The play’s the thing. Rarely has that Shakespearian aphorism been truer than this season on Broadway. With nine new plays vying for Tony consideration, the race is going to be a tough one.
Legit pundits have long bemoaned the dearth of new drama in a Rialto landscape increasingly monopolized by musicals, but this year showed that producers are still willing to take a chance on untried straight plays. And while complaints have long been heard about a Broadway eager to lay out the welcome mat to anything with a London pedigree while cold-shouldering new American plays, the pendulum this season swung the other way, with a predominance of homegrown texts.
The critical heat behind Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” makes that savage tragicomic drama about the agonizing disintegration of a dysfunctional family a Tony fave. In an age when most writers are thinking small, with 90-minute one-acts built around two- or three-character scenes, this import from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company steers a baker’s dozen fully developed characters through three stormy acts and three-plus hours, earning comparison to great American dramatists from Tennessee Williams through Edward Albee to Sam Shepard.
But relative newcomer Letts goes up against some seasoned heavyweights. Those include Tom Stoppard, following last season’s Tony titan “The Coast of Utopia” by tracing the line between Eastern European politics and a transcendent guitar riff in “Rock ‘n’ Roll”; Conor McPherson, Ireland’s foremost chronicler of melancholy masculinity and spiritual malaise, with his drunken dance with the devil, “The Seafarer”; and David Mamet with his barbed political satire “November,” starring Nathan Lane as an ethically unimpeded commander in chief.
The critical response to “The Farnsworth Invention” makes that reflection on the birth of television a long shot, despite it marking the return to theater after a long hiatus for “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin.
Then there are newcomers like Patrick Barlow, with West End import “The 39 Steps,” a playful spoof of the Hitchcock thriller showcasing some resourceful multitasking actors; and Off Broadway regular Theresa Rebeck, who graduated to the Rialto with “Mauritius,” an “American Buffalo”-inspired drama about two sisters facing off over the inheritance of a valuable stamp collection.
Unlikeliest debutant this season was Mark Twain, making his first Broadway appearance as a playwright with the cross-dressing farce “Is He Dead?,” a mere century after it was written. Michael Blakemore’s agile production of the featherweight work closed prematurely after struggling to find an audience, but affection for Norbert Leo Butz’s antic lead turn might secure it a mention come Tony time.
Last of the new works to bow this season is George Stevens Jr.’s “Thurgood,” a one-man bioplay starring Laurence Fishburne as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.