6 of the Greatest Breakthrough Dramatic Performances on Broadway EVER

(For nearly 30 years, Susan Haskins-Doloff was co-host and executive producer of the classic PBS TV show “Theater Talk,” featuring fascinating and witty interviews with the leading stars and other creators of Broadway’s greatest shows.)

As the 2022 Tony Awards approach, and I think about handicapping this year’s nominees, I am also remembering some of the more outstanding dramatic performance I have witnessed over the years. Long, long ago, my mother took me to see “A Raisin in The Sun.” Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking play, which opened on Broadway in 1959, had already received due praise, winning the Pulitzer Prize and The New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards.  It didn’t get any Tony’s though. It was nominated in 4 categories, including Best Play, but lost that to The Miracle Worker (as did Tennessee William’s “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” Paddy Chayevsky’s “The Tenth Man,” and Lillian Hellman’s “Toys in The Attic”).  “A Raisin in The Sun” closed two months after the Tony Ceremony, with 530 performances.

It then went on the road and landed at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater where my mother and I caught up with it. At 9 years old, I was seeing for the first time in my life a play about a Black family. They lived on top of each other in a cramped Chicago apartment, trying to move up and out of the lives that systematic racism had brought them to. Though the civil rights movement was already revving up, few white audience members had likely thought much about these characters’ issues, let alone encountered them in the theater. Here, however, was a play that spoke for them so effectively, that even a middle-American white child got it. I found at “A Raisin in The Sun” not only a life-long belief in the higher power and greater good of the theater, but also the emotional intensity that great stage actors share with their audiences. When I see one of these performances, I am not sitting apart from the actors, but feeling with them. For the moment, we are almost one.

Here then is my memory of six of the best actors who inspired those feelings in me.

Diana Sands in “A Raisin in The Sun” (1959)
“A Raisin in The Sun” has 4 wonderful roles, all of them with gut-wrenching scenes. In the original cast, all four principals: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeill and Diana Sands were magnificent, but it was Sands, as the precocious Beneatha Younger who was a revelation to me. Hansberry based this character on herself, a bright, educated woman who embodied the progressive attitudes that were breaking through in the late fifties and early sixties and challenging the status quo. She is a fighter and evolving Black-and-proud feminist, unwilling to accept the life her parents have had to endure. Beneatha wants social justice and more opportunity, and these ideas burst out of her, making her sometimes aggressively assertive. Her scene from “Raisin” that most stuck with me is early in the play when Beneatha is glibly sharing her irreverent views on religion with Lena, her intensely traditional mother:

I don’t believe in God. I don’t even think about it. It’s just that I’m tired of him getting the credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God. There is only man, and It is he who makes miracles. On hearing this, her mother, a righteous Christian, slaps Beneatha hard across the face, then commanding her twice, “You say after me, ‘in my mother’s house there is still God.” Beneatha  says what her mother wants to hear, but as soon as Lena leaves the room, she rallies, saying, “Everybody thinks it’s alright for Mama to be a tyrant, but all the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens.” Beneatha, like Hansberry, was not to be subdued.

Sand’s performance in “A Raisin in The Sun” (you can still watch it in the 1961 movie on Prime) launched her into a successful career. She starred in seven more Broadway plays, receiving two Tony nominations and got an Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on “East Side/West Side” with George C. Scott. Unfortunately, she tragically died of cancer in 1973 at age 39.

Charles S. Dutton in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984)
Before the late Chadwick Boseman acted the part of Levee in the 2020 film of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” there was Charles S. Dutton, who played the part from the play’s first staged reading through to its original Broadway run. Both actors’ interpretations of the role were brilliant and intense, but played on very different physical instruments, with Dutton’s hulking physique being almost the opposite of Bozeman’s wiry, kinetic one (and, of course, we did not realize that Bozeman was fighting cancer while he filmed this and it would take his life before the movie was even released).

Levee is a fictional jazz trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s band (Rainey, being an actual 20th century Blues singer). The play takes place in 1927 during a recording session of her song “Black Bottom.” Levee is desperate to succeed on his own merits and enjoy the same recognition that Ma has achieved. But he has had a hard life, referring to himself and other Blacks  as, “Nothing but Leftovers.” I still remember the despair Dutton communicated, first describing the rape of his mother and murder of his father when he was a child and later when realizing that music he had composed was being stolen by Rainey’s white producer.

The brash, self-destructive tendencies Levee has developed cause him to get fired by Ma Rainey and that, along with his music being ripped off, leads him to (spoiler alert) tragically stab and kill one of his fellow musicians. Prior to that devastating climax, the play also includes a scene where Levee questions the existence of God. In this case, Levee disdainfully says, If there is a God up there, he done went to sleep… God don’t listen to no N-word’s prayers. In response to this, one of his fellow musicians, the otherwise upbeat trombone player Cutler, punches Levee in the face to defend his own faith.

