There was an expectation of something special in the air for the 50th annual Outer Critics Circle Awards presentation. After all, 50 is a very big and very round number. The OCC, representing the theater press for out-of-town newspapers, national publications, and other media beyond Broadway, traditionally gets out of the gate first with the announcement of its awards before any other organization. Having done that, the actual presentation of the awards comes weeks later at a dinner traditionally held at Sardi's. It was the Thursday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend and the stars of Broadway and Off-Broadway were gathering to receive their accolades. And on this golden anniversary of the one-day wedding between the critics and the critiqued, Sardi's was buzzing with excitement.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly were there to be honored for the special achievement of their role-switching performances in True West. During the pre-presentation cocktail hour, Hoffman, noting that other award-giving organizations had the two actors competing against one another, told us, "Though we play each part differently, we are intertwined beyond what anyone would understand. I'm happy that people acknowledge the work and that's nice, but I would prefer that awards weren't the pressure they are. It's hard enough to put on a good show eight times a week. So I think the way the OCC addressed it was very mature. I think they realized that the show we're doing is, basically, very special."

Roy Dotrice (OCC's Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play for A Moon for the Misbegotten) was in a hearty mood, having already won the Drama Desk award in that category and sitting on a Tony nomination. He joked, "I'm trying for the Triple Crown. It hasn't been done since Secretariat," he said, laughing. "It's wonderful. This kind of showbiz razzmatazz we don't have in London. We have this stiff upper lip thing. We accept awards rather gracefully and graciously, but not with any degree of excitement. But I love all this. The OCC was the first award, and to me that's the most important because these are the people who matter--the critics--they decide how long you're going to exist in this profession."

As is often the case during the theater award season, one organization makes up for the errors of another. Olympia Dukakis, who was not nominated for a Tony for her one person show Rose, was given the OCC Outstanding Performance in a Solo Show Award in a tie with Matt Setlock (Fully Committed). Commenting on the lack of a Tony nod, Dukakis admitted, "It's disappointing, that's for sure." She tried to be philosophical about it, saying, "It forces you to think about what it is you're winning and losing. And it forces you to define yourself, as opposed to letting other people define you." Then she shrugged and said, "It's a drag." Brightening, she pulled over her co-winning competition, Matt Setlock, and said, "After it was announced that we were sharing this award, he sent me a beautiful present saying it was an honor to be honored with me. I was just overwhelmed."

For his part, Setlock offered, "This is the first time I've had any recognition of any sort. Of course you want to win it all, you want to be nominated for it all. The Obies come and go, and there was no recognition there. There's disappointment, but to tie with one of your idols is pretty cool. It was a nice call home to dad in the Midwest to say I won--with Olympia Dukakis. I'm still buzzing."

For the better part of 20 years, gender-illusionist Charles Busch has often been a presenter at theater award events, but never a winner. He had never even been nominated before, he said. A bridesmaid, but never the bride, he's even worn the dress, but this year, after writing the acclaimed The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and winning the OCC's John Gassner Playwriting Award, the glass slipper is on the other foot. "I'm not handing it out," he said happily. "I'm getting one. It's a nice change. It's a wonderful thing after all these years. I've been around, you know. I've been discovered more often than North America. If the family is a theater, I'm the red leaf in the family tree." As a long-time presenter, though, he had a tip for those who were about to introduce the winners, "Get one laugh and then cool it. Don't make it about you, it's about the award."


The Awards Are Now Being Served
Waiting in the Wings didn't win any OCC Awards, but its cast was well represented among the presenters. Rosemary Harris, Lauren Bacall, Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, and Crista Moore were among those who graciously gave awards away, often taking Charles Busch's advice and getting a laugh--and then getting out of the way. The lone presenters outside of cast members from Waiting in the Wings were Betty Buckley and OCC's president for the last 20 years, Marjorie Gunner.

Among the highlights of the giving and getting was Susan Stroman's acceptance speech as Outstanding Director of a Musical (for both Contact). She would later be awarded a scroll for her Outstanding Choreography for the same two shows. Stroman gave an emotional speech during which she did not mention her late husband by name, but his recent passing was clearly on her mind when she nearly sobbed, "These two shows saved my life. They were a healing experience for me."

On the lighter side, Barry Humphries (Dame Edna: The Royal Tour) took home a special achievement award and, in his acceptance speech said, "There are lots of people I'd like to thank, but I can't think of any of them." He eventually built up such a comic head of steam that he made the following declaration in regard to winning the OCC Award, "Should I be summoned to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize, I will consider it an anti-climax." Many of the speeches that followed seemed, by comparison, anti-climactic, as well. Nonetheless, producer Roger Berlind got everyone's attention when, upon accepting the award for Outstanding Broadway play for Copenhagen, noted "Producers outnumbered our cast, three to one."

On the negative side, Gunner indelicately and unnecessarily knocked the lighting design of a non-nominated play in order to extol the virtues of this year's winner, Contact's Peter Kaczorowski. Lauren Bacall struggled through her presentation speeches. But most regrettably, despite the fact that this was the 50th anniversary of the OCC, it felt as if everyone was just going through the motions. In past years this awards celebration took place post show, beginning at 10:30 pm on the Friday before the Memorial Day Weekend. On the one hand, those late night parties had a festive and relaxed atmosphere. On the other hand, any number of presenters and winners had to get up early the next day to prepare for a matinee performance.

Having made the sea change to pre-theater on a Thursday, the OCC had more stars staying longer, but the show had a more perfunctory air about it. Rosemary Harris noted the difference, saying, "I've been to quite a few of these, but this is the first in the afternoon. I've just been complaining that none of us thespians can have a sip of wine or anything to eat now because we've got our shows to play. It was always nice coming here after our shows to let our hair down and have fun." Marin Mazzie (OCC's Outstanding Actress in a Musical winner) also voted against prohibition, saying, "You can't have a cocktail. Everybody around you has a drink and you can't." Laughing, she added, "That's not fair." Dana Ivey, however, while complaining like the others, offered the suggestion that the OCC move its party to "Thursday night before Friday late at night." Without a matinee the next day, she offered, "We can have a glass of wine, relax, and not worry about the time."

Regardless of when the party takes place, the key thing is, as Uncle Vanya might say, "the work." Vanya himself, Derek Jacobi (OCC's Outstanding Actor in a Play), found himself slammed by the New York Times and snubbed by the Tony's. Nonetheless, proving there is a diversity of opinion in the critical community, noted, "We got some good reviews, or we wouldn't be here. Thank goodness for the OCC."