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.