Team effort helps position for the Tony Awards

Times Theater Critic

AMERICANS ARE suckers for teams. The prospect of talents blending into a collective heave ho of inspiration turns us into giddy school kids at recess. Sports fans know better than anyone the joy of watching the gifted spur one another to new heights. Want to see a grown man cry? Wait for the next bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam. Want to make him sulk for weeks? Fill him in on how those supposedly chummy superstars really feel about each other off the field.

Theatergoers aren't immune to the seductive power of camaraderie, the way it democratizes our overachieving natures and satisfies a deeply ingrained sentimental longing for fairness. This was the year of the ensemble on Broadway, and to an unusual if not unprecedented degree, actors have been stifling their showboating impulses for the subtler pleasures of becoming part of a company.

Of course there have been a few powerhouse performances, the most knock-'em, sock-'em being Patti LuPone's magnetic Momma Rose in "Gypsy" -- a Broadway tour de force that will go down as one of the great incarnations of that greatest of musical theater roles. And rest assured that during tonight's Tony ceremony, when individuals will be ecstatically singled out, all this Marxist hand-holding will come to a crashing end.

But consider that all four of this year's Tony Award nominees for best play -- "August: Osage County," "The Seafarer," "Rock 'n' Roll" and "The 39 Steps" -- feature tightly knit casts that divide the acting glory. Not that it's all even-steven, mind you, but the adage of there being no small parts has been truly taken to heart.

And how about this as a sign of the egalitarian times: The two front-runners for the best musical award were written by men who also star as narrator-protagonists, yet neither Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for "In the Heights," nor Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music for "Passing Strange," hogs the oxygen from his fellow performers. Miranda seems most comfortable in playing a keen observing eye in the vibrant Latino New York neighborhood in which the show is set, and Stew, a mountainous rock presence, clearly delights in seeing his creative autobiography explode into existence around him.

The standouts among them

AS FOR the best play revival category, it would be disingenuous to say that all performances in the individual casts were created equal. Mark Rylance has been propelling " Boeing-Boeing" with his hilarious double-takes; Patrick Stewart fiendishly earned his marquee billing in "Macbeth"; Eve Best supplied the feminine dazzle in "The Homecoming"; and Ben Daniels made a rakishly memorable Broadway debut in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It was a no-brainer that they were all nominated, but it's not as if their supporting players were relegated to the status of Pips anonymously crooning to "Midnight Train to Georgia."

To take the most jocular example, Rylance's expertly calibrated Midwestern straight man in Marc Camoletti's somewhat sputtering French farce (a flop when it premiered on Broadway in 1965) demonstrates the surprising peaks of deadpan drollery. Yet if the looniness swirling around his character hadn't been as deliriously animated as it is in Matthew Warchus' captivatingly mod production, Rylance's stuttering reaction would have lost half its hilarity.

Indeed, the bright chaos of "Boeing-Boeing" draws its color from the over-the-top portrayals of the three international flight attendants, none of whom suspects that there could be another woman lurking in the Parisian bachelor pad of a sweet-talking rogue genially incarnated by Bradley Whitford. Kathryn Hahn is the sexually voracious American, Gina Gershon the Sophia Loren-like Italian and Mary McCormack, who bagged a Tony nomination, the German bombshell who could make Brünnhilde seem like a shrinking violet. Choreographed for maximum physical tomfoolery, the high jinks (which include Christine Baranski as an exasperated maid) leave Rylance's milquetoast genuinely bowled over. The upshot is that the more laggard passages of the play are covered by spill-over laughter.

A curious thing about top-notch ensembles like the one in "Boeing-Boeing" is that the person most responsible for their seamlessness, even when nominated for a Tony as Warchus is, isn't often acknowledged for mustering the troops. When you leave a show marveling at the synergy of performers, it's not the actors alone who deserve your applause. Credit the director, whose contribution begins with canny casting and ends with unifying disparate personalities and techniques into a cohesive three-dimensional canvas.

"The Seafarer," written and directed by Conor McPherson (nominated for both), provided perhaps the most exquisite example this season of actors harmonizing into a haunting theatrical whole. Set in a ratty North Dublin home conspicuously missing a female touch, this twisted Christmas tale of buried guilt and unexpected redemption was realized in such a textured way that a dramatic curio evolved into an enduring fable.

