The 2000 Kalbie Awards

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Best of Manhattan, Posts.

Due to clamorous
demand, we present the 2000 Kalbie Awards, New York Press’ third
annual celebration of excellence in the New York theater. As in the past, these
awards are the result of long and impassioned deliberation by a committee of
one, which pretends to no respect whatsoever for the received categories of
Broadway, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway or the levels of achievement they are supposed
to imply. No one can ever see everything, but I saw 150-odd shows last season
and have few regrets and no apologies. Whatever else the Kalbies may be, they
constitute a selective catalog of what kept me going.

selective catalog of what kept a
theater critic going.

Marc Wolf
Another American:
Asking & Telling

This extraordinarily
powerful documentary piece about the U.S. military’s "Don’t ask,
don’t tell" policy was an exquisite example of research as pure animating
force, in the difficult tradition of Anna Deavere Smith. The show was based
on more than 150 interviews Wolf conducted with people directly affected by
the policy, whose words and demeanors he mimicked splendidly and nonjudgmentally
in performance. Directed by Joe Mantello, Wolf shrewdly organized the scenes
so that they seemed to comment on one another like a sequential argument, victims
beside perpetrators, antigay crusaders beside equal-rights advocates, earnest
parents beside unctuous politicians. Another American should’ve
been required viewing for everyone who makes or enforces U.S. military policy.


Sarah Jones
Surface Transit

A 25-year-old "veteran"
of the hiphop poetry club circuit turns out to be the sharpest solo impressionist
New York has seen since Danny Hoch (who happens to be her producer). In her collection
of eight superbly acute vignettes about fictional New Yorkers, most extremely
different from her, she morphed from a Russian-immigrant widow doing cornrows
in her mixed-race daughter’s hair to a narrow-minded and bigoted Jewish woman,
to a deactivated, homophobic, Italian-American cop, to a black, British actress
auditioning for a "real life" tv series, and more. The show was an unforgettable
spectacle of transformational magic and a strangely optimistic picture of humane
connectedness, given the surprising and sometimes intimate links Jones established
among the widely disparate characters.


Barry Humphries
Dame Edna: The Royal Tour

Promoted with
nauseating obsequiousness as a prepackaged megastar, Dame Edna turned out not
to be a pandering fraud after all, but rather a precise and polished clown.
Edna, a garishly glamorous, utterly self-absorbed male-matron with butterfly
glasses and lavender bouffant hair, is the principal alter-ego of the Australian
comedian Barry Humphries–long popular in Britain and his own country but
obscure in the U.S. until this Broadway show. For more than two hours, she did
little more than insult and abuse her audiences, yet her poise and skill at
improvised interaction left them crying for more. Edna was a picture of pure
competitiveness dressed up as loving mother, who allowed us to laugh off our
rapacious cynicism or stare it in the berouged face, depending on our inclinations.


The Right Size

(Sean Foley and Hamish McColl)

Do You Come Here Often?

The premise
of this extended bout of British insanity was the purportedly accidental association
of two mismatched men (really peas in a crackpot pod), who found themselves
bound and gagged in a bathroom, apparently kidnapped, and then occupied themselves
there, for 25 years, with sundry dumb and wrongly played games, innumerable
bad puns and an inexhaustible array of slapstick gags. The dead-on precision
of Foley and McColl’s blend of mime and pseudo-mime, comic danger and comic
innocuousness was the source of the piece’s wonderfully silly texture.
Because one could never be sure how much of the duo’s plight came from
"dark outside forces" and how much from themselves, though, the show
also had a flash of deeper brilliance, a deliberate note of frantic melancholy
that recalled Beckett and Ionesco.


The Bubbly Black
Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

Kirsten Childs’
irresistibly upbeat musical about growing up black and middle-class in 1960s
and 70s L.A. landed like a bucket of cool water on a parched landscape. Much
subtler than its cartoonish, ostensibly feel-good exterior suggested, the show
was full of crafty surprises that constantly made the politically personal (such
as self-imposed masks of blackness and whiteness) great fun to think about.
Composed and written by Childs, smartly directed by Wilfredo Medina, brightly
designed by David Gallo and starring the inimitably buoyant LaChanze, the production
at Playwrights Horizons was a work of supreme confidence, polished humor and
focused energy that deserves to be remounted on Broadway.



