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Exit Lines: The Drama Desk Awards

Exit Lines LogoThe 58th Annual Drama Desk Awards were held Sunday night. I was there in spirit, as my group (which at long last has a viable website), celebrated the best in New York theatre on, Off, and Off Off Broadway in the 2012-2013 season.

As a former Drama Desk Board Member and nominator (2007-2008 season), I can attest to a rigorous, and fair, process in determining the nominations. My nominating committee looked at about 300 shows from top to bottom, considering all pertinent aspects of each production, and left no stone unturned. Despite some backstage antics my year (you can look it up), it was very satisfying to evaluate all those shows. (And very tiring; many Saturdays and Sundays I saw three or four shows per day, and if you thought nothing’s happening on Monday nights, think again.)

A Drama Desk nomination is especially meaningful for those toiling off the beaten path Off and Off Off Broadway, where the work isn’t as widely recognized. (If some of the nominated shows are unfamiliar to you, rest assured that they’re unfamiliar to me, too; the committee really digs deep to do its job.) Despite the many nominations garnered each year by Off and Off Off Broadway shows, however, there is this notion that the Drama Desk piggybacks off the Tonys, or merely acts as a bellwether for them. This is unfortunate, and untrue. (If it were true, Kinky Boots, a Drama Desk shortfaller crowded out by musicals deemed worthier, would have been much more dominant. And Broadway newcomer Tom Hanks, touted as the Tony frontrunner for Nora Ephron’s middling Lucky Guy, would have trounced theatre veteran Tracy Letts, whose performance in the great Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revival continues to astonish months after it closed.)

There’s always drama at the Drama Desk but a few observations on the awards that were:

02artsbeat-buyer-blog480Favorite win of the night: Michael Urie, star of the sensationally funny Buyer & Cellar. This is my idea of a perfect solo show, where a gifted performer creates a character from the ground up–here, a lowly actor hired as a shopkeeper at Barbra Streisand’s underground mall of her personal effects, whose only client is the star herself. Yes, the mall exists, but playwright Jonathan Tolins is very clear that the rest is fictional, hilariously so, as Streisand masquerades as the coquettish “Sadie” and Urie conjures James Brolin, who waxes nostalgic about Capricorn One and its Streisand connection; Tolins gives Urie a ball filled with this ephemera, including sidesplitting asides about The Mirror Has Two Faces and Little Fockers, and he runs with it. Very highly recommended as it begins a summer run in June.

In a surprise upset, Urie, familiar from Ugly Betty, beat out Bette Midler, who got as far as a Drama Desk nomination fot her solo show, I’ll Eat You Last, but failed to secure a Tony nod. This is an impersonation performance, but quite a good one, as Midler plays the late super-agent Sue Mengers, who regales us with her tales of her Hollywood “twinklies” from the couch of her posh living room as her own star plummets. (The film she put together for her director husband, 1981′s All Night Long, has bombed, and its star, her twinkliest client, has fired her. Who’s that? Why, Barbra Streisand–are we seeing a pattern here?) John Logan’s play is essentially a Vanity Fair longform read (Graydon Carter is one of the producers) but Midler gives it her lip and sass, requesting an audience member to fetch her water and smokes as, like Mengers, she reclines, always poised to strike with her sharp tongue. I learned a thing or two (the unlikely Julie Harris was one of Mengers’ favorite clients) and the Divine Miss M does have the last laugh of sold-out shows on her return to Broadway.

love24f-2-webMatilda, meh (though I agree that Tim Minchin’s award-winning lyrics are terrific, and I enjoy the cast album a lot more without the burden of the overstuffed show). My favorite new musical of the year to date, and the last show I saw last season, is David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love, which has settled into a small and clubby space at the Public. If you thought their star-studded 2010 recording was their last word on the saga of Imelda Marcos, see this small-scale spectacular and revel. “Environmental” and “interactive” stagings can put me off, but I had no problem getting into the groove and traversing the stage-filled space, and even line danced with the rest of the audience. As directed by Alex Timbers, all this jostling and jiving (the music is white hot) builds to something, as the victims of Marcos-era excess have their say. (It’s not, however, a tract; the punning title reserves some sympathy for Imelda, a prisoner of love’s lies as she flounces among the political elite.) Great production, great show, and about the last thing I expected to see from the award-winning David Byrne, whose music and philosophizing pretty much trumps Evita; plan an evening around it if you’re in New York. (Kudos as well to LD Justin Townsend, who rocks da house with that disco gear, and Peter Nigrini, winner of our first annual projection design award.)

Best Revue, which sometimes lacks for candidates, was strongly competitive this year. Can’t go wrong with a new Forbidden Broadway though I was hoping that Old Jews Telling Jokes, a simple idea delightfully executed, might win. No carping, however, about Old Hats, which returns the great Bill Irwin and David Shiner to the clowning they do best, and adds in the ever-fabulous Nellie McKay for musical asides. Catch them in the act before the curtain comes down on June 9.

A three-way tie for Best Sound Design in a Musical, none of them the designer nominated twice, is strange, but no stranger than the same lighting designer being nominated for three musicals by the Tonys. (That would be the superb Kenneth Posner.)

And I’m Kickstarting a Broadway production of Chris March’s The Butt-Cracker Suite! A Trailer Park Ballet. Who’s in?