Tony nominees can make you squirm

THEATER

Four dramas up for best play tonight represent a wide array of problem personalities and tough subjects

June 06, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

NEW YORK -- The 1998-1999 Broadway season may have been thin on new musicals, but it was thick with new dramas. xxThe nominees for best play in tonight's Tony Awards ceremony are intriguingly diverse, spanning subjects ranging from jazz (Warren Leight's "Side Man") to prison conditions (Tennessee Williams' long-lost "Not About Nightingales") to fraternal relationships (Martin McDonagh's "Lonesome West") to romance -- or the lack thereof (Patrick Marber's "Closer").

Indeed, the only obvious characteristic these four share is hard-hitting subject matter. There's something about each one that will make you squirm in your seat. And as far as this critic's concerned, that's generally a good thing.

A finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize, "Side Man" is the largely autobiographical story of the relationship between the playwright and his father, who is called Gene in the play. An accomplished jazz trumpet player, Gene is played by Frank Wood as a man who's in a daze when he doesn't have his horn at his lips.

The play's title refers to jazz musicians who hire out to various bands and have the ability to play seamlessly in an ensemble as well as to distinguish themselves in solos. But the title also has another meaning. Gene is so wrapped up in his music, he is always on the sidelines of his home life.

From an early age, the son -- sympathetically portrayed by Robert Sella -- finds himself trapped in an unhealthy game of role reversal, serving as parent to his unstable mother and self- absorbed father.

This isn't just another dysfunctional American family drama, however. In depicting the struggles of Gene and his musician buddies, Leight also shows how little value our society places on dedicated artists. Indeed, this lack of appreciation seems ironically reflected by the distinction of "Side Man" as the only new American play nominated for a Tony.

The irony increases when you realize that Williams' 1938 play, "Not About Nightingales," written when he was 27, had never been produced anywhere -- much less on Broadway -- until actress Vanessa Redgrave unearthed it with the help of Williams' executrix, Maria St. Just. Even then, the play premiered in London -- at the Royal National Theatre.

A good deal has been written about the early hints that "Nightingales" contains of Williams' later work -- and there are seeds of such archetypal Williams characters as the sensitive homosexual, the cruel bully, and the woman whose sexuality proves dangerous.

But the play is far more interesting for the way it diverges from its author's subsequent writing. Possibly the most political play Williams ever wrote, "Nightingales" is set in an American penitentiary, where the sadistic warden attempts to quell an inmate hunger strike by sending the ring leaders to "Klondike," a set of cells whose walls are lined with radiators that can be heated to 150 degrees.

Williams based the play on a contemporary news account of a Pennsylvania prison where four prisoners died from similar punishment. "I have never written anything since then that could compete with it in violence and horror," the playwright wrote of the script nearly 20 years later.

Under the guidance of director Trevor Nunn and starring Vanessa Redgrave's brother Corin in a forceful performance as the evil warden, the play has received a superlative production, designed by Richard Hoover.

But even the National at its best cannot turn this early work into a masterpiece. The plot has melodramatic echoes of period prison movies; the writing, particularly the romantic subplot between a prison stenographer (Sherri Parker Lee) and an inmate (Finbar Lynch), exudes purple prose; and the structure often feels disjointed. In other words, it's a play that would probably not have made it to the National Theatre, much less Broadway, if its author hadn't gone on to greater things.

The other two nominees not only came to Broadway by way of the British isles, they're by British playwrights. "Closer" is the sarcastic title of a play about sexual and romantic relationships in which closeness is more a physical than emotional state.

The plot concerns two men (Rupert Graves and Ciaran Hinds) and two women (Natasha Richardson and Anna Friel) who, despite switching partners, can't seem to connect with the right person at the right time.

The writing is extremely clever -- especially an Internet sex scene, in which the X-rated chat of the two men is projected on a huge screen, with one of them pretending to be a woman. However, focusing on the near impossibility of achieving an emotional bond with another person, the play is cold by definition -- distancing an audience from its characters just as those characters are distanced from each other.

Playwright Marber, who also directed the production, keeps everything slick and clinical, but even the play's structure, a series of short scenes, limits involvement. An easy play to admire, it is -- like its characters -- hard to love.

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