Is Off-Broadway a galaxy far, far away? Stars effervesced Monday night, when theatrical luminaries and icons of TV and film thronged the East Village’s Webster Hall to honor theatrical excellence blocks and boroughs distant from the Great White Way.
Said Shuler Hensley, the evening’s first honoree for his role as an anguished, morbidly obese man: “I love this planet that is the Obies. And I have lost weight.”
The evening began with a cocktail party, set to the sunny strains of the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, featuring a glut of fruity drinks and luxe hot dogs. (Hensley ate very lightly.) Even before he learned he’d won an Obie for direction, Eric Ting said, “I’m having a phenomenal time. All the faces I love gathered in one place. And kielbasa!”
Frances Sternhagen, elegant in a flowing turquoise ensemble, searched for a word to describe the fete, borrowing a new coinage from a young relative. “As my granddaughter would say, it’s very extiting.”
At 8 p.m., audiences and awardees trouped up the stairs, greeted by the accordion-heavy gypsy-funk of Banda Magda. Then Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold took the stage, garnering a hooting, stamping standing ovation.
Meryl Streep, his former grad school classmate, who would later tell an impish story about their former hairstyles, was one of the first to her feet. Feingold greeted the crowd as “Dear friends, because that’s what you all just instantly became.”
Co-hosts Jeremy Shamos and Jessica Hecht hailed him as an artistic critic, even as Shamos admitted the term as a near-oxymoron, “like ‘benevolent despot’ or ‘starless Broadway show.’”
The crowd sat and stood and cheered for the next two and a half hours as presenters distributed awards to recipients alternately teary, triumphant, and profane—or sometimes all at once, as in the case of Eisa Davis, who won for sustained excellence of performance.
She told a moving story about her grandmother, a narrative she had drawn on for her recent turn in The Luck of the Irish, then closed with, “Thanks for giving a fuck about black people and a fuck about me.”
The elegant Hecht launched a few obscenities of her own. “It’s so gratifying because I never swear,” she said, smiling sweetly.
“It’s the Obies,” shrugged her co-host.
Many winners were similarly overwhelmed, if less enthusiastically vulgar. Even the apparently calm ones. Director John Rando, who received a nod for All in the Timing, credited his drink bracelet for his relative equanimity. His seemingly serene peer Ruben Santiago-Hudson said, “I’m a very serious guy, so believe that inside I’m just jumping up and down.”
After much jumping up and down during a medley from Here Lies Love, the consummate martial-law dance musical, the hosts introduced Streep with reference to her turn as a chorus member in Aristophanes’s Frogs. Shamos mentioned she might have done some film work, too. “And probably a Law & Order,” added Hecht brightly.
Streep, in a white blouse and thick-frame glasses, took the stage bathed in the light of hundreds of flashing cell phone cameras. She spoke of “many stars crowded together, with joy and admiration for each other’s achievements” as she presented the lifetime achievement awards to Sternhagen and Lois Smith.
Smith, a 60-year stage veteran, mused that the award meant she would never work again, though she seemed pleased to have it. Sternhagen recalled winning her first Obie more than 50 years ago. “It felt like it was on construction paper,” she said. “There is nothing like it.”
Many awardees echoed this sentiment. Matthew Maher, who won for sustained excellence of performance, said that in his early acting days, “coming to the Obies and being included was part of the fantasy.”
Julia Jarcho, who split the award with Lisa D’Amour for best new American play, revealed that she’d spoken to her therapist that her anxieties would lessen if she won an Obie. “Thank you for solving everything,” she told the crowd.
Playwright Annie Baker seemed perhaps less interested in her award than in her proximity to David Byrne, using her time at the podium to offer her services as backup singer.
The evening’s final presenter, Cyndi Lauper, whom Shamos introduced as “the most badass person in the ‘We Are the World’ video,” had some trouble with the script. Glorious in a towering red fauxhawk, she stumbled over tricky wording and apparent tongue-twisters.
Eventually, in awarding the night’s last honor to Byrne, for Here Lies Love, Lauper ditched the script entirely. “Listen, I sang on the record,” she crowed. “The guy’s a freakin’ genius, OK?”