Tony Awards Best Play preview: Pulitzer Prize winners hope for first Tonys

While two strong Tony Awards contenders for Best Musical have already opened — “Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812” and “Dear Evan Hansen” — there has yet to emerge a frontrunner for Best Play. Only four new plays have opened so far. Which will be remembered still by the time of nominations on May 2?

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Back in the fall, Tony nominated director Simon McBurney (“The Chairs” [1998]) brought his one-man show, “The Encounter” to Broadway for a limited run. McBurney took inspiration from Petru Popescu’s novel “Amazon Beaming,” about National Geographic writer and photographer Loren McIntyre’s experience with tribes along the Amazon River. While the production received mostly good reviews from critics, the two categories in which it would have done well in at the Tonys (Best Special Theatrical Event and Best Sound Design) have sadly been retired.

Nick Kroll & John Mulaney portrayed their popular alter egos Gil Faizon & George St. Geegland in “Oh, Hello on Broadway.” Faizon & St. Geegland are outrageously opinionated, 70-something, native New Yorkers that Kroll and Mulaney first began performing on the alternative comedy stages in NYC. Honed for over a decade, the fictional duo garnered a cult following and found their way onto a Comedy Central special, viral videos and late night couches everywhere. While the production received mostly favorable reviews from critics, it likely still won’t be nominated for Best Play as that it has no snob appeal. While some comedies have been nominated for Best Play in the past such as “Hand to God” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the latter winning the award in 2013), they still had dramatic and emotional substances inside of them. I think the most likely fate this play will have at the Tonys is the actors appearing in the guise of the characters.

Tony Awards Best Musical Battle:
“Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812” and “Dear Evan Hansen”

Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of “Heisenberg”, the new play by Tony-winning playwright Simon Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” [2015]), could be a contender. The play is set amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station, where Clare (Mary Louise-Parker) spots Alex (Denis Arndt), a much older man, and plants a kiss on his neck. This electric encounter thrusts these two strangers into a life-changing game. It could also end up receiving nominations for its two stars Arndt and Tony-winner Parker (“Proof” [2001]) as well as its director Mark Brokaw (“Cry-Baby”, “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”).

Last month, Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Platonov,” newly entitled “The Present” opened. The play is set in the post-Perestroika Russia of the mid-1990s at an old country house where friends gather to celebrate the birthday of the independent but compromised widow Anna Petrovna (two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett). At the center of the party is the acerbic and witty Platonov (Richard Roxburgh) with his wife (Jacqueline McKenzie), his former students and friends and their partners making up the rest of the group. All may appear comfortable, but boiling away inside is a mess of unfinished, unresolved relationships, fueled by 20 years of denial, regret and thwarted desire.

The Tony Administration Committee ruled this to be a new play as opposed to a revival. While the critical response was glowing for the cast (especially Blanchett, who seems to have a great shot at her first Tony), it was still mixed on the production itself. Given that, as well as its early closure (the run is scheduled to end on March 19), I’m not sure how if “The Present” will be gifted with a nomination.

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Still to open are a slew of new works. Listed in order of their opening nights, these seven shows are:

“Significant Other” (opening March 2)
A new play by Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews”) that tells the story of Jordan Berman, a young, gay man in New York who would love to be in love, but that’s easier said than done. So until he meets Mr. Right, he wards off lonely nights with his trio of close-knit girlfriends. But as singles’ nights turn into bachelorette parties, Jordan finds that supporting the ones you love can be just as impossible as finding love itself. The production stars Gideon Glick (“Spring Awakening”), and is directed by Trip Cullman (who’s also directing the upcoming revival of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”).

“Sweat” (opening March 26)
This new work from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Ruin”) follows a group of friends who have spent their lives sharing drinks, secrets and laughs while working together on the line of a factory floor. But when layoffs and picket lines begin to chip away at their trust, the friends find themselves pitted against each other in the hard fight to stay afloat.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” (opening April 2)
A new comedy written by original cast members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, & Henry Shields introduces audiences to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, a performance troupe attempting to put on a 1920s murder mystery. As the title suggests, it doesn’t go well, and the accident-prone thespians fight against all odds to make it to the curtain call. The original West End production won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2015. Among the producers of this play is filmmaker J.J. Abrams.

Tony Awards host poll results:
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“Oslo” (opening April 13)
A new political drama written by J.T. Rogers (“Blood and Gifts”) that tells the true if little-known story of Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul and her husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, who together coordinated top-secret peace negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in the early 1990s. Their efforts culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The production, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, stars Tony winners Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife” [2004]) and Jennifer Ehle (“The Real Thing” [2000], “The Coast of Utopia” [2007]), and is directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher b(“South Pacific” [2008]).

“Indecent” (opening April 18)
A new play by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”) that is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance”, a play seen by some as a seminal work of Jewish culture, and by others as an act of traitorous libel. The play charts the history of an incendiary drama and the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform it.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” (opening April 27)
A new play by Obie-winning playwright Lucas Hnath (“Red Speedo”) that is written as a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, “A Doll’s House”. Under the direction of Tony winner Sam Gold (“Fun Home” [2015]), this production stars three-time Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf (“November” [2008], “The Other Place” [2013], “Misery” [2016]), Oscar winner Chris Cooper (“Adaptation” [2002]), Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell (“The Humans” [2016]), and two-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad (“Stick Fly” [2012], “The Trip to Bountiful” [2013]).

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