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Are drama awards really booby prizes?

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All showbiz awards -- Tonys, Oscars, etc. -- are worthless from top to bottom, if there is a bottom. Take one ludicrous example: the Best Play category at the recent Lucille Lortel Awards. In a year that yielded some very good Off Broadway plays (Broadway is ineligible), the two front-runners in several rounds of voting kept being Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh, which opened Off Broadway but, thanks to near-unanimous raves, is reopening on Broadway. The latter is a barely mediocre play by a self-inflated young whippersnapper in a splendid production; the former is not even a play, only a transcript.

There were at least three plays that, in my view, deserved to be winners: Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, and Warren Leight’s Side Man, all blithely ignored by the voting critics and pseudo critics. Why weren’t they even in the running? Pride’s Crossing (I would guess) because reviewers were so (rightly) awestruck by Cherry Jones’s dazzling performance that they were blind to the mature, probing, and poetic writing, especially as it dealt with Boston Brahmins, a near-extinct Wasp species beyond the scope of New York’s scribes.

Scotland Road was a challenging fantasy about a possible but unlikely survivor of the Titanic and a fanatical young man hell-bent on exposing her. Unluckily, the play opened at a time when that monster movie Titanic cast its thick shadow on a delicate, somewhat wispy but riveting, superbly mounted piece. Side Man, a touching, funny, intensely human comedy-drama about the rootless lives of itinerant jazz musicians and their hapless families, played at CSC, a theater that has so steadily produced abominations that some of the voters probably didn’t even catch it.

Gross Indecency is a crassly self-serving attempt by a no-talent to cash in on Oscar Wilde’s genius. Kaufman essentially copied out the transcripts of Wilde’s trials, plus a few other events and dialogues recorded in various Wilde biographies. To show off his erudition, he had extras in the orchestra pit hold up the books and other documents he pillaged, while utterly untalented, linguistically and physically unsuited histrions onstage mouthed and camped up a great, tragic tale. The production itself was unspeakably shoddy technically. Still, if you knew little about Wilde and were struck by his wit and humanity, or if you knew nothing about theater and would settle for a cheesily theatricalized undergraduate thesis, or if you were homosexual and felt that anything about Wilde served the cause, you might have voted for Gross Indecency.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the work of an immature playwright full of every kind of derivativeness, manipulativeness, and shtick. It was, however, expertly acted and directed, though to any real critic, this would be separable from writerly merit. And so Indecency and Leenane, two dead ducks, ended up co-winners in a dead heat. In their undeservingness, at any rate, they are equals.


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