HIGH REGARDS FROM BROADWAY Some of the best acting and plays were ignored in Tony nominations


New York -- How does one begin to dramatize the alarm that was spreading over Broadway as it prepared to present the Tony Awards last night?

Well, for starters, consider the fact that the nominees did not represent the best of the 1990-91 season -- they represented all of the 1990-91 season.

Nearly every production seen on Broadway since this time last year has been nominated for something.

The question raised by this award ceremony was not "How good do you have to be to get a nomination?" but "How bad do you have to be not to get a nomination?"

The answer to that question for musicals is: hit rock bottom, and keep going. Every musical of the season, from a bus-and-truck "Peter Pan" to "Shogun: The Musical" to "Oh, Kay!" was in contention somewhere on the ballot.

Among the season's plays, only "Zoya's Apartment," "Stand-Up Tragedy," "The Big Love," "Taking Steps" and "Mule Bone" failed to be cited for so much as best sound design. (Actually, best sound design is not a category, but it should be, if only to encourage producers to make their shows audible rather than merely loud.)

Given the bleak terrain, it's amazing that there were so many gifted nominees; some of those associated with short-lived productions, such as Jennifer Tipton (a lighting design nominee for "La Bete") and Kathryn Erbe (best supporting actress for "The Speed of Darkness"), might merit their slots even if the competition were stiffer.

It is not the fault of artists in the theater that the Tony field was such a sparse one this year. I do fault the Tony nominators, however, for spoiling Sunday night's fun by shunning one putative nominee, Nicol Williamson, whose erratic performance as John Barrymore's ghost in "I Hate Hamlet" became the stuff of newspaper headlines once he took to verbally and physically harassing a fellow actor in mid-performance.

Had this star been nominated and then won, his words of thanks xTC might have been the most anticipated televised oration since the Checkers speech.

A graver omission than Williamson from the Tony nominees this year was, like every year, the entirety of off-Broadway.

This is why the most exciting play by a young writer this season, the Playwrights Horizons' production of "The Substance of Fire" by Jon Robin Baitz, and its brilliant star, Ron Rifkin, went unacknowledged Sunday night, even though this wit-infused drama about the Holocaust's oblique fallout on a New York book publisher, his family and his city seems to give many who see it new hope about the theater as a forum for adult emotions and ideas.

Also absent last night were such riveting off-Broadway performers as Eileen Atkins ("A Room of One's Own"), Spalding Gray ("Monster in a Box"), and Richard Venture and Tony Goldwyn ("The Sum of Us").

The most fascinating revivals of the season -- Michael Greif's production of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 "Machinal," Richard Sabellico's revivification of the 1961 Jerome Weidman-Harold Rome musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" -- weren't mentioned.

Nor were two of the best new musicals, the William Finn-James Laine "Falsettoland" and John Kander and Fred Ebb's "And the World Goes 'Round," or such vital plays as "The Good Times Are Killing Me" byLynda Barry, "The American Plan" by Richard Greenberg and "Absent Friends" by Alan Ayckbourn, not to mention the actors and production teams that made them sing.

Had the most dazzling play of the season, John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," not capitalized on the Tony Awards' one sleight-of-gerrymandering by moving from the ineligible Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center to the eligible Vivian Beaumont Theater upstairs in the same building, it, too, would have been off the ballot.

Perhaps it's silly to expect justice from the Broadway establishment, which regards the Tonys as a two-hour network TV commercial for its own products. (There is a magnanimous Tony for the outstanding regional theater, which, by definition, is safely out of town.)

But if Broadway producers had any instinct for public relations -- or at least for self-preservation, let alone survival -- they would realize that the inclusion of off-Broadway productions would bolster the national image of the entire New York theater, Broadway included, by presenting the city's theatrical world as a hive of creativity serving many tastes and pocketbooks.

By restricting its focus to Broadway, the Tony Awards show instead sends a dreadful message that keeps new audiences, )) particularly young audiences, away.

The Tonys this year will confirm the impression, not always accurate, that New York is exclusively the province of overproduced, overpriced musicals and boulevard plays that are aimed at wealthy tourists of limited attention span and advancing age.

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