Barbara Cook's Broadway, after she mentions that Harry Truman was president when she came to New York in 1948, some in the audience applaud. At the notion that people would actually applaud a president, she remarks: "I know what you mean!" And of course there's Assassins' invitation to "hit the prez and win a prize!"

Gay life. The love that dare not speak its name had a lot to say onstage this season. Whereas the self-hating homosexuals of Boys in the Band were once considered ground-breaking, now a broad range of gay experiences is commonplace. The subject no longer has to be homosexuality itself; this year, plays about gay characters focused on such diverse scenarios as life under totalitarianism (I Am My Own Wife), semi-closeted stardom (The Boy From Oz), hedonistic bisexuality (Match), the drag and drug culture (Taboo) and divisiveness over AIDS (The Normal Heart). That broad range of experiences does, however, always omit one segment of the gay population: women.

Curtain calls. I've never been a fan of what I jokingly call "communist curtain calls"—that is, when the entire cast takes their bows together. I know it promotes "team spirit," and I understand using it for truly ensemble work. But we should have the opportunity to accord individual performers their own ovations. Like Fred Berman, Billy Warlock and Mark Dobies for their wrenching scenes in The Normal Heart. Or the performers in Irish Rep's Finian's Rainbow, who each clearly plays a lead, secondary or chorus role. And no disrespect to Sam Kitchin, the prison guard in Frozen, but should Swoosie Kurtz and Brían F. O'Byrne, who so dominate the play, have to share their curtain call with someone who has a wordless part?

Te queremos, Raúl. The Normal Heart revival opened off-Broadway just in time to earn star Raúl Esparza a Tony nomination—for Taboo. His arguably over-the-top performance in that debacle from last winter might have been forgotten had he not been holding theatergoers in thrall as the antihero of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart just as Tony nominees were selected. Though New York audiences had enjoyed Esparza in tick, tick...BOOM!, Rocky Horror and Cabaret, his truly heavyweight roles had occurred elsewhere (in Chicago and at the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration). As The Normal Heart's infuriating, heartbreaking Ned Weeks, who appears in almost every scene of the three-hour play, Esparza got his big showcase role here. Whether his next Broadway role is in a Normal Heart transfer or something else, we have a lot to look forward to from this dynamic talent.

Also seen and heard... If you don't distinguish between fiction and reality, you would have been shocked this year by the onstage behavior of some wholesome TV personalities. "Lisa Simpson" (Yeardley Smith) talking about her affairs with married men in More! Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) gunning down President Kennedy in Assassins! And John-Boy Walton—er, Richard Thomas—graphically reminiscing about a ménage à trois in The Stendhal Syndrome! ... Speaking of graphics, they showed up all over an actor's body in several different Broadway plays. Tattoo makeup artists must be the growth industry in theater. Among the heavily tattooed-for-stage actors: Marc Kudisch in Assassins, Brían F. O'Byrne in Frozen, Heather Tom in Prymate. ... O'Byrne was also a party to another growing trend in new plays: monologues instead of dialogue. Frozen's characters spoke more to the fourth wall than to each other. There was a lot of that in The Long Christmas Ride Home too, among other plays this season. I prefer characters who interact rather than narrate. Plus, continual monologuing by characters is conducive to mind-wandering by the audience.

The cell-phone announcement. It'll be a great day when theaters no longer have to remind people to silence their !@#*% cell phones. In the meantime, we continue to get entertaining variations on the "Please turn off..." announcement. Before the Berlin-set I Am My Own Wife, the announcement is made in German. Before the Cuban-American Anna in the Tropics, it was made in Spanish. At off-Broadway's new The Joys of Sex, the reminder is as clever as anything in the show: sound of cell phone ringing, followed by a person scolding, "Not sexy!"; sound of candy wrappers crinkling, followed by same voice stating, "Definitely not sexy!"; etc. I've laughed at these routines along with everyone else, but cell phones in theaters aren't funny. I'm all for extending the smoking ban to cell phones: usage prohibited anywhere inside the theater. If you are a devoted theater fan or work in the biz, set an example: When you're there as an audience member, don't use your phone inside the building.

Photos, from top: Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked; Frank Langella, Ray Liotta and Jane Adams in Match; André De Shields in Prymate; John Tartaglia with Princeton, Stephanie D'Abruzzo with Kate Monster in Avenue Q; Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife; Raúl Esparza, with Billy Warlock, in The Normal Heart. [Avenue Q and Normal Heart photos by Carol Rosegg, Prymate photo by Paul Kolnik, all others by Joan Marcus]

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