Year's dramas fail to make the cut for a Pulitzer Prize

Lack of a winner may be a quirk of the calendar - or a sign of the lean times in theater

April 18, 2006|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Pulitzer Prize board's decision not to give an award in drama this year might seem like a drama in itself.

But it is not necessarily a tragedy - except perhaps, for the three nominated playwrights, Christopher Durang, Rolin Jones and Adam Rapp, who lose, besides the honor, the $10,000 check that accompanies the prize. It is also not unprecedented; this is the 15th time the Pulitzers have passed on the theater category.

Authorities differ, however, on whether it's a portent about the state of the American stage.

"I do not think this says anything at all about the state of the theater," said Newsday theater critic Linda Winer, who served as chairman of the Pulitzer's drama jury. Instead, she called the board's dismissal of her committee's nominees a "disappointing" outcome of a year that produced no obvious frontrunners, such as the popular Doubt (which won in 2005) or Proof (2001), or the groundbreaking Angels in America (1993).

"It was not one of those years where there was a play or several plays that stood up and screamed, `I'm a Pulitzer winner,'" said Winer, who has served on the committee six times, heading it for four of them. Indeed, there was early speculation among theater insiders and on Web sites that there might not be a 2006 prize.

At the same time, "We read, and in some cases also saw, 27 plays and deliberated a great deal, with much thought and much time and sweat, and came up with these three, which we all agreed that we would be proud of if any one of them had won," Winer added. (Newsday, like The Sun, is owned by the Tribune Co.)

The three were Durang's Miss Witherspoon, a comedy about suicide and reincarnation; Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, about a woman who builds a robot of herself; and Rapp's Red Light Winter, about the relationship among two friends and a prostitute in Amsterdam.

Irene Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage, which produces and commissions several new plays each season, is concerned that the lack of a prize may reflect a shrinking number of new plays.

"I can't say that serious theater is being actively encouraged in the marketplace," Lewis said. "With spectacle crowding out plays that raise serious ideas, it just doesn't seem to be happening on enough fronts."

Center Stage's widely praised current production, Radio Golf, the final work by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, might seem a likely Pulitzer candidate. It wasn't in the running this year, explained Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler, because when plays undergo developmental processes at several theaters, the playwrights (or in the case of Wilson, who died in October, presumably his representatives) are allowed to determine what constitutes the final script. When Radio Golf moves to Broadway, Gissler speculated, "That might be considered the ultimate version."

The drama category was at a slight disadvantage this year because the eligibility period for plays was merely 10 months, March 2 to Dec. 31, unlike the other categories, which consider entries from the entire calendar year. The shorter period was an interim move away from the previous eligibility period of March 1 to the end of February, timing that "was completely arbitrary; it had to do with when the board met," Winer explained. Next year, plays from the full calendar year will be eligible, conforming to the requirements of all the other categories.

It's been nine years since the Pulitzers, which began in 1917, failed to award a prize in drama. In all of the Pulitzer categories, Gissler pointed out, "This is the 58th time we've not given an award."

But the Pulitzer board has neglected to award a drama prize more often than any other category; only fiction comes close, with 11 years without a prize.

"Sometimes," Gissler said, "it's just not there."

Winer, however, remains cautiously optimistic about the future: "In the 10 months, there wasn't some big new play that announced itself. Will there be five of them next year? Maybe."

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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