In Dutton’s raging portrayal of this character, he hits every emotional note that playwright Wilson had written into the role. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was August Wilson’s first play on Broadway and for many mainstream audiences their introduction to this towering artist  and the evolving Black American experience he devoted his life to writing about. Dutton got a Best Tony nomination for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” as did Lloyd Richards, the same director who was nominated for “A Raisin in the Sun.” Neither man won, nor did August Wilson win a Tony for Best Play. The winner that year was Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.”

Footnote:  Dutton at age 16, a middle school drop-out, stabbed and killed a man in a knife fight. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was incarcerated multiple times for multiple offenses over the next nine years. During that time, however, he also earned a GED and an associate’s’ degree, and then after he was released. he got a BA in drama in his home town of Baltimore, followed by an MFA at the Yale Drama School. The year after that, Dutton made his Broadway debut in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He went on to a still-thriving career, both on Broadway (recreating the role of Levee in the 2003 revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Whoopi Goldberg) and as an actor, producer and director in Hollywood.

Mark Ruffalo in “This Is Our Youth” (1998)
Another actor with a still thriving career is Mark Ruffalo, who I first saw almost 25 years ago in the original production of “This Is Our Youth” by playwright, Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan said of his work back when it opened, “It’s essentially the life lived by my friends and me on the Upper West Side in the 1980’s. I remember sitting in those rooms, stoned out of our minds, with our parents’ money behind us and kind of levitating our way through life.”

The play focuses on two messed-up Manhattan kids from broken homes, recently out of high school. Both have financially successful fathers who ignore them, so they are doing little more than using drugs and getting into trouble of their own making. They are archetypes the culture was becoming all too familiar with in the 90’s, but usually framed as jokes like Beavis & Butthead or the guys in “Wayne’s World.” But “This Is Our Youth” shows the darker, more psychologically damaged side of this lifestyle from which many never escape.

The more lost of the two protagonists was played by Ruffalo, who I also had never seen before. I can still connect with the empathy I had for his character, Warren’s hopelessness and despair. True, it’s a wonderful play, but Ruffalo brought something more to it with his distinctive talent for putting over the deepest feelings of the characters he plays. He also did a great job, at then age 29, coming across as a hapless 19-year-old kid.

This production opened Off Broadway, initially for a limited run, but proved so popular it came back later in an extended run and earned Ruffalo a Theater World Award. It also landed Mark’s on the A-list, and he has had a great career ever since, mostly in films and on television (with a 2006 Best Featured Actor/Play Tony nomination for a revival of Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing”). In 2020 Ruffalo won a Best Actor Emmy, playing identical twins in “I Know This Much is True,” one being wiry and aggressive and the other being schizophrenic, bloated by antipsychotic meds. It was another stunning, sensitive performance for which Ruffalo prepared by working out to play the fit twin and then gaining 30 pounds to play the heavier one.

Anna Manahan in “The Beauty Queen of Leeanne” (1998)
“The Beauty Queen of Leeanne”  by Martin McDonagh‘s was first produced by the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland and soon transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in London where it received an Olivier Award nomination for Best Play. It came to New York for a run at the Atlantic Theatre Company, opening there in February of 1998 and was such a success that by April, it moved to Broadway.

The curtain rises in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” on a dilapidated, sparsely furnished rural cottage in Ireland, where stage right sits Mag Folan on a rocking chair, the only comfortable seat in the house. She lives here with Maureen, her plain,  40-something spinster daughter with whom she is constantly sparring. In the original production, Maureen was played by Marie Mullins (now appearing as Sutton Foster’s mother in the current Bway revival of The Music Man) and Mag was played by revered Irish actress, Anna Manahan. Manahan had already appeared on Broadway and received a Tony nomination in 1969 for a play called “Lovers,” but I had never seen her before, myself, so I considered hers a “breakthrough performance.” In any case, Manahan with Mullins, provided one of the most disturbing dramatizations of domestic violence, I have ever seen.

Maureen, yearning to get out of there and away from her mean-spirited mother, meets a personable young man, Pato Dooley, with whom she shares her heart and a sexual encounter. The next morning Mag tells Pato that  Maureen is mentally ill and requires her, Mag’s, care. Nonetheless, Pato writes Maureen a love a letter, inviting her to go with him to America. Mag, intercept the letter and destroys it. When Maureen discovers what her mother has done, she beats up Mag, douses her with hot oil and heads out for Pato’s going away party. She later returns, and bashes Mag’s head in, killing her. In the final scene, it is revealed that Maureen, (somehow not arrested for the murder), is indeed just as insane as her mother claimed her to be. The play ends with Maureen putting on Mag’s sweater and taking her place in Mag’s chair. Welcome, Broadway, to the amazing mind of Martin McDonagh.

