Off B'way play, musical take Circle honors

NEW YORK — Paula Vogel’s Off Broadway hit “How I Learned To Drive” was named best play of the 1996-97 season by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle on Tuesday. The crix named another Off Broadway production, “Violet,” as best musical, marking the first time in the group’s 63-year history that two Off Broadway productions took top honors.

David Hare’s “Skylight,” Britain’s Royal National Theater production that opened under Richard Eyre’s direction on Broadway in September, was voted best foreign play, and the cast and creative team behind the Broadway revival of “Chicago” were given a special award for distinguished contribution to the Broadway season. The Circle does not present an award for best revival.

The organization, made up of 26 critics from New York newspapers, wire services and magazines, chose the Vogel play on a second round of ballots after the first round was too closely split between “How I Learned to Drive” and “Skylight.” By-laws allow a choice for best foreign play if an American production wins best play. “Skylight” took the foreign category on the first round.

A second round in the musical category was necessitated by a too-narrow margin between “Violet” and Broadway tuner “The Life.” In the second round, with weighted votes, “Violet” handily beat “The Life,” with “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly,” a campy Off Broadway musical revue, also making a strong showing.

No ‘Violet’ transfer

“Violet,” with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and direction by Susan H. Schulman, opened at Playwrights Horizons on March 11, ending its limited run last month. Plans for a commercial transfer have not coalesced in the wake of a New York Times pan, though, as Tuesday’s vote attests, other critics disagreed. The musical follows a facially scarred woman’s bus trip through the rural South of the 1960s as she seeks healing from a self-proclaimed miracle worker.

“I think its wonderful and great that we made the impact we did in such a short amount of time,” Schulman said, adding that she hopes the award leads to the commercial production that has so far eluded the musical. “I think with this award perhaps commercial producers will realize we have a great deal of support.”

Mark Brokaw’s staging of “How I Learned To Drive” has had better luck on the boards. The play, starring Mary-Louise Parker as a teenage girl seduced by her uncle (played by David Morse), opened to raves at the nonprofit Vineyard Theater on March 19. The Vineyard production has just been given a commercial transfer by producers Roy Gabay and Daryl Roth, with performances resuming at the 299-seat Century Theater on Tuesday, the same day the crix named it the best play. The best play award carries a $1,000 prize, given to the playwright.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony at Sardi’s Restaurant on May 12.

Twenty-one critics attended the voting session.

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