Preparations for the often endearingly chaotic
56th Annual Obie Awards ran the gamut in the half-hour or so before the 2011 edition began at Webster Hall. While John Larroquette played chess on his phone in a tucked-away banquette, fellow presenter Nina Arianda tried to make sure
she had all the pronunciations right for the many members of the Sleep No More creative team, who won a design award.
S. Epatha Merkerson, last seen in Obie-land fanning herself at the sight of Jonathan Groff in 2008, and her co-host, David Hyde Pierce, also came prepared. Hyde Pierce did his own share of vicarious ogling as he recounted seeing Obie presenter Alec Baldwin in the 1992 film Prelude to a Kiss. “Shave off that chest hair!” a woman sitting in front of him had shouted at the screen, at which point a gay man within earshot yelled, “And give it to me!” Nineteen years later, an obliging Baldwin unbuttoned several shirt buttons upon reaching the podium.
Baldwin presented the Best New American Play Award to Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Despite this being the first award given out, that was the evening’s last reference to Elaborate Entrance. In recent years, plays like The Aliens and Ruined ran roughshod over the “competition.”
This time, however, the awards were spread out far and wide. Lisa Kron’s In the Wake earned Obies for Michael Chernus’s performance and Leigh Silverman’s direction—Silverman was also honored for her work on David Greenspan’s Go Back to Where You Are—and the Sustained Excellence awards for sound designer Jill BC Du Boff and set designer Donyale Werle gave a handful of shows (Peter and the Starcatcher, The Whipping Man) a brief second mention. But one solo Obie and one shared Obie was the closest any show got to a landslide. (Chernus and Three Sisters director Austin Pendleton were unlikely recipients of bordering-on-Beatlemania screaming ovations.)
Many of the other performance awards went to big names—Ethan Hawke in Blood From a Stone, Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, Andre Braugher in The Whipping Man—or critical megaliths—Thomas Sadoski in Other Desert Cities, Brenda Wehle in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide . . . , Scott Shepherd for his “Take that, Andy Kaufman” tour de force in Gatz. But the three playwriting awards went to shows that opened to considerably less fanfare. The fairly brief run for Elaborate Entrance at Second Stage was lengthy compared with those of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! at Walkerspace and Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise at the Wild Project.
The lanky Khemiri quipped that since the Obie committee creates categories as it sees fit, he had entertained the possibility of winning anything from Greatest Play of All Time downward to Best Swedish-Language Play Translated Into English in 2011 by a Long-Looking Swedish Guy With Dirty Hair.
At least those honors were figments of Khemiri’s lavish imagination. Ethan Hawke said the only other acting award he had actually won prior to his Obie had come from High Times magazine, “but this means a lot more to me.”
In another change of pace from recent years, when musical blowouts from Broadway transfers like Fela! and Passing Strange flooded the stage and often the audience, the musical entertainment was confined to two small performances by Rent veteran Anthony Rapp, a hopped-up solo rendition of that show’s “Seasons of Love” and an indie-pop anthem from Rapp’s own musical, Without You. Musicianship of a different sort could be heard during F. Murray Abraham’s acceptance of his award for sustained excellence in performance. “Sustained excellence?! Kiss my ass. HA-ha-ha-ha! I ain’t dead yet.”