Tony Awards preview: What is ahead for Best Play?

British works dominate the field in the 2014-15 race for Best Play at the Tony Awards.

The current frontrunner is “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Simon Stephens‘s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, while Nick Payne‘s “Constellations” is its strongest currently-running rival. Jez Butterworth‘s “The River” may sneak in, but its main attraction is star Hugh Jackman‘s biceps, rather than the slight story of a fisherman (Jackman) bringing various girlfriends to his remote cabin; also working against it is the fact that it closes on Feb. 8.

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But these shows can expect competition from yet-to-open English imports about royalty: Peter Morgan‘s “The Audience,” which details Queen Elizabeth II‘s meetings with her prime ministers, and “Wolf Hall Part I and 2,” Mike Poulton‘s two-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s award-winning historical novels about the court of King Henry VIII.

Let’s take a closer look at the top contenders.

“Curious Incident” follows the exploits of an autistic teenager and benefits from dazzling technical effects and the brilliant staging of Marianne Elliot, who previously won a Tony for transferring another difficult literary work, “War Horse,” to the stage.

Constellations,” a 70-minute consideration of multiple universes, is a smash hit with much-touted performances by its cast of two, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson (both will probably receive Tony noms). The short play is doing so well there are rumblings that it should transfer to another Broadway theater at the end of its limited Manhattan Theater Club run.

Another possible candidate is “Disgraced,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize during its Off-Broadway run. This is a tense and timely American drama about a Muslim lawyer facing prejudice and his own demons during an explosive dinner party. It may get a Best Play nod, but it’s closing in early March and a shuttered show has slim odds to win.

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The Audience” will be a heavy favorite since its stars awards-magnet Helen Mirren, who has already won an Oscar and an Emmy for playing queens named Elizabeth (on the big screen for “The Queen” and on the telly for HBO’s “Elizabeth I”). She could easily add a Tony to her royal collection.

“Wolf Hall” has the advantage of being a two-evening event, with its sheer length perhaps convincing Tony voters of its merits. Previous multi-night plays to be named Tony’s best are David Edgar‘s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (1982) and Tom Stoppard‘s “The Coast of Utopia” (2007) – coincidently, both were British productions. (Both parts of Tony Kushner‘s “Angels in America” won Best Play, but in separate years, 1993 and 1994.)

Among the American plays this season in addition to “Disgraced,” Lisa D’Amour‘s “Airline Highway” will probably be “Incident’s” closest competitor. It’s a raucous drama about Hurricane Katrina survivors celebrating the life of their fatally-ill matriarch in a seedy New Orleans motel. “Highway” is directed by two-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello (“Assassins,” “Take Me Out”) and received great reviews during a regional production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the home of previous Best Play-winner “August: Osage County.” “Highway” will take over the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from “Constellations” as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s season.

There’s also Peter Askins‘s “Hand to God,” coming to Broadway after two successful Off-Broadway engagements. This clever piece follows a shy young Texas man whose sock-puppet develops an aggressive personality of its own.

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Other American spring openings include Larry David‘s “Fish in the Dark,” which is the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star’s Broadway debut as actor and playwright, and Joe DiPietro‘s “Living on Love” with real-life opera diva Renee Fleming typecast as an opera diva. Both are comedies, a genre that doesn’t usually win Tony’s top prize.

Donald Margulies‘s “The Country House” is the remaining Best Play candidate, but this vehicle for Blythe Danner as the matriarch of a theatrical family had a limited run through Manhattan Theatre Club and was poorly received.

Will this year’s British productions rule, or can an American show defeat them? A British pedigree does not guarantee a Tony win. Of the 68 previous Best Play winners, only 20 were of British birth, with five more coming from other countries. But the Brits appear likely to dominate the field this year.

Photos: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (top left), “Constellations” (top right)

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