“No one’s a loser,” the actress Laura Benanti said at the 63rd Annual Obie awards, which were held last night at Terminal 5. “Because this is the theater and everyone’s a loser!” Then she threw some diapers into the crowd.
Heartfelt, raucous, and occasionally lewd, the awards, co-produced by the American Theater Wing and the Village Voice, honor excellence in Off-Broadway theater. This year the awards were live-streamed on Twitter, where playwright Abe Koogler’s parents watched them — “if they figured out how to make it work,” Koogler, a winner for Fulfillment Center, joked.
Champagne flowed, lights flashed, a live band jammed in thirty-second intervals, and the evening’s logo, bright cutouts that looked like Matisse on molly, danced across the screens that backed the stage. There were lots of tears and lots of laughs and, at one point, the evening’s host, John Leguizamo — a past Obie winner and a Tony nominee for Latin History for Morons — reappeared in a garter belt. Two plays about Russia were honored. This doesn’t indicate collusion.
Leguizamo arrived hyped-up and rumpled, hurling himself over a small wall at the back of the stage, chased by two burly ICE agents. He gave a motor-mouth monologue about his early attraction to theater and his habit of second-acting Broadway shows. “The only thing I ever stole was theater,” he said. “And a few VCRs.” He also told the crowd that his acting killed Lee Strasberg.
He teased the winners about Off-Broadway’s economics. “Off-Broadway knows how to mount a play on the kind of money that Andrew Lloyd Webber uses to tip his masseuse,” he said. “If you put together the budgets for every show here tonight it would still be less than what Donald Trump uses to pay off porn stars.”
Then he turned a little more serious. “It cost you,” he told the audience, who were seated on ballroom chairs below and perched on the balconies above. “You gave up financial security and normal working hours to have your chance to tell the truth.”
He also told the winners that if they didn’t keep their speeches short and sweet, “these ICE agents will take you away and separate you from your family.” (Andrew Garfield, the evening’s inaugural presenter, briefly thought that those ICE agents were real.)
Denise Gough, the first winner for her work in People, Places & Things, strode up to the podium barefoot, her red heels in her hand. “I know I have to keep it quick,” she said, looking around for the security staff, “but I’m Irish and I talk a lot and I’m really emotional.” She said that working on the show, about a woman in recovery, had affirmed her belief “that theater can change lives. I just didn’t think it would change mine.”
Transport Group took home an award for a six-hour Strange Interlude in a speech that lasted almost as long. (Where were those ICE agents?) Lap Chi Chu, who won for sustained excellence of lighting design, gave a very short one, mostly because of the ceremony’s own lighting design. “I’m blinded,” he said.
Designers usually work behind the scenes, but lighting designer Natasha Katz, costume designer William Ivey Long, and costume designer Emilio Sosa, who revealed a long-standing grudge against Leguizamo over a tiff involving silk taffeta cargo pants, all presented awards. The set and costume designer David Zinn teared up while awarding an Obie to Sarah Laux for her Jerry Springer – The Opera costumes. Laux teared up in turn, thanking the man who “took me as a wild animal and kept me as a wild animal and taught me some taste and how to shop.”
Rajiv Joseph took home the Best New American Play award for his Slav epic Describe the Night, while Amy Herzog, Aleshea Harris, and Dominique Morisseau also received playwriting awards. Herzog, a winner for Mary Jane, told Harris that she loved her play Is God Is and had “talked about it for an hour with my therapist who is also a rabbi.” Morisseau, who won for Pipeline, had lost her voice. She stood to the side of the podium as her friend, Stori Ayers, read her speech for her. She thanked the Obies and the writers of color who had come before her “for lifting me and my voice,” which was poignant and also a little funny.
Happily, Stephen Trask hadn’t lost his, and he celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with a sublime, piano-thumping rendition of “Wig in a Box.” (He wore the same jacket he’d worn to the ceremony twenty years ago; Sosa had taken it in.) After that transcendence, Leguizamo and Pixie Aventura lowered the tone, taking wigs back out of boxes for a drag act that had Leguizamo dressed as Cardi B, lobbing Trump dick-pic jokes and lusting after Billy Crudup, whose name he mispronounced.
Crudup, a winner for the solo show Harry Clarke, took it in stride. “That was pretty wicked,” he said. “I’d consider changing my name.” Other performance winners included Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes for Is God Is and Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi for Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. The actor Chukwudi Iwuji, a winner for The Low Road, cited the MTA itself. In New York, he said, “There’s a belief that if you make it through the subway, you can make all your dreams happen.”
The director Anne Kauffman, a winner for Mary Jane, reminded the crowd that the Obies were not only “the fucking coolest award,” but also “a really high-class networking situation.” Then she reminded Trask that they had a meeting on the thirtieth. The director Jesse Berger, a winner for The Government Inspector, said that he felt “totally not cool enough” to be receiving an Obie, but the committee let it slide.
Several performers gave particular thanks to the Obie committee’s chairman and longtime Voice critic Michael Feingold, including the actress Jessica Hecht, a winner for Admissions, who said that, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, “I just plundered all the Village Voice boxes to read what he’d write. He informed what we all do.”
The actress Kathleen Chalfant, who won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement award for, in the words of the presenter Beth Malone, “her artistry, her integrity, her infallible commitment to the truth of every role she plays,” said that she couldn’t thank everyone, because she’d been working since 1973. “It would take years. You would never get home.” Instead she told the crowd, “In this time in which the world seems to have fallen into a terrible darkness, we are the people who can pull us back from the abyss.” More light was to be found in the faces of the artists lost this year, who flickered on the screen as Laura Osnes sang “What Matters Most.”
At the end, after grants had been awarded to the Ma-Yi Theater Company, the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre, and the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series, and the actress Carrie Coon, the evening’s final awardee for her work in Mary Jane, had thanked “those of you who are left,” Leguizamo returned, wigless and newly sincere. “There are no losers,” he said. “Everybody here walks out a winner. Everybody here did beautiful work. That’s all that matters.” Then the ICE agents dragged him away. “Somebody sanctuary me,” he shouted.