THE SCENE CHANGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- This was the season of the incredible shrinking Broadway show. Of the four nominees for best new play in tonight's Tony Awards celebration, three ("Copenhagen," "Dirty Blonde" and "True West") have casts of four or fewer.

The shrinking took various forms in the case of the new musical nominees. The front-runner, "Contact," has neither live music nor an original score, and it shares the category with a chamber musical, "James Joyce's The Dead", and a revue, "Swing!" (scheduled to come to the Mechanic Theatre in March).

Not that bigger is necessarily better. After all, we are just coming out of a prolonged period when traditional musicals were overshadowed by spectacles and actors were overshadowed by giant scenery and special effects.

But it's an indication of how far matters have moved in the opposite direction that "Dirty Blonde" can run a half-page ad in the New York Times proclaiming: "Our entire cast was nominated," and be referring to three actors.

Downsizing may not constitute a trend. In the revival categories, the nominees include such lavish productions as "Kiss Me, Kate," "The Music Man" and "Amadeus." It seems telling, however, that the season's largest-scale new musical, "Aida," failed to get a nomination for best musical.

It's also significant that all of the nominees for best scenic design are revivals. The frequent reliance on a single set -- and in the case of "Copenhagen" and "Dirty Blonde," sparse ones at that -- is another way in which new shows have been streamlined.

When the majority of the new kids on the block are getting smaller in one way or another, you have to wonder whether tastes are changing or producers are merely tightening their belts. As some veteran Broadway actors have pointed out, this could limit opportunities for young theater artists. And since ticket prices have not undergone a similar decrease, how will audiences react after being conditioned to expect a plethora of actors and flashy scenery?

Size is not an indication of quality, of course, and in every other respect -- subject, themes, style, performances -- this year's crop of newcomers is varied and intriguing. Here's a look at the top contenders.

Minimalism in plays

Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," which deals with the deadly serious subject of nuclear physics, might seem to have little in common with the British playwright's best-known work, "Noises Off," a rollicking farce-within-a-farce in which everything that can go wrong does as a troupe attempts to tour a sex farce. But the two plays share a significant structural element. Both display alternative versions of a basic scenario. In "Copenhagen," Frayn uses this structural device to demonstrate the unreliability of memory and even history, while raising a host of questions about the relationship between morality and science.

"Copenhagen" is based on an actual event -- the 1941 visit by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, creator of the uncertainty principle, to his Danish mentor, Niels Bohr, a leader in advancing the study of quantum mechanics. No one knows exactly what took place at this meeting. Was Heisenberg, who was part of the German war effort, warning Bohr, who was on the other side, that he was developing a bomb? Or was he trying to see how close the Allies were to developing their own? Did they discuss physics, morality or both?

Director Michael Blakemore and set designer Peter J. Davison stage the action on a round platform with the actors -- Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg, Philip Bosco as Bohr, and Blair Brown as Bohr's stern wife -- repeatedly circling the truth. The subject matter is tough sledding (you may wish you had a copy of "Quantum Physics for Dummies"), and the emotions are intense as the surrogate father-son relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg is threatened. The result is a little like watching a Tom Stoppard play without the relief of spurts of humor and wit, but the play is by far the most elegantly crafted and artistically accomplished of the nominees.

The chief competition of "Copenhagen" couldn't be more dissimilar -- Claudia Shear's romantic paean to Mae West, "Dirty Blonde." Also a three-actor production, "Dirty Blonde" has a considerably larger list of characters, with each performer playing at least two roles. Chief among these are a pair of devoted modern-day West fans played by Shear (who doubles as West) and Kevin Chamberlin, who also plays various characters from West's heyday.

Scenes from the past are interspersed with scenes of the young fans, who turn out to have more in common than merely their adulation of West. Shear depicts West as a shrewd, uncompromising woman, and she brings an appropriate larger-than-life quality to her portrayal of the aging star, as well as to West's idiosyncratic musical repertory, much of it accompanied on the piano by the show's third versatile cast member, Bob Stillman.

But as smoothly as the modern scenes are interwoven into this historical tapestry, "Dirty Blonde" can't escape feeling like a bio-drama. Thematically, the play may be about daring to be yourself, but overall it is a surprisingly tame, audience-pleasing account of a once-controversial star.

Completing the list of minimalist new play nominees is Sam Shepard's "True West," a play as visceral as "Copenhagen" is cerebral and as violent as "Dirty Blonde" is sentimental. The American family and the fading myth of the American West are favorite themes of Shepard's, and both figure prominently in this account of diametrically opposed brothers -- a screenwriter and a petty thief.

Director Matthew Warchus has pulled off a brilliant casting coup by having his leads, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, trade roles every three performances. The show's producers petitioned the Tony administrators to allow the actors to share a single best-actor nomination. Their petition was denied, however. Pitted against each other, the two men may well cancel each other out.

