Eyre tops legit nods

LONDON — The Royal National Theater ruled the day at London’s Evening Standard Drama Awards Nov. 28, taking all but two of the prizes in what was yet another testament to Richard Eyre’s now-ended regime as artistic director.

Sir Richard himself won two awards — best director for both Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love” and his chamber revival of “King Lear” (though, oddly, not for David Hare’s “Amy’s View”) and a special award for his nine-year tenure as producer of the three-theater complex on the South Bank of the Thames. He left the theater Oct. 1.

“The Invention of Love,” Stoppard’s dense stage biography of English poet A. E Housman, was named best play. However, the play’s formidable star, John Wood, was passed over for best actor in favor of Ian Holm’s Lear, only that performer’s third theater part in 20 years.

A minor surprise was the choice of Eileen Atkins as best actress for her performance as Agnes in the West End revival of “A Delicate Balance,” co-starring Maggie Smith. The award had been thought virtually guaranteed to go to Judi Dench, who gives a career-defining performance in “Amy’s View.” Atkins’ win marked the third time in four years (following Maggie Smith in “Three Tall Women” and Diana Rigg in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) that the nod has gone to a British performer in an Edward Albee play.

“I have cursed Mr. Albee for weeks, and now I guess I have to thank him,” said Atkins, accepting the prize from Smith. It was no secret that Atkins had found the cool, controlling Agnes to be an unusually taxing part, just as Rosemary Harris did two years ago in a separate Broadway revival.

Most promising playwright went to Ireland’s Conor McPherson, whose hypnotic Royal Court play “The Weir” — set in a rural Irish pub — graduates to that theater’s mainstage in February.

Continuing a tradition of awarding best comedy to a bruising and serious play, that prize went to writer-director Patrick Marber for “Closer.” Marber won the same prize two years ago for his play, “Dealer’s Choice.” The four-character “Closer” will be produced by Robert Fox on Broadway next fall.

Against the usual lack of competition, best musical went to the National’s production of the Kurt Weill-Moss Hart-Ira Gershwin “Lady in the Dark,” with Maria Friedman, which is no longer running. The prize was accepted by Friedman, who starred in last year’s winner in this category, “Passion.”

The ceremony was held during a gala lunch at the Savoy Hotel. Besides Smith, presenters included Rigg, Paul Scofield, Fiona Shaw and two members of the current London revival of “Chicago,” Nigel Planer and Ute Lemper.

The awards are voted on by a panel of critics and commentators.

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