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Laughter and Tears at the Lucille Lortel Awards

Jason Robards, Eileen Heckart, and the rest of Off-Broadway's best are honored. logo
Jason Robards, Eileen Heckart, Dana Ivey, and
Lauren Bacall at the 15th annual Lucille Lortel Awards
(Photo by Forrest Mallard)
In April and May, New York traditionally overflows with theater award announcements, ceremonies and parties, but the late Lucille Lortel, "The Queen of Off-Broadway" always gave hers first. And that tradition continues into the new century. Off-Broadway's 15th annual Lucille Lortel Awards were presented on May 1st. Lortel, who made her own Broadway acting debut in 1925, was a legendary producer for almost 50 years with over 500 productions to her credit, including such hits as The Threepenny Opera in the '50s and the more recent As Bees in Honey Drown, Mrs. Klein, and Collected Stories.

The Lortels have sometimes mirrored the Pulitzers for Drama, with awards this year to Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends) and previously to Margaret Edson (Wit), Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), Horton Foote (Young Man from Atlanta), and Edward Albee (Three Tall Women). Lucille Lortel's love of and respect for playwrights is well known, and the crowning achievement of her final season was the creation of the The Playwrights' Sidewalk outside the Lortel, filled with bronze stars to honor playwrights whose works have been showcased inside. This year's inductees, Charles Busch (who also just won the John Gassner Playwriting Award) and Israel Horovitz, joined the ranks of almost 50 others including the European giants Genet, Brecht, and Beckett and American masters such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, Paula Vogel, and Lanford Wilson.

The awards also recognize general excellence in the Off-Broadway arena and Manhattan Theatre Club's Barry Grove was so honored with the Edith Oliver Award, named after the longtime New Yorker theater critic. Like the Obies, the Lortels are non-competitive awards selected by a committee of New York critics. Co-hosts Joy Behar and Sam Harris kept things moving at a brisk pace; the latter "threw on some Armani" to fill in as a last minute replacement for Jesse L. Martin. Held as always at the Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village, the evening at times turned emotional, and even became a family affair as two children presented awards to their fathers.

Presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to his dad, Jason Robards, actor/son Sam alluded to "hitting the genetic lottery." (His mom, Lauren Bacall, was also in attendance on her night off from Waiting in the Wings). Robards senior received the evening's only standing ovation in honor of a career that began in summer stock in 1947. The actor hit the big-time in 1956 in legendary, back-to-back José Quintero productions of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. (How lovely that revivals of both plays have graced the Broadway stage this season and last.) Accepting his award, Robards gratefully credited Quintero and his current wife, Lois, with "saving my life."

Rachel Horovitz, Israel's daughter, read a letter about growing up with a playwright dad whose motto was "Nothing is so bad, it can't get worse," and directed him to "turn right at your star, Dad." Horovitz joked that, when he heard the phone message concerning his sidewalk star he thought, "The Lortel is holding a sidewalk sale."

Eileen Heckart's television niece, Mary Tyler Moore, presented Heckart with her second award of the evening, for Outstanding Body of Work; previously, longtime friend (and legendary actress) Zoe Caldwell had presented Heckart with an Outstanding Performance award for her work in The Waverly Gallery. Caldwell joked that when her husband, producer Robert Whitehead, first saw Heckart in 1946, "he knew even then, that someday, she would play Gladys Green." Heckart shared several back stage anecdotes with the audience, including one about her increasing annoyance at having to audition time and time again for Joshua Logan before landing the role of Rosemary in the original production of Picnic.
When Boyd Gaines received his Outstanding Actor award from his Contact co-star Karen Ziemba, he joked self-deprecatingly: "Hmmm, Eileen Heckart, Jason Robards, and Boyd Gaines. Which one does not belong?" He then added, "When they first called about the show and said, 'It's a dance piece,' I said, 'And I would be doing...what?' " His voice broke as he praised director/choreographer Susan Stroman, winner of the Lortel for Outstanding Director, who lost her husband Mike Ockrent last year, yet still managed to move Contact from the Mitzi Newhouse to the Vivian Beaumont and to direct and choreograph The Music Man. Stroman, who also received her award from Ziemba, praised Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop: "He basically called and said, if you have an idea, I will do it." With her hair in a French twist (a la Contact's famed "girl in the yellow dress"), Stroman was almost overcome by emotion during the last part of her thank-yous.
Bruce Vilanch with Tony and Tina
(Photo by Forrest Mallard)
That "life-size Muppet," Bruce Vilanch (currently appearing in his own Off-Broadway show), presented Charles Busch with his star citation. Busch credited his long time friend and director Ken Elliott as "the Moses who brought me from the Lower East Side to MacDougal Street." (Busch wrote and starred in such shows as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party at the Provincetown Playhouse.) The playwright told the award audience that he use to cut school as a kid and hang out in the Village, where he found the marquee of the Theatre de Lys (the Lortel's original name) to be magical.

Irony prevailed as the cast of Naked Boys Singing, clad only in towels, presented costume designer Martin Pakledinaz's award for his work on Waste and Manhattan Theatre Club's The Wild Party. The latter show swept the design awards, with two more for lights (Kenneth Posner) and sets (David Gallo). But the Outstanding Musical Award went to James Joyce's The Dead; it was accepted by Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, and co-producer Gregory Mosher. At the party afterwards, Sanford cracked, "We were advised to add James Joyce's name to the title to gain audience interest. Now, there was a real popular ticket!" (The show was a big hit at Playwrights, but managed only a brief run on Broadway.)

For once, Douglas Carter Beane eschewed irony to thank New York's theater critics for nurturing the Drama Dept. (winner of Outstanding Revival for The Torch Bearers.) The most perfect Kodak moment of the evening came post awards and pre-party: As the Lortel audience boarded two buses headed for the America Restaurant shindig, Lauren Bacall approached former husband Jason Robards and tenderly brushed his hair and straightened his collar before kissing him on the cheek.


Dinner With Friends

James Joyce's The Dead

The Torch-Bearers

Boyd Gaines, Contact

Eileen Heckart, The Waverly Gallery

Susan Stroman, Contact

Kenneth Posner, Give Me Your Answer, Do! and The Wild Party (MTC)

David Gallo, The Wild Party(MTC)

Martin Pakledinaz, Waste and The Wild Party (MTC)

Eileen Heckart

Jason Robards

Barry Grove

Charles Busch and Israel Horovitz


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