The actors are eligible only in their opening-night roles, which have them playing closest to type: the smaller, trimmer Hoffman as the meticulous screenwriter and the larger, softer Reilly as the slovenly burglar. Though strong and impassioned, neither notably improves on the unbridled performances of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company revival televised in 1984. Nor does the production offer fresh insights, except for reinforcing the notion that these two opposite-seeming brothers are far more alike than they are willing to acknowledge.

If you're wondering why a play that was revived in 1984 qualifies as new, you should. "True West" made its debut 20 years ago, but met the Tony administrators' two tests for consideration as new: It was not deemed a classic, such as a play by Shakespeare or Moliere, and it had never been produced on Broadway. The precedent for this was set in 1996 when Shepard's 1978 play, "Buried Child," also competed for best new play. (The fourth new play nominee also is not spanking new. Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" made its debut in London in 1991. Though a dark horse, at least it boasts a cast of 11, the largest in the category.)

Musicals, a changing genre

At first glance, the musical "Contact" might not appear to be shrinking. With a cast of two dozen, it is certainly not short on personnel. It's also big on ingenuity, including its defiance of categorization. The show's subtitle is: "A Dance Play in Three Short Stories," and that's a much more apt description of it than "musical."

Created by director/choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer John Weidman, "Contact" tells three stories set in different time periods, each story dealing with secret longing.

The curtain raiser, inspired by Fragonard's 18th-century painting "The Swing," depicts an amusing shift in roles and social class. The second piece, "Did You Move?" -- set in the 1950s -- stars Karen Ziemba as a repressed Queens housewife dining at an Italian restaurant with her brutish husband. Whenever her husband leaves the room, Ziemba throws herself into rhapsodic fantasy ballets that eventually involve waiters, busboys and the other diners.

The dramatic weight of the evening, however, lies in the title piece, which focuses on a suicidal advertising executive (Boyd Gaines) who finds himself in the unlikely setting of a late-night swing dance club. The heart of the piece is the interplay between Gaines' lost, awkward character and a mysterious, icy dancer (Deborah Yates) in a yellow dress.

Though what audiences see in "Contact" is in no way diminutive, what they hear is another matter. This is a musical in which no one sings, no instrument plays. The recorded score ranges from Tchaikovsky to Robert Palmer. The show's inclusion in the musical category sparked a letter of protest from the president of the Broadway musicians union and the resignation of a member of the Tony nominating committee. Even so, "Contact" is widely regarded as the favorite.

It is worth noting, however, that if "Dirty Blonde" and "Contact" take top honors tonight, Tony voters will have anointed a play that includes a considerable amount of live music and a musical that includes none. As Broadway shows morph into hybrid forms, the standard categories may be outmoded, a consideration the Tony Awards Administration Committee belatedly acknowledged, creating a new category, Special Theatrical Event, for next year's awards.

"James Joyce's The Dead," which closed in April but is expected to tour, was also not a traditional musical. Billed as a new musical play, the show -- with a book by Richard Nelson and a score by Shaun Davey -- was adapted from a story in Joyce's "Dubliners" collection about a pair of maiden-aunt music teachers (Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon) who give an annual holiday party showcasing their prize students. Among the guests are the teachers' nephew (Christopher Walken) and his wife (Blair Brown, who left the show to join the cast of "Copenhagen"), whose relationship is affected by a memory-provoking melancholy song.

Much of the music is performed in the aunts' parlor, at times with the performers' backs to the theatergoers. Charming, though less beguiling than John Huston's 1987 film of the same subject, the musical takes some manipulative liberties at the end but is a lovely Irish lullaby nonetheless.

A sell-out off-Broadway, "The Dead" would probably still be running if it hadn't made the move to the big leagues where it may have proved a tad too precious for mass consumption.

There is one traditional musical among the nominees -- Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's "The Wild Party," one of two adaptations of Joseph Moncure March's book-length 1920s poem to open in New York this season. Set in the down-at-the-heels New York apartment of two vaudeville performers, a mean-spirited clown with a jealous streak (Mandy Patinkin) and his libidinous dancer wife (Toni Collette in a powerful Broadway debut), the show chronicles a party that could be described as the dangerous, seamy flip side of the civilized, genteel gathering in "The Dead."

One of the most effective elements in "The Wild Party" is its vaudeville presentation, complete with cards at the side of the stage announcing each number (all given just the right period flavor in LaChiusa's jazzy score). These are people, the show's staging reminds us, who are always performing, even for themselves. But reality invades their world of make-believe in a deadly manner.

Dark, frightening, involving and constantly in-your-face, "The Wild Party" is a near perfect blend of style and substance -- no small accomplishment.

