Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stewart
The Drama League kicked off the 2000 awards season with its benefit luncheon on Friday, May 5. This event is always fun because it's unpredictable: the League invites 50 theater stars to sit on a two-tier dais and then allows each actor to say something. Therein lies the unpredictability, which was heightened by the presence of Patrick Stewart as master of ceremonies. (Stewart was in the headlines last week after accusing the producers of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan of shirking their responsibility to promote the show. The Shuberts, in turn, accused Stewart of unprofessional behavior, lodging a complaint with Actors' Equity.)

Stewart was in a conciliatory mood, beginning his emcee duties by quipping that if he was the kind of actor who cared about publicity, he would be taking credit for launching the "I love you" computer virus. He went on to salute the producers who have backed his Broadway runs in A Christmas Carol, The Tempest, and Mt. Morgan, heaping particular praise on the Shuberts' Gerald Schoenfeld, "who has been a part of every piece of work I've done in New York." The charming Stewart then proceeded to introduce each actor with speed and aplomb (in contrast with Matthew Broderick, who made numerous gaffes of fact and pronunciation when he hosted the luncheon several years ago). Newly minted Broadway star Craig Bierko (The Music Man) was so thrilled to be introduced by the golden-voiced former Star Trek captain that he demanded to hear his name called again. "I don't do answering machines," Stewart quipped.

As usual, the stars handled themselves with a mixture of grace and nervousness. Aida's Sherie René Scott blurted, "I don't know why I'm here!" adding, "I had a lot of things to say, but Disney hasn't cleared them yet." Paul Rudd, star of last summer's hit drama bash, drew laughs by begging the stars of American Buffalo, True West, and The Real Thing for house seats. Boyd Gaines of Contact began his remarks by announcing, "I think I have a bingo!" And the presence of Glenn Carter of Jesus Christ Superstar inspired several Last Supper jokes. Later, Jayne Atkinson of The Rainmaker pronounced herself strangely excited by hearing Jesus (Carter) speak with a cockney accent.

The presence of cast and crew from the two Wild Party musicals inspired a funny riff from Brian d'Arcy James, who played the doomed clown Burrs in the now-closed Manhattan Theatre Club version. James claimed that he has been spending his evenings downing Jack Daniels and then stumbling to the Virginia Theater where he sneaks in the stage door and hangs around Mandy Patinkin's dressing room. Unfortunately, Patinkin didn't show up to respond to James' story; the Broadway Wild Party was represented by Eartha Kitt (who declared, "If you stick around long enough, you'll be rewarded for something") and Toni Collette (who got a big laugh with her reference to the rigors of eight shows a week: "I just went to the bathroom," she announced, "and felt completely justified using the disabled toilet").

For some, the luncheon was like old-home week. Stewart recalled sharing a dressing room with Brian Murray (now in Uncle Vanya. Lisa Emery of Dinner With Friends remembered counting tips with Dirty Blonde's Claudia Shear when both were waitresses 20 years ago. Stephen Spinella of James Joyce's The Dead remembered his first time on the dais, during the run of Angels in America. "I was a nobody," he declared, adding with touching candor, "I'm really, really proud to be an American actor."

The younger stars in attendance seemed awed to be in the presence of stars such as Lauren Bacall, who purred, "I'm very happy to be here in spite of the fact that I never do lunch." The afternoon's most touching moment came when Eileen Heckart of The Waverly Gallery received the year's distinguished performance award." Obviously surprised to be singled out, Heckart was in tears as she accepted the award from the always-gracious Cherry Jones.

Drama League members voted Contact the season's best musical; Copenhagen best play; and Kiss Me, Kate best revival. Audra McDonald received an award for distinguished achievement in musical theater, Daniel Sullivan was awarded the first Julia Hansen award for excellence in direction, and playwright/director Jon Jory was honored for his unique contribution to the theater.