Under McPherson's guidance, the largely Irish cast couldn't have been better. David Morse, the terrific American actor who became one with his Gaelic brethren, played Sharky, an abstemious alcoholic with a burdensome secret who returns home to his older brother, Richard (Jim Norton), a cantankerous, newly blind invalid with a booze-fueled tongue. Friends (played by Conleth Hill and Sean Mahon) drop by for cards, drink and Christmas Eve niceties given a sloppy spin. Eventually, the devil -- in the form of a suave executive type named Mr. Lockhart (Ciarán Hinds) -- pays a visit to claim the debt of Sharky's soul in a game of poker.

For all the liquored-up black humor, the production managed to stretch beyond the stage-Irish clichés. Slipping into their characters' sallow skins, the actors endowed their relationships with a lived-in quality that made the bursts of anger and occasional tenderness seem achingly real.

McPherson's play reveals the stubborn manner in which the sins of the past perch like crows on the edge of consciousness, and it was this psychology -- the "myself is hell" admission of Milton's Satan -- that was so subtly captured. Hill and Norton received Tony nominations for best featured actor, but all five should win something for the way they liltingly transformed unspoken remorse into a tragicomic act of contrition.

Talking the talk

WHILE we're on the subject of foreign plays, it might seem superficial to judge a cast by its brogue, but accents matter. Why? Because you can't have a lower level of subtext without a ground floor establishing a solid reality.

British actors are often chided for their failure to ape Am-ur-ikan speech, but their U.S. counterparts aren't exactly the Henry Higginses of Anglo nuance. Take the revivals of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" and Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls." Both openings were extremely welcome in this increasingly commercialized Broadway age, but if these intelligent productions had a weakness, it stemmed from the difficulty of precisely locating their characters on England's socioeconomic map.

It wasn't always easy to believe that Pinter's brawling men inhabited the same North London postal code (Raúl Esparza, who is nominated for playing Lenny, seemed to be living in some nasally underwater address in the middle of the Atlantic). And though it was glorious to see such a brilliant array of actresses (including Elizabeth Marvel, Marisa Tomei, Mary Beth Hurt and Tony-nominated Martha Plimpton) resurrecting Churchill's '80s landmark, the play's adventurous nonlinear form requires that place be instantly established, not warbled in a nether region between Scotland and Sussex.

Fortunately for these homegrown productions, ensembles tend to put not just audiences but critics in a forgiving mood. It's no fun calling out stragglers when the team is obviously giving its all. Yet spreading the love across the board isn't a particularly discriminating or forthright strategy, and aesthetic distinctions are muddled in the rush of gallant enthusiasm.

Clearly, there's safety in numbers -- a point benefiting not just actors but occasionally playwrights as well. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County" is sure to nab the Tony for best play. It's the kind of hulking, multi-character American drama that excites award-givers, especially those with a bloodhound nose for literary precedent. The work's DNA contains strands of a half-dozen domestic classics (from "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to "Buried Child") refracted through a pop sensibility that's as comfortable with parody as it is with soap opera.

But Letts' accomplishment has less to do with dramatic literature than with theatrical possibility. "August: Osage County" sets out a nearly 3 1/2 -hour feast for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and these talented actors, led by director Anna D. Shapiro (a likely Tony winner), devour every last morsel. As a credible tale of family dysfunction run to decadent extremes, or a commentary on the state of a strung-out nation in need of anger management, the writing can get strained. Yet as an occasion for a deft troupe to pull out all the stops in what's been waggishly described as "situation tragedy," the play gobsmackingly delivers.

There's nothing as invigorating as the sight of actors firing on all cylinders -- unless it's the sight of actors firing on all cylinders with orchestral accompaniment. Bartlett Sher is the heavy favorite to win the Tony for his lyrical staging of "South Pacific." Sher's competition includes Sam Buntrock for "Sunday in the Park With George," Thomas Kail for "In the Heights" and Arthur Laurents for "Gypsy," but this is a year in which there are more praise-worthy possibilities than slots.

In particular, two of the best musical nominees, "Passing Strange," directed by Annie Dorsen, and "Xanadu," directed by Christopher Ashley, stylishly coalesce their shows' resources into singular visions, one an indie-rock coming-of-age travelogue, the other a camp redo of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John bomb that made a sequinsy purse out of a sow's ear.

This diverse recap should remind us that theater artists don't just cook up roles and dialogue but actually conceive new worlds. These mini-universes may have atmospheric flaws, but they have accomplished something rare in our lonely solar system -- they have grandly supported life.

The 2008 Tony Awards will be broadcast at 8 tonight on CBS.

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