2000's Tony nominees - who's up for what

WHAT: 54th Annual Tony Awards

WHERE: First hour broadcast on PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67), remaining two hours on CBS (WJZ-TV, Channel 13).

WHEN: 8 p.m. - 11 p.m.

THE NOMINATIONS:

Best New Play

"Copenhagen"

by Michael Frayn

"Dirty Blonde"

by Claudia Shear

"The Ride Down Mt. Morgan"

by Arthur Miller

"True West"

by Sam Shepard

Best New Musical

"James Joyce's The Dead"

"Swing!"

"Contact"

"The Wild Party"

Best Revival of a Musical

"Kiss Me, Kate"

"The Music Man"

"Jesus Christ Superstar"

"Tango Argentino"

Best Revival of a Play

"Amadeus"

"Moon for the Misbegotten"

"The Real Thing"

"The Price"

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play

Gabriel Byrne,

"A Moon for the Misbegotten"

Stephen Dillane,

"The Real Thing"

Philip Seymour Hoffman, "True West"

John C. Reilly,

"True West"

David Suchet,

"Amadeus "

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play

Jayne Atkinson,

"Rainmaker"

Jennifer Ehle,

"The Real Thing"

Rosemary Harris,

"Waiting in the Wings"

Cherry Jones,

"A Moon for the Misbegotten"

Claudia Shear, "Dirty Blonde"

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

Craig Bierko,

"The Music Man"

George Hearn,

"Putting It Together"

Mandy Patinkin,

"The Wild Party"

Christopher Walken,

"James Joyce's The Dead"

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical

Toni Collette,

"The Wild Party "

Heather Headley,

"Aida"

Rebecca Luker,

"The Music Man"

Audra McDonald,

"Marie Christine"

Marin Mazzie,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Best Direction of a Play

Michael Blakemore,

"Copenhagen"

James Lapine,

"Dirty Blonde"

David Leveaux,

"The Real Thing"

Matthew Warchus,

"True West"

Best Direction of a Musical

Michael Blakemore,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Lynne Taylor Corbett, "Swing!"

Susan Stroman, "The Music Man"

Susan Stroman,"Contact"

Best Book of a Musical

John Weidman, "Contact"

Richard Nelson,

"James Joyce's The Dead"

Michael John LaChuisa

"Marie Christine"

Michael John LaChuisa and George C. Wolfe,

"The Wild Party"

Best Original Score

Elton John and Tim Rice, "Aida"

Shaun Davey and Richard Nelson, "James Joyce's The Dead"

Michael John LaChiusa, "Marie Christine"

Michael John LaChiusa

"The Wild Party"

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play

Kevin Chamberlin,

"Dirty Blonde"

Daniel Davis, "Wrong Mountain"

Roy Dotrice,

"A Moon for the Misbegotten"

Derek Smith,

"The Green Bird"

Bob Stillman,

"Dirty Blonde"

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play

Blair Brown,

"Copenhagen"

Frances Conroy,

"The Ride Down Mt. Morgan"

Amy Ryan,

"Uncle Vanya"

Helen Stenborg,

"Waiting in the Wings"

Sarah Woodward,

"The Real Thing"

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical

Michael Berresse,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Boyd Gaines,

"Contact"

Michael Mulheren,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Stephen Spinella,

"James Joyce's The Dead"

Lee Wilkof,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

Laura Benanti,

"Swing!"

Ann Hampton Callaway, "Swing!"

Eartha Kitt,

"The Wild Party"

Deborah Yates,

"Contact"

Karen Ziemba,

"Contact"

Best Scenic Design

Bob Crowley,

"Aida"

Thomas Lynch,

"The Music Man"

Robin Wagner,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Tony Walton,

"Uncle Vanya"

Best Costume Design

Bob Crowley,

"Aida"

Constance Hoffman,

"The Green Bird"

William Ivey Long,

"The Music Man"

Martin Pakledinaz,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Best Choreography

Kathleen Marshall,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Susan Stroman,

"Contact"

Susan Stroman,

"The Music Man"

Lynne Taylor-Corbett, "Swing!"

Best Lighting Design

Jules Fisher and

Peggy Eisenhauer,

"The Wild Party"

Jules Fisher and

Peggy Eisenhauer,

"Marie Christine"

Peter Kaczorowski,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Natasha Katz,

"Aida"

Best Orchestrations

Doug Besterman,

"The Music Man"

Don Sebesky,

"Kiss Me, Kate"

Jonathan Tunick,

"Marie Christine"

Harold Wheeler,

"Swing!"

Special Tonys

Lifetime achievement: T. Edward Hambleton, founder of the Phoenix Theatre.

Regional Theater: Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah.

Excellence in Theater: Eileen Heckart, "Dame Edna: the Royal Tour"; agent Sylvia Herscher; and the "Encores!" series of concert musicals.

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