‘The Piano Lesson,’ ‘The Whale’ and ‘Dogfight’ lead Lucille Lortel winners

Signature Theater’s production of August Wilson‘s 1990 Pulitzer-winning play “The Piano Lesson” won four of it leading six bids at the 28th annual edition of the Lucille Lortel Awards Sunday. Besides Best Revival, it won Best Actress (Roslyn Ruff), Featured Actor (Chuck Cooper) and Director (Ruben Santiago-Hudson).

(See full list of winners here.) 

Ruff’s acceptance speech was the highlight of the evening, as she credited Santiago-Hudson for fighting for her to be cast, arguing that Wilson was enough of a name to draw audiences. Among the notable names she edged out for the award were acting triple crown winner Vanessa Redgrave who contended here for the first time for her performance in Jesse Eisenberg‘s play “The Revisionist” and Emmy champ America Ferrara (“Ugly Betty) for “Bethany.”

“The Whale,” Samuel Hunter‘s ultimately uplifting tale of a morbidly obese man, won Best Play as well as Best Actor (Shuler Hensley) and Costume Design.

“Dogfight” claimed Best Musical and Choreography. Tony nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“A Christmas Story”) penned the tunes while Peter Duchan adapted the 1991 film about a GI who for a bet seduces an ugly duckling. 

In all, 37 productions contended across 14 categories. Winners were revealed in a sprightly ceremony at the NYU Skirball Center ably hosted by Maura Tierney and nominee Aasif Mandvi (“Disgraced”).

“Daily Show” regular Mandvi made merry with his Best Actor loss to Hensley. Tierney, who could contend at this year’s Emmys for her recurring guest role on “The Good Wife,” is currently co-starring with Tom Hanks in the Tony-nominated play “Lucky Guy.” 

The Lortels are handed out in a range of categories. Some are akin to those at the Tony Awards, which salute the best of Broadway, such as Best Play and Best Musical. However, rather than separate musical and play performances as do the Tonys, the Lortels lump them together. Most of this year’s nominees appeared in plays rather than musicals. 

While the Tonys have dropped their catch-all award for special theatrical event, the Lortels continue to salute such efforts. “All the Rage” beat out “Jackie” and “Title and Deed.” “Old Hats” was named Best Alternative Theater Experience.

These awards also lauded Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes for his lifetime achievement and the Theater Development Fund for service to the off-Broadway community. 

These kudos are presented by the Off-Broadway League, a collection of producers who stage shows in smaller venues than those on Broadway. A successful off-Broadway run can lead to a transfer to Broadway and a chance to contend at the Tony Awards. That was what happed to “Once” which parlayed its Lortel laurels into last year’s top Tony winner. 

The Lucille Lortel Awards — named for the renowned actress turned producer — do what the Drama Desk Awards used to — celebrate the best of off-Broadway. Of the 102 shows that were eligible, 38 received some recognition from these kudos. 

While the Tony Awards, which date to 1947, salute Broadway, the Drama Desk kudos were begun in 1955 to honor the rest of the New York theater world. And for the first 14 years they did just that with winners coming exclusively from the burgeoning off-Broadway scene. However, beginning with the 15th festivities in 1968, those appearing on Broadway became eligible for consideration and since then these awards have tilted towards those also competing at the Tonys, leaving the off-Broadway performers in the wings until the Lortels came along.

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