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NEW YORK – The most heated battle of the Tony Awards ceremony is often the diva smackdown for actress honors. But when Broadway’s best line up this season, it’s the guys who will be slugging it out in a fight to the death.
As the New York theater community prepares for next Tuesday’s announcement of nominations for the 65th annual Tony Awards, lead actor in a play is shaping up to be the year’s most hotly contested race. While one or two major-name stars invariably get shut out of the shortlist, a whole roster of them this season will be feeling the chill.
Some categories at the Tonys struggle to fill out the standard number of nomination slots. This year, for instance, best musical revival is just a two-horse race, with Anything Goes and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying vying for the gold. But observers have to go far back in history to find a season with so many deserving contenders for lead actor in a play.
One name virtually certain to figure among the five nominee slots is Brit actor Mark Rylance, who won the award two years back for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing. This season he has two bravura turns in the running, as the verbose vulgarian playwright angling for royal patronage in David Hirson’s La Bête; and as a hard-partying throwback to England’s heroic, mythological past in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Among the front-runners tipped to compete with Rylance, according to industry buzz, is two-time Tony winner Al Pacino for his balanced work in making Shakespeare’s moneylender Shylock both villain and victim in The Merchant of Venice. Smart money also is on classical actor Brian Bedford for his commanding incarnation of Oscar Wilde’s imperious dowager, Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Earnest, which Bedford also directed.
While the Stephen Adly Guirgis comedy about love and addiction, The Motherf**ker With the Hat, is a five-character ensemble vehicle, critics unanimously identified Bobby Cannavale’s nuanced work as the show’s anchor, getting laughs while skillfully exposing his character’s vulnerability.
Also likely to land a nomination is Joe Mantello for his first role on a Broadway stage since Angels in America in 1994. Mantello is now better known as one of New York’s most in-demand theater directors, with a long list of credits that includes Wicked. Playing a fire-breathing AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer’s alter ego in The Normal Heart, he scored some of the season’s best reviews.
But none of those contenders is a sure thing given the uncommonly crowded field of big names and memorable performances.
The Tony nominating committee also has yet to rule on whether a handful of key players will be considered in lead or featured actor categories, among them Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Billy Crudup in Arcadia, and Chris Rock in The Motherf**ker With the Hat.That final eligibility meeting is scheduled for Friday (April 29).
Even if those names are bumped to supporting status, however, there’s still stiff competition from a number of leading men who might have been nomination shoo-ins any other season. Either way, these actors still have a strong shot.
They include James Earl Jones as the chauffeur who overcomes his employer’s prickliness to win her friendship and respect in Driving Miss Daisy; Dan Lauria as the legendary 1960s Green Bay Packers coach in Lombardi; Ben Stiller as a no-talent songwriter dreaming of Hollywood in The House of Blue Leaves; and Jim Belushi as a politically ambitious thug outsmarted by his daffy girlfriend in Born Yesterday.
The lukewarm reception given to That Championship Season puts the odds against Brian Cox to make the cut as the former basketball coach living off past glories in Jason Miller’s dated drama.
Other candidates such as Jeffrey Wright in A Free Man of Color and Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight in A Life in the Theater are probably too far back in the season to be remembered. And given the difficulty many folks have in figuring where Paul Reubens ends and his beloved playhouse persona begins, the actor’s return in The Pee-wee Herman Show is a long shot to be on anyone’s consideration list.
Regardless of who does or doesn’t land a nomination this year, the one certainty is that the excluded lead actors won’t be without illustrious company.
The Tony nominations will be announced May 3 at Lincoln Center by former winners Anika Noni Rose and Matthew Broderick. The awards ceremony is scheduled for Sunday June 12 at New York’s Beacon Theatre and will be televised live on CBS.
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