by Randy Gener
NEW YORK, May 17, 2023 | It was a private affair — a sordid critic-infested party that was closed to the general public. Famous and infamous names abounded: Scott Rudin, Jayne Houdyshell, Ben Whishaw, Reed Birney, Harris Yulin.
And yet… and yet…. The event was open to The Public. What follows is an insider’s photo diary.
For those of us who have worked for (or have long histories with) the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the private ceremony held Tuesday, May 17 to hand out this year’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards was very much a poignant and meaningful Public affair.
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Two of this year’s major award citations went to Broadway leaders who have headed the renowned arts institution named after the iconic producing impresario Joseph Papp. Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater walked up onstage at the NY restaurant Feinstein’s/54 Below to receive a special-citation honor — which was presented by the great American playwright David Henry Hwang, whose body of work (Yellow Face and Golden Child, to name a few) had deep roots there.
I was heart-warmed to see that my former boss, George C. Wolfe — the Broadway playwright/director who preceded Eustis as the Public’s artistic director — had won big. No, the recognition from the critics was not for his work at the Public. It was for Broadway’s Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which was named best musical this year.
Wolfe wrote the book to Shuffle Along, and he directed it. It has music by Eubie Blake, lyrics by Noble Sissle, an original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, as well as a starry cast of performers that prominently showcases Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. It currently plays at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre where it had its world premiere on April 28, 2016.
Who presented the award to Wolfe? Choreographer Savion Glover brought ‘n da Praise and brought in da Funk: “George owes me money,” Glover said. Then he promptly told a story about how his artistic collaboration with Wolfe had begun when their Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk is a musical that debuted Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in 1995.
Seeing George, Savion, Oskar and David all in the same room was, for me personally, like seeing my previous lives pass before my eyes. My mind shot back to my own George Wolfe days at the Public where I worked as a dramaturg (starting with Jessica Hagedorn and Han Ong‘s Airport Music and on and on to Elaine Stritch‘s At Liberty) and a literary associate for Shakespeare in Central Park.
Interestingly, the NY Drama Critics’ Circle’s private cocktail reception did have some cash to throw around. Yes, some of that cash presumably went to the cost of putting a congenial party with an open bar for the winners and their guests.
But a majority of the cash — to the tune of $2,500, made possibly by a grant from the Lucille Lortel Foundation — went to Stephen Karam whose The Humans was noted as the best play of the 2015-16 season.
Joe Mantello, the director of The Humans, came forward to deliver an articulate presentation of the award to Haram. His play opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company on October 25, 2015, and closed January 3, 2016. The production transferred to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre on February 18, 2023 where it is currently playing.
I’d love to tell you what Mantello told me privately during the cocktail party — and what he told that afternoon’s guests publicly. But I won’t. (Joe, our secret is safe with us, okay?)
Although I pride discretion and keeping good confidence, I will nevertheless say here that not once — not once! — did I suggest to Karam after he got hold of the $2,500 that he could probably have helped solve Wolfe’s mounting debt problems by handing over some chump change to Savion Glover.
(If you happen to be reading this, Mr. Haram, may I corner you one of these awards-party days? I, too, feel the need to share with you my own money issues — this one is related to being an artistically inclined working stiff in the nonprofit arts silo, most notably Theatre Communications Group? Please feel free to leave your ATM card handy.)
Special citations were given to the beautiful-hearted Lois Smith who appeared in the Off-Broadway productions of John and Marjorie Prime; and director Ivo van Hove and design partner Jan Versweyveld, who were represented on Broadway this season by A View from the Bridge and The Crucible.
Harris Yulin was on hand to present Smith the award. Actors Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw read a thank-you letter from Ivo and Jan.
The New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, which has been awarded every year since 1936 to the best new play of the season (with optional awards for foreign or American plays, musicals and performers), is the nation’s second oldest theater award, after the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Visit www.dramacritics.org.