Tony Awards: A critic celebrates Broadway's unabashed idealism

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

At a time in America when lies are rampant in public life and alternative truth has been adopted as a winning political strategy, the 2018-19 Broadway season will be remembered for those gripping moments of simple honesty when an actor, burrowed deep in a role's human perplexity, revealed ourselves to ourselves.

Amid the crowds and costliness of Broadway theater, there's still thankfully room for this kind of profound communication between actors and audiences. The Tony Awards, held at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, proudly flourished an array of progressive values. But it was in honoring the artists who brought theatergoers into their confidence that ideals were most powerfully articulated.

For her portrayal of a free-spirited grandmother who retains what is essential in her empathetic nature as dementia darkens her mind in Kenneth Lonergan's autobiographical play "The Waverly Gallery," Elaine May won for best lead actress in a play. Bryan Cranston, ferociously bringing to life anchorman-turned-rabid-prophet Howard Beale in an adaptation of "Network" that uncannily reflects our own unhinged media age, was named best lead actor in a play.

These two performances exemplify what stage acting at its best can offer: inescapable connection with a character living publicly what outside the theater would be suffered privately.

The hallucinatory "Hadestown," deservedly crowned best musical, offers truth of an archetypal kind. The female-led creative team of author Anais Mitchell, who won for her original score, and director Rachel Chavkin, who won for her staging, spliced ancient myths into a mesmerizing collage that had the gravitational pull of ritual.

There's plenty of superlative showmanship on display at the Walter Kerr Theatre. But what sets "Hadestown" apart is the way it converts an audience of strangers into an impassioned community eager to ride the rhythmic waves of this New Orleans-style folk-jazz opera to hell and back.


Andre De Shields, who as Hermes invites theatergoers to journey once more through the sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, won for featured actor in a musical. The category, which included his sensational fellow cast member Patrick Page, was overstocked with excellence. But De Shields, a theater eminence both on and off-Broadway, incarnated in his slick style and bluesy sound the spirit of Mitchell's bewitching score.

As expected, Jez Butterworth's "The Ferryman," a British import touted on both sides of the pond, won for best play. I'm not as impressed by my colleagues who declared it an "instant classic." But hype aside, it's an often-gripping drama that, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, explores the cycle of political violence that, as in Aeschylean tragedy, keeps the dead from resting peacefully in their graves. All credit to Sam Mendes, who won for his direction, for so convincingly inhabiting this fictive Irish world with his impeccable ensemble.

The main lesson I hope Broadway producers take from this season's best play nominees is that strategic risk can bring surprising rewards. Heidi Schreck's "What the Constitution Means to Me," Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy" and Taylor Mac's "Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus," are not the type of works that have traditionally graced the Great White Way.

But the authors of these plays represent a more inclusive and tantalizingly unorthodox future for Broadway. And though James Graham's nominated "Ink" may not live up to its London blurbs, it's good to see there's still a place on Broadway for large-scale drama dealing with contemporary concerns -- in this case the manipulative, faux populist media strategy of an insurgent Rupert Murdoch, played with amoral cunning by Bertie Carvel, who won the Tony for best featured actor in a play.


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