High drama From 'Freak' to 'Art,' Tony nominees are strong, diverse


NEW YORK -- Although the big musicals attract the most attention, the current Broadway season has been an unusually strong one for new dramas.

The season featured the most new plays in recent years, and the Tony Award nominees -- Yasmina Reza's "Art," Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," John Leguizamo's "Freak" and David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child" -- faced competition from such high-profile playwrights as David Hare, David Mamet and Neil Simon. (The 1998 Tony winners will be announced June 7.)

But abundance isn't all that distinguishes this season's crop. While none of the nominees is a masterpiece, each has definite attributes and, together, they are notable for their diversity.

Three of the four plays are about families, but one of those is a one-man show and another incorporates non-naturalistic elements -- specifically, ghosts. And, the playwrights themselves are a diverse lot -- Iranian-French, Anglo-Irish, Hispanic-American and Chinese-American.

"Art" (Royale Theatre): This British production of a French play focuses on three friends -- an aeronautical engineer (Alan Alda), a dermatologist (Victor Garber) and a stationery salesman (Alfred Molina). The play's title refers to a white-on-white painting, bought for an extravagant price by Garber, to the extreme dismay of Alda.

But "Art" isn't really about art. It's about friendship.

Garber's character might as well have bought a rare automobile or an outlandishly expensive house or, for that matter, an exotic pet. As long as the purchase offended Alda's sense of taste, it would have had the same effect -- that of upsetting the balance of a friendship in which each member has played a prescribed role. Alda has always had the upper hand, Garber has been his loyal follower, and easygoing Molina has been content to tag along noncommittally, just as long as he's not left out.

Garber, however, skews this balance by thinking for himself, and the play turns into a prolonged rap session in which the three characters analyze their disintegrating relationship.

This is precisely where the play loses credibility. Maybe Frenchmen engage in prolonged debates about their friendships, but most other men don't. Furthermore, though Molina delivers a glorious, show-stopping monologue about his forthcoming marriage, the play basically has no subplots or secondary themes. Instead of being a full-fledged drama that happens to run only 90 minutes, it's essentially a one-act play. And, for a play about friendship, director Matthew Warchus' production is surprisingly cold.

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (Walter Kerr Theatre): Yet if "Art" -- which has already announced plans for a national tour -- wins the Tony, it will do so, in part, because its chief competitor, is 1) extremely violent, and 2) performed in such thick Irish accents that a good bit of it is unintelligible to American ears.

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" has received considerable publicity because McDonagh, its author, is a 27-year-old newcomer who has taken both the London and New York theater communities by storm. And there's no question that he's a natural when it comes to writing dramatic situations and dialogue.

The situation in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" is a long-running, extremely dysfunctional standoff between a 70-year-old woman (Anna Manahan) and the unmarried 40-year-old daughter (Marie Mullen) who lives with her. Their bleak existence in a rural Irish hovel is characterized by almost constant bickering, which turns to all-out war after the unexpected arrival of a man (Brian F. O'Byrne) who offers the daughter her only chance at romance and escape.

For someone who admits to being unschooled in playwriting, McDonagh has written an impressively well-made play. All of the clues he drops about impending violence in the first act are neatly realized in the second.

The play is also chock-full of the kind of suspense that makes an audience catch its collective breath. All four performances -- the fourth is that of Tom Murphy, who introduces a welcome dose of comic relief as O'Byrne's younger brother -- have been nominated for Tonys, which is indicative of the power of director Garry Hynes' production, even if you can't understand all the words.

"Freak" (Cort Theatre): The family in Leguizamo's show is also dysfunctional (and violent, though not to the extent of the residents of Leenane). What makes "Freak" a freakish nominee -- and an unlikely Tony prospect -- however, is that it's an autobiographical one-man show.

Leguizamo, whose tour-de-force performance has also been nominated, portrays his entire family -- from his grandparents to his rotund little brother to his "triple-threat" deaf, gay, Latino uncle -- as well as acquaintances of all nationalities in this hilariously politically incorrect production.

The audience he attracts is younger and more ethnically diverse than the Broadway norm, and that's all to the good. But while Leguizamo has a real skill for writing comedy, he weighs down his show (whose title is never explained) with an excessively preachy ending. If he's trying to say that you can rise above an embattled upbringing -- or that you can "turn nothing into something," in his words -- he didn't need to spell it out. The show itself is more than adequate proof.

"Golden Child": Area audiences already have some familiarity with the fourth nominee, which is playing its final performance at Broadway's Longacre Theatre today. Hwang's "Golden Child" had a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center last season. Subsequently, all but two of the major roles were re-cast, and there was some fine-tuning, including toning down the didactic conclusion.

The basic structure remained the same, however, with a modern-day Chinese-American (Randall Duk Kim) receiving a late-night visit from the ghost of his mother (Julyana Soelistyo in a lovely performance that required her to change from an aged ghost to a 10-year-old child). In an effort to make him appreciate his heritage, his mother related a tale that took place in early 20th-century China, when his polygamist grandfather converted to Christianity.

Beautifully designed by Tony Straiges (sets) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), "Golden Child" was not only splendid to look at, it was also the most intricate and complex of the four nominees. Though not as breathtakingly original as Hwang's previous Tony winner, "M. Butterfly," it nonetheless deserved its place as a contender.

At the same time, its untimely closing -- after only 88 performances -- makes it a long shot.

Next week: J. Wynn Rousuck writes about "The Lion King" and "Ragtime," the top two contenders for best musical -- which one should win, and why.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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