Tony Awards preview: ‘King Charles III’ is early frontrunner to win Best Play

It’s still early in the Broadway season, but the race for the Best Play Tony Award is already shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years. When the schedule of openings was first announced it appeared that Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” was the heavy favorite. After all, this “future history” of the chaotic fictional reign of the current Prince of Wales is told in Shakespearean verse and was a huge hit in London where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play and was nominated for the Evening Standard Award. However, two American transfers from Off-Broadway — “The Humans” from Roundabout Theatre Company and “Eclipsed” from the Public Theatre — are set to challenge this seemingly unstoppable British royal contender.

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British “snob appeal” shows often win this top Tony, including three of the six champs this decade: “Red” (2010), “War Horse” (2011) and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (2015). Add the rapturous reviews New York critics have given this just-opened English transplant and “King Charles” may as well be fitted for the Tony crown right now. But the show is playing a limited run through Jan. 31, 2016 and will have been closed for months by awards time. Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role is a definite frontrunner for Best Actor, though.

Immediately after “The Humans” by Stephen Karam (whose “Sons of the Prophet” won the 2012 New York Drama Critics Circle Award Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist) opened to ecstatic reviews, producer Scott Rudin (and EGOT champ) announced he was moving it to Broadway not long after the Roundabout run ended on December 27. A specific date and theater have yet to be announced. This moving comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family revealing uncomfortable secrets on Thanksgiving has no major stars but Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it “quite possibly the finest [play] we will see all season.”

“Eclipsed” features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (“Twelve Years a Slave”) in a shattering performance as a woman held as a sexual captive by a rebel officer during the Liberian civil war. The playwright is Danai Gurira, best known for her role as an actress on “The Walking Dead.” This is one of the few plays by a woman to reach Broadway which may help its Tony chances. Gurira would be the first African-American woman to win the Best Play award and only the third American woman (the previous two were Frances Goodrich for “The Diary of Anne Frank,” written in collaboration with her husband Albert Hackett in 1955, and Wendy Wasserstein for “The Heidi Chronicles” in 1989.) French author Yasmina Reza has won twice: for “Art” in 1998 and “God of Carnage” in 2009.

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David Mamet’s new play “China Doll” starring Al Pacino, is also in the running. Mamet has never won a Tony and only been nominated once, for “Glengarry Glen Ross.” (Pacino has previously collaborated with Mamet on the film version of “Glengarry,” a stage revival of that play and a revival of “American Buffalo.”) The new play features Pacino as a billionaire industrialist about to retire when one phone call changes everything. But reports from preview performances are not positive.

There are two stage version of novels: William Goldman’s stage version of Stephen King’s “Misery” with Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalfe, and Helen Edmundson’s dramatization of Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin” with Keira Knightley. The former is still in previews and the latter received decidedly mixed reviews.

There’s also “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” starring Linda Lavin and “The Father” with Frank Langella. Both are from Manhattan Theatre Club and deal with struggles between aging parents and adult offspring. Neither has even started rehearsals.

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“Fool for Love,” Sam Shepard’s explosive drama about reunited lovers; “Sylvia,” A.R. Gurney’s comedy concerning a middle-aged man and his dog played by a human actress; and “Blackbird,” David Harrower’s two-character play dealing with a woman seeking out the man who sexually abused her as a teenager, are all making their Broadway debuts. But each has had previous Off-Broadway productions, so will probably be judged as revivals.

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