“Theater is live,” barked the comedian Lea DeLaria. “It’s visceral. It’s honest. It’s unique, right?” Yes, ma’am!
DeLaria hollered these words after making a blissfully obscene joke about Melania Trump, but before a chorus boy wearing only a sequined fig leaf joined her onstage. (“He’s naked for no reason!” DeLaria said.) Later she cavorted in a Winnie the Pooh costume (“You know why? I’m Off-Broadway”) and did an ecdysiast routine, culminating first in a see-through teddy and then in yet another Trump dig.
Live, visceral, honest, unique — those adjectives just about nailed the 62nd Annual Obie awards, a production of the Village Voice and the American Theater Wing held Monday night at Webster Hall. An awards show, a shindig, a be-in, a reunion, and a town hall meeting with cups of free Stella Artois, the Obies honor excellence Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and sometimes farther away than that. Last night, politics was never far from the conversation — many of the works honored (Sweat, Indecent, Oslo, Underground Railroad Game) were searing and incisive — but joy and raunch abided. Even when everyone remained clothed, this was about as scintillating as a Monday evening gets — the Webster Hall stage was the place to be.
Of course, the bathroom was also the place to be. The actress Kecia Lewis, a winner for Marie and Rosetta and The Skin of Our Teeth, missed her award while in the ladies, leaving the presenter LaChanze to scat with the band for a while. “Come on, Kecia,” she sang. “Get on this stage, girl.” Lewis finally did, saying, “I’ll be brief, because I don’t want Lea DeLaria coming up here and whupping my ass.” (As DeLaria would later condescend to spank the playwright and performer Taylor Mac, a winner for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Lewis’s fears were real.)
This year’s Obies were judged by Voice critics Michael Feingold and Miriam Felton-Dansky; the actors Daphne Rubin-Vega, J. Smith-Cameron, and Darius de Haas; the playwright Ayad Akhtar; and the critic Melissa Rose Bernardo. Presenters included David Henry Hwang, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the actress Lena Hall, who yelled, “I’m a rock singer and I want to eat the mic!” Then she smeared her lipstick on it.
During the three-hour ceremony, spirits were high; so were the hairdos, so were some in the crowd. Beer sudsed, laughter surged. Those receiving Obies thanked God, Santos Party House, “all the Jews and Arabs,” Suzan-Lori Parks, and, in the case of Matthew Broderick, “very very mostly much much mostly of all, my wife.” (Broderick, who could be seen slapping down a gold card to buy a bottle of water, was a double winner for Evening at the Talk House and Shining City.)
These are awards like no other, celebrating a community like no other. Sure, the Hollywood stars got applause, but one of the biggest cheers went up when a recipient name-checked a stage manager. While the Tonys temporarily did away with sound design awards, the Obies gave a certificate to the designer Ryan Rumery for sustained excellence of sound design. At the podium, Rumery said, “I’m more used to being heard than seen.”
Responses to the awards ranged from the wildly enthusiastic, like the director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s all-caps jubilation, “WHOO! YEAH! OBIES! OH MY GOD!,” to Bobby Cannavale’s more measured, “Uh, thanks.” (Blain-Cruz was a winner for her direction of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Cannavale for his smoldering turn in The Hairy Ape.) The director Arin Arbus, who picked up an award for Theatre for a New Audience and also won for The Skin of Our Teeth, appeared stunned, while The Wolves director Lila Neugebauer and her teenaged cast seemed poised until they turned feral, huddling in a circle and exulting, “We are the wolves! We are the wolves!” Then they tried to exit the wrong way.
“What the hell am I doing up here?” wondered the actor Pete Simpson, an honoree for sustained excellence of performance. “I don’t have an answer to that question.” He praised “the occasionally rent-stabilized apartment that we call Off-Broadway” and then apologized to the audience, saying, “I’m usually much weirder.” The actress Heather MacRae, who won for Come Back, Little Sheba, encouraged the crowd to keep making art, weird or otherwise. “I’m a senior citizen and I’m still doing this work,” she said.
Honored plays included Oslo, which nabbed a Best New American Theatre Work for the playwright J.T. Rogers. “You are my heroes,” he said, looking out at the crowd. “This is what I’ve wanted my whole life.” Oslo also won a combined honor for director and ensemble. As the cast stood onstage, one actor gave another a noogie. So much for Middle East peace.
Underground Railroad Game shared that Best New American Theatre Work award, while The Band’s Visit received a nod for Itamar Moses and David Yazbek’s book and lyrics, and another for the director David Cromer. Voice owner Peter Barbey presented an award to Lynn Nottage’s “deeply involving and harrowing” Sweat, a drama now hailed as the first great work of the Trump era.
Indecent picked up an award for the director Rebecca Taichman. The owner of an Obi-Wan Kenobi award, she was glad to receive the real thing. The Lifetime Achievement award went to Indecent playwright Paula Vogel, “for her plays, her ideas, and her profound influence on innumerable students, her staunch political presence, and her constant aesthetic daring.” Vogel, who looked spruce in a black blazer, gave a stirring speech in which she described miracles made on $100 budgets and declared, “We have never needed journalists and artists as much as we do now.”
In a more somber moment, Edie Falco accepted a posthumous award for the actor Kevin Geer, a man who always reminded her “that what we are lucky enough to do as people in the theater is in the realm of magic.” Then the mascara really began to streak when Daniel Bellomy sang “Try to Remember” as a screen showed those whom Off-Broadway and the Voice had lost in the past year. They had gone, said a teary DeLaria when she returned to the stage, to “the big after-party in the sky.”
Those colleagues who remained cheered while Lewis soared and Katrina Lenk sizzled. Hall slinked through the crowd in a spangly necklace and a bra top, giving a throaty version of “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” and inviting the audience onstage to sing their space songs beside her.
The other final benediction came from Anna Deavere Smith, an honoree for Notes From the Field. Deavere Smith was in rehearsal and couldn’t collect her award in person, but in a speech read by the publicist Sam Rudy, she offered an Off-Broadway blessing: “Party hard tonight. Godspeed.”
Read more: All the winners at the 2017 Obie awards