Curtain Call

Why the Tonys Matter This Year

Two brave, timely new American dramas are vying for best play.

Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock in The Motherfucker With the Hat.
Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock in The Motherfucker With the Hat

The Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys often get it wrong, but when it comes to rewarding excellence, the winner in the Most Laughable Major Award Show category goes to … the Tony Awards.

The Tonys, which announced its nominations this morning, has institutionalized its blind spots. The Academy Awards may favor studio films, but indie films still have a shot at landing a nomination and occasionally an underdog wins. By contrast, the only shows even eligible for the most prestigious award in the American theater are the three or four dozen productions that open on Broadway. As such, the awards are essentially a commercial for a few real estate companies who own theaters in the middle of Manhattan with more than 500 seats, a Broadway requirement. Back in Broadway’s golden age, this exclusiveness didn’t much matter—the best shows were usually playing on the Great White Way. Now it means that the last two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for drama (Ruined and Clybourne Park, both of which ran Off Broadway) couldn’t get nominated. Nor could Gatz, the innovative adaptation of The Great Gatsby that The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called the best show of 2010.

The best musicals still generally appear on Broadway, but that’s not the case with plays. Legends like Tony Kushner and Edward Albee didn’t get their most recent works produced on Broadway. Some of our finest contemporary American dramatists (Kenneth Lonergan!) have never been eligible for a Tony. This doesn’t mean that excellent plays haven’t been presented in Times Square in recent years. But most of them have been either revivals or imports, which helps explain why even the finest Broadway plays rarely engage in the cultural conversation in the way that a film like The Social Network or a TV series like The Wiredid.

This season, however, has been different. Broadway really mattered. And believe it or not, so do the Tonys. The Book of Mormon, the riotous musical hit by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q, received the most nominations with 14 and has been the story of the year. Though the crowd-pleasing musical suggests that Mormonism is rooted in ridiculous tall tales, it also celebrates the religion for its distinctly American capacity for reinvention. This sentiment clashes with the dramas in the best play category, which are far more skeptical about the American dream. The competition breaks down into a battle between the English transfers (Jerusalem, War Horse) and the American premieres (The Motherfucker with the Hat, Good People).

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Motherfucker and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People remind us that ambitious, relevant, and entertaining plays by American writers can still open on Broadway. These stirring dramas speak to current economic anxieties with a complexity tailor-made for the age of Obama. Casting a skeptical eye toward the Horatio Alger myth, they share a nuanced critique of the “land of opportunity.” They are also closely observed character studies of a similar type: defiant working-class protagonists trying to hold down a job while struggling with a past full of addictions, poor decisions, and difficult circumstances.

In Good People, Margaret (brought vividly to life by Frances McDormand) is a South Boston single mother who loses her job after failing to get to work on time because of the obligations of caring for her child. She needs a job to support her family, but has trouble keeping one because of her kid. It’s the kind of bind that many Americans are dealing with in these still tough times. She looks up an old high-school boyfriend, Mike (Tate Donovan), who made it out of the old neighborhood to become a doctor, and the heart of the play is their tense, charged reunion. The subtext of their exchanges is a debate over how to climb the social ladder. Mike credits hard work. Margaret insists luck plays a role. The play allows room for both interpretations, while adding that an occasional ruthlessness—a trait that Mike possesses—also helps.

Motherfucker centers on a New York ex-con named Jackie (Bobby Canavale), who needs AA to beat his addictions. But when his tough-love-dispensing counselor Ralph (played by Chris Rock, whose stage inexperience is the production’s weak spot) sleeps with Jackie’s girlfriend, it becomes clear he’s replaced one problem with another. After the affair is exposed, Ralph defends himself with an almost objectivist rationale, arguing that worrying about cheating or loyalty or anything besides surviving and staying clean is pointless: “Why should anyone have to live by some stupid rules that makes no sense because the fact is we’re all gonna die anyway?”

While these plays are both set in a multi-ethnic urban landscape, they are more about class than race. Racism exists, but it’s not the reason these members of the underclass are stuck—interestingly, the characters who represent achievement and bourgeois values in both plays are black. Margaret’s downward spiral begins when she loses her health care, and the playwright Lindsay-Abaire deftly illustrates how in a society without a strong safety net, one bad break can have a destructive domino effect.

But lack of health care, child care, and other privileges of the affluent classes are not Margaret’s only challenges. These dramas suggest that the reason it’s difficult to make it out of the old neighborhood has as much to do with character as circumstance. Margaret and Jackie are stubborn, proud, and cling to a sense that they are good people, even when they aren’t. But they both have consciences, and that may hinder their advancement. One of Margaret’s friends says her biggest obstacle may be her conscience: “You have to be a selfish prick to get anywhere.” (And indeed an altruistic decision early in her life works against her ambition.) Jackie similarly cannot accept his counselor’s advice to avoid “rules” and just look out for himself. He says he believes in a moral “code.”

Simpler plays about class have settled on the notion that power structures are too rigid to allow these down-and-out characters to advance. These tough-minded dramas, however, believe that to understand the split between the haves and the have-nots, you need to understand the complexities of people as well as privilege. Margaret’s and Jackie’s fortunes are limited by money and luck and connections, but at the end of day, they both have some control over their fate.

As a result, these plays manage to be political without being polemical. In an era of increasing economic and social inequality, our political debate includes very little discussion about poverty, employment, and the underclass. Battles about the economy and how to right it often remain abstract, focused on competing debt-reduction plans and vitriolic fights over budget cuts. Without a trace of opportunistic topicality, these plays put a human face on major issues confronting our country. By granting them nominations, the Tony Awards have honored two American dramas that don’t just reflect our times. They help us understand them.