Wilson, McNally at the head of the line Dramas: 'Seven Guitars' and 'Master Class' are the top contenders for the best new play award.

June 02, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Although the competition for best musical is the big news at tonight's Tony Awards, the nominees for best new play are also impressive, including work by three of America's top playwrights and one Brit.

The real battle will be between August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" and Terrence McNally's "Master Class."

The 1940s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience, "Seven Guitars" takes its title from its seven-member cast. The action is told mostly in flashback and focuses on Floyd Barton (Keith David), a blues guitarist whose funeral occurs just before the opening scene.

Part murder mystery and part blues-style reverie, "Seven Guitars" features many typical Wilson elements, beginning with the setting -- Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh -- and including the heavy influence of music and the playwright's stock character of a wise fool, in this case an addled, tubercular West Indian (Roger Robinson).

If Tony voters find Wilson's latest script too reminiscent of his previous work, they may be more satisfied with McNally's "Master Class," which departs significantly from the playwright's previous emphasis on sojourns and relationships, typified by his 1995 Tony winner, "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

Music, however, also continues to play a prominent role for McNally, who based "Master Class" on the Juilliard classes taught by legendary soprano Maria Callas in the early 1970s. A resounding testament to the power and necessity of art, "Master Class" -- which had a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center last fall -- features a starring performance by Zoe Caldwell that should be a shoo-in for the best actress award.

The most unexpected nominee is Sam Shepard's 1978 drama, "Buried Child," which is receiving the playwright's first-ever Broadway production. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was deemed eligible because this is its maiden voyage on Broadway and ostensibly because it has undergone major revisions.

Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company has mounted a powerful production of this play about the buried secrets of a deteriorating, rural Illinois family. But in terms of plot, themes or characterizations, it does not represent a significant departure from the original version.

The final nominee, "Racing Demon," by British playwright David Hare, is a long shot. This is because its limited run at Lincoln Center ended in January. And, despite its compelling examination of spiritual crises and the role of the clergy, the play's highly specific Church of England milieu is undoubtedly a distancing factor for most American audiences.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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