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

May 31, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

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.

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