Gerald Anthony as
Uncle Jack

The most inspired
creation in Jeff Cohen’s contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle
at the Tribeca Playhouse was the title character as brought to magnificently
complex life by Anthony. Splendidly acute and disciplined, even in rage and
self-pity, Anthony’s performance pulled the whole risky show together.
Jack, like Vanya, was conceived as a bundle of intelligent self-contradictions,
but as the son of a deceased U.S. senator, a once-aspiring writer who’s
supposedly wasted away his life on his family’s West Virginia farm, he
was a much trickier role to pull off in front of audiences coolly familiar with
his social type. Anthony was heartbreakingly plausible at every moment, avoiding
the shoals of dull pathos with ease and rising by the end to a surprising gravity
truly worthy of Chekhov.


Life Is a Dream
Royal Lyceum Theater

New York rarely
sees a classic as pumped full of present-tense urgency as this Scottish version
of Calderon’s 365-year-old masterpiece, directed by the Spaniard Calixto
Bieito. Performed at BAM on a large circle of loose gravel that crunched and
scattered under everyone’s shoes, with an enormous, mobile baroque mirror
hanging above, the production rendered the play’s heady metaphysical themes
intensely immediate by constantly emphasizing the weight, heft, vanity and awkwardness
of the mortal human body. George Anton’s performance as Segismundo crowned
the event, with his sinewy energy and fervid exertions straining unfashionably
after divine candor and grace even as his glibly modern mannerisms remained
connected to all our own age’s demoralizing impediments to unmediated vision
and feeling.


Maria Irene Fornes
Letters from Cuba

The final production
of the Signature Theater’s all-Fornes season was a quietly beautiful, lingeringly
odd jewel. Directed by the author, the play was based on letters Fornes’
brother wrote to her from their native Cuba over a 30-year period, but its not-quite-surrealistic,
wryly ambiguous action was unlike any epistolary drama yet seen. Scenes jumped
frequently back and forth in time, made eloquent and dynamic use of dance and
Cuban music, and presented New York and Cuba as both interpenetrating landscapes
of the mind and adjacent physical worlds onstage. No one but Fornes would have
the discipline and courage to use such politically loaded referents with such
unprepossessing delicacy, indifferent to the reactions of a sensation-addicted


David Gallo

benignly rugged, emotionally capacious set for the long-delayed arrival of August
Wilson’s beautiful first play was key to making possible the much-praised
ensemble acting in Marion McClinton’s Second Stage production. Dominated
by a giant plate-glass window looking out onto a narrow Pittsburgh alley, with
ghostly bits of lettering, etching and pressed tin scattered about its surface,
the set invited wonderful, effortless juxtapositions of atmospheric business
out on the street with action inside the crumbling gypsy-cab office in the foreground.
Looming industrial girders and smokestacks pressed the weight of failure and
frustration down on Wilson’s motley group of cabdrivers, while stunning
glimpses of sky through the transparent wall-clutter italicized moments of unsentimental
hope. The effect was of a derelict but still viable "spiritual neighborhood"
where unsettled spirits were truly suspended between regeneration and ruin.


Theater for a
New Audience

Written in
1906 and banned by the British censors for 30 years, this sharp and enduring
political drama by Harley Granville Barker was, shockingly, never produced in
the U.S. before the magnificent TFNA production this year, directed by Bartlett
Sher. The story is about an idealistic and brilliantly gifted politician whose
life is ruined after he has an affair with a married woman, and it is still
capable of infuriating, with its frank and compassionate talk about sex, unwanted
pregnancy, illegal abortion and the cynical decisionmaking of political powerbrokers.
Byron Jennings was excellent in the lead role of Henry Trebell, beautifully
capturing the earnest, self-possessed charm of a man capable of both amazing
public achievement and amazing private stupidity (sound familiar?). Richard
Easton was also superb as a Church of England official whose suspicious presence
constantly pressed the question of whether anyone or anything can truly rise
above politics in the modern world. Waste was bone-chillingly precise
and startlingly fresh, a sobering reminder of all that is missing in most newer
political drama.