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Two nominees contend for best play


The theater season just ended was not a bad one for new plays, but it was certainly a disappointing one for Tony nominees. Although playwrights including Neil Simon, Herb Gardner and Alan Ayckbourn all currently have shows running on Broadway, none garnered best play nominations.

Instead, two of the nominations went to shows that closed prematurely -- John Guare's "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun" and Richard Nelson's "Two Shakespearean Actors." Needless to say, most Tony voters probably didn't see them, making their chances slim.

Instead, the race will be between Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" and August Wilson's "Two Trains Running."

The front-runner looks to be "Lughnasa," a memory play about a boy growing up in rural County Donegal, where he was raised by his unmarried mother and her four unmarried sisters. The title refers to a pagan harvest celebration, and the infectious dance the sisters perform just may buoy voters' spirits high enough to ++ put the play over the top.

"Two Trains Running" is the latest addition to Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of black life in 20th century America. (Its immediate predecessor, "The Piano Lesson," can currently be seen at the Mechanic Theatre.)

"Two Trains" is set in the 1960s, but the Civil Rights struggle is almost peripheral to the action, which takes place in a Pittsburgh diner. Seen during its pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center last fall, "Two Trains" was paced more like a horse and wagon than a locomotive, but its rich dialogue and aria-like monologues once again show why Wilson is rightly considered one of the leading playwrights in the country.

Interestingly enough, although "Dancing at Lughnasa" celebrates Irish heritage and "Two Trains" celebrates black heritage, both plays celebrate the importance of acknowledging the past. It is a homage to the past that bears decided similarities to the retro trend exhibited in most of this season's best musical nominees. But unlike the musicals, little new ground is being broken here.

Perhaps musicals are sufficiently identified with Broadway to get away with a little experimentation here and there. But more and more it seems that off-Broadway and the regional theaters are the only hospitable venues for playwrights willing to take a stab at the new and different.

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