Bedford (who would have been a shoo-in for the Tony had his performance been logically placed in the featured actor category) and Rylance bestow pleasures of another sort — that of watching great athletes masterfully executing their game plans. Bedford's Lady Bracknell enters a drawing room like a cruise ship docking in a familiar port of call. Every glacial head-turn shores up the English class system. When an epigram is uttered, it's with the same nonchalance with which this redoubtable matriarch condescends to take a sip of tea. Rylance approaches his character, a Pied Piper of hard partying strays, like an Olympian commencing a deranged triathlon. (Not for nothing does he acknowledge his trainer and chiropractor in his playbill bio.) When he launches into one of Rooster's tall tales, it's with the enthusiasm of a contemporary Homer inaugurating a new set of myths. His morning ablutions, aimed at counteracting a colossal hangover, are performed with the manic, calorie-burning zeal of Sutton Foster's ecstatic numbers in the current Broadway revival of "Anything Goes."
Behind the giddy aplomb of Bedford and Rylance lies a wealth of classical theater experience. Both were trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and both have the kind of gold-plated stage résumés one could be forgiven for assuming died out with Laurence Olivier. (Bedford, long an expat living in North America, was brought to New York by his mentor John Gielgud in 1959 and has been a mainstay of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada for 27 years; Rylance, an equally accomplished Shakespearean who spent a good portion of his youth in the U.S., was the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London). Tony winners both, they are extolled for their intelligence, comic flair, flexibility and, yes, vulnerability. Though they can masterfully affect a stiff upper lip, their success in the New World is a credit to the way they combine sublime craftsmanship with humanity.
You want both of them on your all-star repertory team. They have a versatility that is exceedingly difficult to acquire in the States, where theater is rarely the primary focus of our most prominent acting talents. Pacino collects Golden Globes, Mantello is still raking in the dough for having directed "Wicked" and Cannavale is a tall, dark and handsome presence with an Emmy for his work on "Will & Grace." When these men return to the stage to act, they invariably seek a role that will fire them up emotionally or grant them the opportunity to reveal hidden aspects of the life they're playing.
Of course there are plenty of counterexamples to prove that nationality isn't theatrical destiny. Dakin Matthews demonstrates that an American can indeed enjoy a British-style career without giving up his passport, while an English stage star such as Simon Russell Beale can be described as many things (exceptionally literate and witty), but cold and calculating are not among them.
Tradition matters, but whether you prefer internal luminosity to external dazzle is ultimately a matter of taste, not citizenship. I'm partial to acting that ruthlessly mines the self for illumination. But this year's unusually tight Tony race for best dramatic actor allows us to celebrate performers who are separated by more than a common language yet united in their ability to get the job done.