Prize fight

LONDON — Is anyone doling out awards for the best awards?

Maybe they should, at a time when the New York theater seems keener than ever to hand out a prize or two or 10. You don’t have to be based in London, as I am, to find this trophy mania intriguing — evidence that the American theater has perhaps caught up with the film and TV industries’ glut of statuettes that risk rendering the Oscars an also-ran by the time they finally arrive.

During a recent two-week trawl around Broadway and Off, I was astonished to find that practically every day could be spent attending this awards brunch or luncheon or some other organization’s cocktail party or dinner. (The real crunch came May 21, when the Obies, Dramatists Guild, National Broadway Awards and the Lincoln Center Theater benefit perf of “The House of Blue Leaves” all converged on the same which-one-do-I-choose evening.)

And pity the multiple winner who has to express gratitude over and over — as 31-year-old David Auburn is currently doing, thanks to his second play, “Proof.”

“I keep coming up with new ways to thank Daniel Sullivan,” says Auburn, referring to the director of his Pulitzer-winning (and virtually everything else-winning) play. Amid what he terms “the crazy season,” such concentrated plaudits have other bonuses, too.

“I’ve just learned how to tie a bow tie,” says the clearly delighted scribe: From mathematical formulae to formal wear.

London has its own theater prize-giving rituals, to be sure, but they are spread across the season, with the Evening Standard Drama Awards and the Oliviers now separated by some three months. In New York, between the Lortels and the Clarence Derwents and the Drama League lunch, Tony nominees brunch and God knows what else, small wonder that a nominated performer may be wondering how to fit in his or her actual show.

“It’s dizzying,” says Polly Bergen, whose Tony- and Drama Desk-nommed stand as Carlotta in “Follies” marks the 70-year-old performer’s first Broadway musical in 43 years. (Her last one was “First Impressions,” a musical version of “Pride and Prejudice.”) “I said, ‘I finally understand the true meaning of be careful what you wish for, you may get it’: I’m exhausted.”

Referring to the demands imposed by the trophy circuit, Bergen admits, “I would just like to do the show, you know, but this is very exciting. I can’t say that it isn’t.”

But excitement does exact a price, with Bergen — on the night of the Drama Desks, at least — packing in such a busy schedule of appearances that she was finding it hard to make time to eat. “I think someone should go out and buy me a TV dinner,” she smiles, “and bring it to my seat, don’t you?” (Absolutely!)

Actors and producers aren’t the only ones frantically doing the rounds. “It’s the hair people, the sound guys, the costumes,” points out “The Producers’ ” Gary Beach, a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award recipient (he tied for the latter with “The Full Monty’s” Andre de Shields) who could well make a clean sweep of things at the Tonys.

“Right now, we’re working on the Tony show and have rehearsals all week to get our four-minute presentation up,” Beach reports.

Nice work if you can get it

All that, and performing a Broadway behemoth eight times a week? After 31 years in the profession, Beach doesn’t sound fazed. “For myself, you know what, I’ve waited so long for this to happen. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

If such a plethora of statues is balm to the ego, where does that leave a public that may not know its Astaires from its Audience Awards at a time when PBS and CBS are hoping all eyes will be on the Tonys?

The snowball effect, says Randy Skinner, “42nd Street’s” extensively nommed choreographer (he was up for a Drama Desk and an Astaire Award and is a Tony hopeful), “always helps sell the shows, so I think producers are thankful for it, particularly if they get the awards.”

But is it not asking a lot of his company to tap their hearts out nightly, only to be on call the following day? “We have a very young cast,” Skinner says, “and I think they look at themselves as being invincible. They think they can do it all, and at this point, they probably can.”

At the same time, there’s nothing like perspective, which is why it was worth hearing from a past veteran of the same circuit, playwright Marsha Norman, and an outsider to it, English actress Janie Dee.

Not a big deal to Brits

“We’re all a bit ‘I just put them in my cupboard and forget about it’ here” about awards, says Dee, a two-time Olivier winner who copped a Theater World prize and an Obie (as well as a best actress Drama Desk nom) for her New York stage debut in “Comic Potential.” “In New York, everyone is proud and thrilled and very positive” on the topic of prizes. “They capitalize more on them; let’s face it, it’s more of a capitalist city.”

When Norman’s “night, Mother” won the Pulitzer in 1983, she recalls, “There were only four or five awards, and there wasn’t so much group thinking. This year, David (Auburn) is going to win everything, and that’s fabulous.” (Norman taught Auburn at Juilliard.)

But “night, Mother” went on to lose the Tony to “Torch Song Trilogy” at a time when — unlike now — the Tonys were more or less the only game in town.

As veep of the Dramatists Guild, Norman acknowledges the shift toward an “American herd instinct” that involves all these prizes in April and May: “It’s that season of year when your formal gown won’t get wet.”

And if awards must be given, let them be for the right reasons, with several Dramatists Guild prizes named for such theater luminaries as Frederick Loewe and the late agent Flora Roberts.

“People who have accumulated money in the theater want to leave it to young theater people that it can help — not,” adds Norman, “to their rotten relatives.”

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