Mullins won the Best Actress /Play Tony and Manahan won for Best Featured Actress/Play. Garry Hynes, who had helmed the production from the very beginning in Galway, got the Best Director Tony, the first woman to ever win that award. It was also nominated for Best Play, but lost to Yazmin Reza’s “Art.”

Footnote: Manahan and the rest of “The Beauty Queen” company arrived in New York from its tour in Australia right before they were scheduled to open at the Atlantic Theater Company. When she got here, Anna was coughing up blood. Neil Pepe, her producer and the Artistic Director of The Atlantic (now a 2022 nominee for Best Director/Play), immediately drove her to a doctor who discovered that only ¼ of Manahan’s heart was working. Four days away from the first preview, the doctor put Anna on blood thinners, heart meds and radically changed her diet. She was on stage for that first Off-Broadway performance, stayed with the play until it closed on Broadway and continued in her career for another eight years before she died. That’s a trooper.

Michael Stuhlbarg in “The Pillowman” (2005)
McDonagh’s The Pillowman, opened on Broadway in 2005 after winning an Olivier in London. The play with an even more twisted plot than “The Beauty Queen,” takes place in the prison of an unknown totalitarian country, as well as in the minds of two of its prisoners, Katurian (played on Broadway by Billy Crudup), a writer of gruesome children’s stories, and Michal, his brother. Michal was played by Michael Stuhlbarg. His character is mentally-challenged, pudgy like a baby (like Ruffalo, Stuhlbarg gained substantial weight for his role) and cannot comprehend what is happening to him and his brother.

Katurian is interrogated, tortured and awaiting execution for a series of child murders that the authorities believe he committed. Michal is being held along with him as a witness. In a series of staged flashbacks, recreating some of his memories and disturbing stories, Katurian comes to realize that Michal, besides being hideously tortured by their parents as a child, is in fact (spoiler alert), the serial killer. I had seen Crudup earlier in a number of handsome young actor parts, but I had never seen Stuhlbarg before until he played the witless and damaged, Michal.

I felt such compassion for the poor damaged soul Stuhlbarg portrayed, that I found myself almost believing that the disoriented, pitiful. character on stage was a real person and not an actor. Stuhlbarg has gone on to a successful career, starring in the Coen Brothers “A Serious Man” and appearing in many other roles, recently including Richard Sackler, the evil head of the Purdue Pharmacy, pushing oxycontin in “Dopesick.” Right now, he is playing the amoral, wily defense lawyer for Michael Peterson in the true crime drama, “The Staircase.”

McDonagh’s The Pillowman, Stuhlbarg and Crudup were all nominated for Tony Awards, but they lost in 2005 to John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” Bill Irwin in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Liev Schreiber in “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” respectively.

Edie Falco in “Side Man” (1998)
Warren Leight’s “Side Man” had its first New York City production Off Broadway at the 13th Street Theater in 1998 (now the home of CSC in the East Village). It’s director, Michael Mayer, once told me that he and Leight cast the production out of their Rolodexes, so I‘m guessing in one of the Rolodexes was the number of  actress Edie Falco.

“Side Man” is a memory play, loosely based on Leight‘s own early years as the son of a jazz musician. The play’s jazz musician, Gene, has a dysfunctional family and the story is narrated by his young adult son, Clifford. Edie Falco played the musician’s unhinged, alcoholic wife and the narrator/protagonist’s mother, Terry. The  rawness of her performance and the intensity of her character’s booze-fueled rage at being trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who only cared about his music, was almost otherworldly in its intensity. (Interestingly, Falco’s real-life father was a jazz drummer).

Her stirring performance won her a Drama Desk Award and got her noticed by so many casting directors that by the time “Side Man” transferred to Broadway, she wasn’t available to open in it. (She was filming the prison series, “Oz”). She did return to play Terry later in the Broadway run, but a replacement is not eligible for a Tony nomination. She had to wait until 2011 (when she had become well-known as Carmela Soprano) to get a Tony nomination for another play, “The House of Blue Leaves.”

“Side Man” received the Best Play Tony Award along with another for Frank Woods,  who played the father for Best Featured Actor. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing to Margaret Edson’s “Wit.” Warren once referred to “Side Man” as a “screw you mom, screw you dad play,” which, to his mind, most decent playwrights had to get out of their systems at some point in their careers.

Warren once referred to “Side Man” as a “screw you, Mom, screw you, Dad play,” which, to his mind, most decent playwrights had to get out of their systems at some point in their careers. As I look back at this article, all the plays I have written about here (except maybe “Ma Rainey”) are, to some extent, “screw you, Mom, screw you, Dad” plays.

We’ll discuss that later.

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