‘You don’t know how good it feels to be drunk and below 14th Street,’ exulted Obie winner Stew, bringing his Passing Strange downtown to the Obie Awards from his uptown Broadway gig. “They don’t let me drink on Broadway, so I came to this motherfucker and got buck-wild on the open bar!” Indeed, many uptown theater luminaries seemed to enjoy slumming for a night at Webster Hall, where the Obies returned after two years in a more sober venue. Clear relief was audible when co-host Elizabeth Marvel, currently playing in MTC’s Top Girls on Broadway, purred: “It’s gooood to be downtown.” (She and husband Bill Camp served as the evening’s hosts.) Award presenter S. Epatha Merkerson, breaking from her imposing Law & Order persona, confessed not only to being a “Battlestar Galactica geek” but to suffering hot flashes at the sight of her co-presenter, Spring Awakening heartthrob Jonathan Groff. She duly fanned herself. And speaking of sci-fi, even starship commandress and newly minted Off-Broadway diva Kate Mulgrew beamed down to accept a citation for her unleashed Clytemnestra in Charles Mee’s Iphigenia 2.0.
Acting power couple Marvel and Camp began the event relishing a night off from parenting, but little did they know they were here to play mommy and daddy to a roomful of restless and rowdy kids. As the open bar continued, screams of “The real downtown, yeah!” almost drowned out speeches. While a live set from the Passing Strange crew rocked the house, the sheer mention (and there were many) of the angst-ridden Adding Machine prompted hoots and hollers from a loyal crowd in a balcony overhanging the stage.
But somber reflection broke through as well. After writer David Henry Hwang, winner for his Yellow Face, thanked his late father, whose tragic story he immortalized in the play, many honorees felt free to honor their own departed parents. LisaGay Hamilton saluted hers, while also relaying inspiring words from playwright Adrienne Kennedy (the Lifetime Achievement winner, whose Ohio State Murders Hamilton starred in); Kennedy claims she only writes for her family, not for the unforgiving world. Adding Machine director David Cromer recounted losing his father during previews. And finally, Francis Jue—a Performance winner for playing Hwang’s father—saluted his own. In many ways a homecoming, the 53rd annual Obies were very much a family affair.
For all the filial piety, it was the new, not the old, that was feted by and large. In the year of Passing Strange, the title’s two words were the only touch of Shakespeare in the night. Compared to last year, when the committee singled out a string of eye- opening revivals of neglected classics, this year’s slate bore the mark of the contemporary. Even the Greeks only made it in the door through reinvention—via Mee and David Greenspan’s The Argument, his solo show based on Aristotle’s Poetics. When Mr. Zero himself, Joel Hatch, gave a shout-out to Elmer Rice, it was jarringly old-school.
But as first-time winner Horton Foote showed, you can be 92 and still count as an Obie newbie.