Volume 16 • Issue 50 | May 7 - 13, 2004

2004 Lucille Lortel Awards

Special honors for playwright Tony Kushner


(Right to left) Anika Noni Rose as Emmie Thibodeaux, Tonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux, and Chandra Wilson as Dotty Moffett in a scene from “Caroline, or change.” (Top left corner) Tony Kushner.

Quite possibly you have never spent an hour and a half sitting next to a serial killer pedophile and didn’t know it.

He was tall, rangy, rawboned, Irish, wearing an Irish cap, blue jeans, and a knock-around jacket of some sort, and when he heard his name spoken, or misspoken, from the stage, he shot out of his chair, galloped up the three steps just to our left, gave a winning smile to the angel in the yellow dress — not Tony Kushner’s angel, but a live one — who was about to hand him something he could proudly show his mother and her two sisters, all three just flown in from Ireland.

What he would tell his mother and his aunts, Brian F. O’Byrne said, was “I’m very good at being a serial killer pedophile.”

That’s what O’Byrne portrays in “Frozen,” the wrenching Bryony Lavery drama that has traveled from across the Atlantic to Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater and then to Broadway’s Circle-in-the-Square — a performance that had just won Brian (pronounced “Bree-en,” not “Bry-yan,” he’d like you to know) a 2004 Lucille Lortel Award as Outstanding Lead Actor of the season.

This was Monday night before a packed house in the Minetta Lane Theater. When Lucille Lortel had started these things, 19 years ago, it had entailed, we were told by co-host Joanna Gleason, “a small reception and one award.” Now there were 17 awards — “Don’t go away,” Ms. Gleason said, “it’ll feel like 16” — and the judges had each had to see 87 plays.

As he threw one final appreciative look at the angel in the yellow dress — tall, lovely, crop-haired Regina Monte, the evening’s dispenser of envelopes and, to each winner, his or her little Lortel trophy — O’Byrne remarked, with wonder: “People who went to 87 shows . . . would you wish it on your worst enemy?”

It was time for the memorializing of Tony Kushner himself, whose “Caroline, or Change,” another voyager from Off-Broadway to Broadway, would account for four 2004 Lortel Awards — but first, here, some recapitulation:

After the Minetta Lane’s resident Korean company had warmed things up with a blazing percussive taste of its “Cookin’,” Miss Gleason’s sidekick, co-host Richard Thomas, pretended to have difficulty groping for the name Sond —, Sond —. Sondheim. Mr. Thomas, by the way, was rather better dressed than most of the baggy-pantsed, floppy-jacketed celebrants. John-Boy (a/k/a Richard II, Hamlet, et al.) more than once found himself dodging out of the way of female stagehands toting a Plexiglas podium to stage center.

The first big award, for Outstanding Body of Work, went to the Public Theater that has hatched “Caroline, or Change” and a thousand other shows since its founding by Joseph Papp in 1954 — not as “Theater Workshop” (as they said here) but as “The Shakespearean Workshop Theater.”

Making the presentation, Anna Deveare Smith recalled going to Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in Central Park “where the audience was as fascinating as the show,” finding herself next to Mrs. Jcqueline Onassis “and right next to her three or four black kids” who kept saying, of the former First Lady, “Look, she can’t talk.”

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” came away with four Lortel Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress Tonya Pinkins (who said: “Every time somebody does something extraordinary it becomes possible for someone else to do something” — and then verged toward tears), and Outstanding Featured Actress Anika Noni Rose (who accepted in a tiny, disappearing voice that surrealistically belied the powerhouse with which she had just rendered “I Hate the Bus.”)

In this year of 2004 Tony Kushner becomes the 50th playwright to be enshrined with an imprint in the concrete sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel Theater (once the Theater de Lys) on Christopher Street.

