I remember once hearing the great French actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault say something that has stayed with me: "A real chair in a real setting isn't interesting. A stylized chair in a stylized setting isn't interesting. But a stylized chair in a real setting — now that's interesting." Barrault, in his versatility, could be a touchstone for our time. A master of classical French acting, he was likewise both a superb mime and skilled enough at naturalistic detail to become a movie star. When Barrault ran a Paris theater in the 1950s and '60s, he produced works from France's literary pantheon — Racine, Beaumarchais, Marivaux — side by side with outrageous, sometimes scandal-causing new plays by the likes of Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco.

In the middle of all that, he found time to revitalize pieces of saucy 19th-century triviality like Feydeau's Occupe-toi d'Amélie and Offenbach's La vie parisienne. As a student, I saw and was blown away by that last celebrated production when it played here at City Center in 1964 (in rep with works by Racine, Beaumarchais, and Ionesco). Yearsa later, I found what he had written about it in one of his volumes of memoirs: "I produced La vie parisienne because I concluded that it was necessary for the company's artistic development." Yes: When you are orating as one of Racine's Roman heroes, and climbing up the mound toward Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, it is also necessary for you and your whole company to do the can-can.

That makes perfect sense to me. Barrault had an advantage, though: He lived in a country where the tradition of nationally subsidized art had deep roots, where a more homogeneous population carried on its political contentions with far less rancor (though there was plenty of the latter when he premiered Genet's The Screens), and where a lopsided economy was not compelling artists to learn to cope, as ours must today, with severely reduced expectations. There was, too, more time for everything, including contemplation. Our Internet-driven hunger for instant results leaves us little enough of that.

Michael Feingold, Obies chairman, at the podium during the 2014 Obie Awards ceremony on Monday, May 19 at Webster Hall.
Sandy Honig
Michael Feingold, Obies chairman, at the podium during the 2014 Obie Awards ceremony on Monday, May 19 at Webster Hall.

And yet we have time — enough of it anyway, for the remarkable artists on our Obie winners list to have achieved the work we've honored them for. And we know — the committee knows better than anyone else — how many more our theater possesses to equal them. In our struggle to sort out what the hell we are doing and why, we must always remember that we are blessed. On a bad night in the theater, I may feel that I am trapped in some inexplicable purgatory. The next night, at a different show in a different performance space, I can feel that I'm the luckiest man alive.

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