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Too bad team effort isn't a Tony category

June 15, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

NEW YORK — Americans ARE suckers for teams. The prospect of talents blending into a collective heave ho of inspiration turns us into giddy school kids at recess. Sports fans know better than anyone the joy of watching the gifted spur one another to new heights. Want to see a grown man cry? Wait for the next bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam. Want to make him sulk for weeks? Fill him in on how those supposedly chummy superstars really feel about each other off the field.

Theatergoers aren't immune to the seductive power of camaraderie, the way it democratizes our overachieving natures and satisfies a deeply ingrained sentimental longing for fairness. This was the year of the ensemble on Broadway, and to an unusual if not unprecedented degree, actors have been stifling their showboating impulses for the subtler pleasures of becoming part of a company.

Of course there have been a few powerhouse performances, the most knock-'em, sock-'em being Patti LuPone's magnetic Momma Rose in "Gypsy" -- a Broadway tour de force that will go down as one of the great incarnations of that greatest of musical theater roles. And rest assured that during tonight's Tony ceremony, when individuals will be ecstatically singled out, all this Marxist hand-holding will come to a crashing end.

But consider that all four of this year's Tony Award nominees for best play -- "August: Osage County," "The Seafarer," "Rock 'n' Roll" and "The 39 Steps" -- feature tightly knit casts that divide the acting glory. Not that it's all even-steven, mind you, but the adage of there being no small parts has been truly taken to heart.

And how about this as a sign of the egalitarian times: The two front-runners for the best musical award were written by men who also star as narrator-protagonists, yet neither Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for "In the Heights," nor Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music for "Passing Strange," hogs the oxygen from his fellow performers. Miranda seems most comfortable in playing a keen observing eye in the vibrant Latino New York neighborhood in which the show is set, and Stew, a mountainous rock presence, clearly delights in seeing his creative autobiography explode into existence around him.

The standouts among them

As FOR the best play revival category, it would be disingenuous to say that all performances in the individual casts were created equal. Mark Rylance has been propelling "Boeing-Boeing" with his hilarious double-takes; Patrick Stewart fiendishly earned his marquee billing in "Macbeth"; Eve Best supplied the feminine dazzle in "The Homecoming"; and Ben Daniels made a rakishly memorable Broadway debut in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It was a no-brainer that they were all nominated, but it's not as if their supporting players were relegated to the status of Pips anonymously crooning to "Midnight Train to Georgia."

To take the most jocular example, Rylance's expertly calibrated Midwestern straight man in Marc Camoletti's somewhat sputtering French farce (a flop when it premiered on Broadway in 1965) demonstrates the surprising peaks of deadpan drollery. Yet if the looniness swirling around his character hadn't been as deliriously animated as it is in Matthew Warchus' captivatingly mod production, Rylance's stuttering reaction would have lost half its hilarity.

Indeed, the bright chaos of "Boeing-Boeing" draws its color from the over-the-top portrayals of the three international flight attendants, none of whom suspects that there could be another woman lurking in the Parisian bachelor pad of a sweet-talking rogue genially incarnated by Bradley Whitford. Kathryn Hahn is the sexually voracious American, Gina Gershon the Sophia Loren-like Italian and Mary McCormack, who bagged a Tony nomination, the German bombshell who could make Brunnhilde seem like a shrinking violet. Choreographed for maximum physical tomfoolery, the high jinks (which include Christine Baranski as an exasperated maid) leave Rylance's milquetoast genuinely bowled over. The upshot is that the more laggard passages of the play are covered by spill-over laughter.

A curious thing about top-notch ensembles like the one in "Boeing-Boeing" is that the person most responsible for their seamlessness, even when nominated for a Tony as Warchus is, isn't often acknowledged for mustering the troops. When you leave a show marveling at the synergy of performers, it's not the actors alone who deserve your applause. Credit the director, whose contribution begins with canny casting and ends with unifying disparate personalities and techniques into a cohesive three-dimensional canvas.

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