The job of introducing him went to Charles Busch, who now took the mike. “They called me last week. I said all right. When I got here, they handed me a script. It said: ‘Charles Busch will now expound on Tony Kushner.’ My God, ask me about Ida Lupino or somebody . . . “

But then Busch said of “Caroline, or Change,” a musical about a boy growing up in a middle-class Jewish family, and that family’s stoic black maid: “It’s so personal it becomes universal . . . He takes such chances . . .

“He’s such a nice fellow — and he actually liked ‘Taboo,’ “ said the writer/arranger of the book of that long-since-vanished Broadway musical.

Taking to the stage, Tony Kushner talked rapid-fire about seeing a documentary film on the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Chapel, where, for want of space, poet Ben Jonson was buried standing up, and remains standing up after 300 years.

Maybe it should be like that on Christopher Street, said Kushner, with bypassers’ shoe soles treading on “a whole block of standing-up dead playwrights. Of course,” playwright Kushner noted, “it would have to be cleared with Con Ed.”

And then Kushner publicly recalled how his first job on reaching New York had been as a stage manager at the Lucille Lortel Theater — where, one fine evening, he had refused to let theater owner Lortel into her seat because she’d arrived late. “She did not think that sufficient reason, and left in a huff.”

Ah well, Miss Lortel, wherever you are, contemplate your sidewalk.

The only real production rivals to “Caroline, or Change” in this year’s Lortels had been “Bug,” Tracy Letts’s melodrama of paranoia, which took Outstanding Play, Outstanding Director (Dexter Bullard), and two other awards; and Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” voted Outstanding Solo Show.

Every good drama has its climax, and we were now at this one — the Edith Oliver Award for Sustained Excellence, which Lynn Redgrave was about to present to Kathleen Chalfant, a Greenwich Villager from way back. The two actresses had worked on this very stage together in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.”

“Kathleen Chalfant,” said Lynn Redgrave, “just sustains excellence in every bloody way she can. When we were here last year in ‘Talking Heads’ she sustained excellence not only on stage but with dirty stories offstage and in the Green Room . . .

“She simply disappears into her roles . . . In ‘Talking Heads’; she had to play this sad wistful alcoholic . . . I don’t know how she did that . . . and then of course there’s ‘Wit’ “ — a great Chalfant triumph, the mention of which by Ms. Redgrave evoked a cannonade of applause at the Minetta Lane. And before “Wit,” if course, there’d been Kushner’s “Angels in America,” in which Chalfant had brilliantly handled five roles, one of them that of Ethel Rosenberg.

“In the fall,” said Lynn Redgrave, “you’re going to see her in the movie ‘Kinsey,’ which is about the Kinsey of the Kinsey report, and Kathleen plays this woman who has machine-gun orgasms. That is REALLY sustained excellence.”

It was Chalfant’s cue. She mounted the stage. The two actresses threw arms around one another, fell to their knees, and hugged. When they got to their feet, Ms. Chalfant said: “I thought on the way up I might do the orgasms . . . “

Looking like a million dollars in a wine-red wool top, fringed black wool skirt, and canary-yellow shoes, she surveyed the room, this way and that. “I look around,” she said, “and find my friends of 31 years now in New York, and I realize that this thing that we do is ENTIRELY a collaborative enterprise.”

The late Edith Oliver was a tart, shrewd, theater-adoring, performer-adoring Off-Broadway theater critic for The New Yorker. Tart of tongue, sometimes; not in her writing. “She WAS the theater,” said Kathleen Chalfant. “An extraordinary and difficult woman. The best kind, I think.”

Tony Kushner had to come to the stage for one last time, to accept the Lortel award for “Caroline, or Change” as Outstanding Musical. He thanked his absent co-creator, composer Jeanette Tesori, he thanked the Public Theater, and he thanked the Public’s George C. Wolfe, who’d directed “Caroline, or Change,” downtown and up. “An extraordinary and difficult woman,” said Tony Kushner of George C. Wolfe, on which salubrious note the proceedings came to an end for another year.


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