Bathed in Golden Light, the 50th Obies Are a Family Affair


You gotta hand it to a city in which the mayor, proclaiming Monday, May 16, “Village Voice Obie Awards Day,” quotes Oscar Wilde, who said that theater “is the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Monday’s Obie ceremony at Webster Hall, the 50th edition of a downtown institution, erupted with that immediacy, at a reception bathed in hot lights and cool jazz. The slide show over the bar made waiting for beer a serendipitous adventure. At this “family reunion,” representatives of many generations mingled to eat and drink and meet and greet: Harry Koutoukas, who won an Obie in 1965, and who “worked at the Voice when it was in a cold-water flat.” Katie Pearl, who arrived in New York from Austin in 2000 and won an Obie for Nita and Zita in 2003. Myra Carter, one of Edward Albee’s original “three tall women.” Lee Breuer. Robert Heide, who started out at the Caffe Cino.

Jerry Tallmer, looking quite Einsteinian, offered a valediction, invoking Joseph Papp. Presenter Elaine Stritch, handing a plaque to Cherry Jones, thanked heaven “for the candlepower of a New York actress creating a legend for the next century.” Jones, born in the same year as the Obies, said she thought, the first time she saw ghostly light surrounding an actor onstage, that “it was her soul going up.” Director Doug Hughes declared, “I am not a religious man, but I thank God for all of you.” The youngest winner, Kieran Culkin, muttered that he had to go to the bathroom. John Patrick Shanley invoked the theater’s “fire, ice, love, pain, ugliness, beauty, in a nonstop rampage of excellence,” then raised “fuckin’ ” to the status of a blessing. Deidre O’Connell thanked “all of the women in my acting food chain,” who, when she felt like she was too tired to sustain excellence any longer, kept her going. “To steal from them is a great privilege.”

Host Brían F. O’Byrne declared that the Catholic Church deserved an Obie for provoking playwrights. Nearly two dozen writers rushed the stage to celebrate the Ross Wetzsteon Memorial Award to New Dramatists, which began supporting theatrical writing in 1949, and which still, in the words of leader Todd London, “acknowledges the necessity of community in the lives of individual artists.” Accepting a $3,000 cash grant, the director of the Little Theater at Tonic noted that their building was having plumbing problems, and that “we’ll probably be flushing a certain percentage of your award down the drain.”

Sarah Jones thanked her co-presenter, Rue McClanahan, “for putting the sex back in sexagenarian.” Christopher Shinn, accepting his award for writing Where Do We Live, was this year’s carrier of the perennial tale of the out-of-town kid (he’s from Hartford) who pores over back issues of the Voice in the public library before heading for the big time in Manhattan. Members of Philly’s Pig Iron thanked the professor at Swarthmore who showed them videos of Joe Chaikin.

The last word went to John Guare, awarded an Obie for sustained achievement, who was grateful that “there is a theater for a new generation to come into.”