Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt
The drama of the Drama Desk Awards. Plus: praise for The Pursuit of Persephone and a new production of Miss Julie.
By the time the award for Outstanding Musical came up at the end of the evening, the spoils had been divided among the major contenders. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee had won Outstanding Book (Rachel Sheinkin) and Outstanding Director (James Lapine) as well as a previously announced Outstanding Ensemble trophy; The Light in the Piazza had won five awards, including Outstanding Music (Adam Guettel) and Outstanding Actress (Victoria Clark); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had won for Outstanding Actor (Norbert Leo Butz); and Monty Python's Spamalot had only picked up trophies for Outstanding Lyrics (Eric Idle) and Outstanding Costume Design (Tim Hatley). So when Spamalot was announced as the big winner, it truly felt like a surprise. Yet there was something joyless in the audience reaction to the win, not to mention the flat acceptance speeches that followed. If the Drama Desk is an indicator for the Tony Awards, put your money on Doubt for Best Play -- but the Best Musical trophy is still up for grabs.
As for the actual awards show, it was a genuinely entertaining event. Victoria Clark thrillingly sang "Fable," her final solo from Piazza. Equally great was Maureen McGovern's rendition of "Days of Plenty," her showstopper from the just-closed Little Women. But the evening's highlights were not confined to performances. In his acceptance speech, Keen Company artistic director Carl Forsman eloquently explained Keen's rejection of theatrical cynicism in favor of a more uplifting form of theatrical expression. It initially looked as though La Cage aux Folles star Robert Goulet might fumble through his duties as a presenter but he ended up ad-libbing with considerable humor, to the delight of the sold-out house. And Brían F. O'Byrne gave the evening's most charming acceptance speech, using baseball terms to help express his appreciation of his Doubt colleagues.
The single best line of the evening was delivered by host Harvey Fierstein. We're paraphrasing, but it went something like this: "Here is Robert Goulet, who arrived on Broadway in Camelot in 1960 and kissed Guenevere. Now he's back on Broadway and he's still kissing a queen."
Miss Julie Gives Us Fever
Craig Lucas is the latest playwright to take a crack at adapting August Strindberg's Miss Julie. One of the reasons that the play is so often revived (there was a wonderful production this past season) is that it has three characters and one relatively simple set. It also has something, besides great writing, that appeals to American audiences: The play deals with the ambition to rise above one's class to a better life. Oh, and it also has a lot of sex.
The current Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, directed by Anders Cato, is an aptly feverish version of the play. It stars Reg Rogers as Jean, the upwardly mobile servant who has an affair with Miss Julie (Marin Hinkle), a woman high above his station, despite his own engagement to another servant, Kristine (Julia Gibson). The play is really about the power struggle between classes and sexes. Jean is a man striving to better himself from the inside out; he speaks many languages, prefers wine to beer, and dances better than the gentlemen at the party upstairs. Down into the kitchen comes Miss Julie, forcing Jean to play a dangerous game as she crosses the class line to tease and taunt him. When their respective passions explode, truths are revealed and dreams eventually come up against reality.
The play is, above all, an actors' piece. Rogers is dynamic as Jean, who is a gentleman in everything but birth. Sly, needy, and proud, the handsome and charismatic Rogers gives Jean dimension. Marin Hinkle is entirely credible as the spoiled, troubled, upper-class beauty Miss Julie, and Julia Gibson's portrayal of Kristine -- a hard-nosed woman who knows her place -- also rings true. Cato's direction is fluid. This is another strong production by the consistently vibrant Rattlestick company.
Bad Title, Good Musical
The Pursuit of Persephone, the recently closed Off-Off Broadway musical about F. Scott Fitzgerald, could have used a catchier title -- but if the title wasn't catchy, the score certainly was. Peter Mills' music captures the pre-World War I bounce of the era, feeling very much like early Irving Berlin, and his lyrics are smart and snappy, suggesting Cole Porter without aping him. The book, which Mills wrote with Cara Reichel (who also skillfully directed the show), insightully details Fitzgerald's Princeton years and his first great love affair. Clearly, Mills is a talent to be reckoned with.
The cast, however, was a bit uneven. The older Fitzgerald was played with a touching combination of dignity and angst by Daniel Yates, while the younger novelist was essayed by Chris Fuller, who doesn't quite have the right voice for the unmiked performance that he was called upon to give. (One might also suggest that the band was too loud during his solo numbers.) David Abeles, as the young literary lion Edmund Wilson, offered both stellar acting and singing; Benjamin Sands was winning as the young poet John Peale Bishop; and Piper Goodeve was winsomely appealing as a young woman who loves Scott but can't hold him. All of these performers were happy discoveries, as was The Pursuit of Persephone.