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Is 2012 the Toughest Best Play Tony Race Ever?

Is 2012 the Toughest Best Play Tony Race Ever?
Scenes from 'Other Desert Cities,' Clybourne Park,' 'Venus in Fur,' 'Seminar,' & 'Stick Fly'
An early look at 2012's jam-packed Best Play Tony race.

It’s never too early for Broadway fans to start handicapping the Tony Awards, and the announcement that Pulitzer Prize winner Clybourne Park will open at the Walter Kerr Theatre in April makes it official: 2012 may well bring the toughest Best Play race in memory. A total of 13 contenders (given the news that Peter and the Starcatcher and The Lyons will open on Broadway in April) are on tap to vie for four coveted Tony nominations.

What makes this season’s race different? After all, a couple of frontrunners always seem to emerge, and by the time the June Tony ceremony rolls around, insiders can usually predict which play will take home the big prize. This season, a pair of dark comedies that began life off-Broadway are poised to lead the pack: Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a perfect stew of family dysfunction featuring five fabulous performances; and Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ astonishing riff on racism inspired by A Raisin in the Sun, which arrives on Broadway with its original cast.

The presence of those two productions alone—new plays by American writers of great skill and insight, featuring outstanding ensemble acting and world-class direction—would make this a stellar Broadway season. But there’s more! Consider this list of contenders for the Best Play Tony, in alphabetical order. (Not included is the three-author anthology Relatively Speaking.)

Chinglish 
Mixed reviews led to a premature closing notice for David Henry Hwang’s cross-cultural comedy. But don’t count Chinglish out: Tony nominators don’t always follow the critics, and this sly examination of American/Chinese relations is clever, timely and genuinely funny.

Clybourne Park
A play that’s tough to sum up and packs a wallop: In act one, set in 1959, a Caucasian couple is selling their Chicago home to the neighborhood's first African-American family. In act two, set in 2009, the same house is being sold by a black family to a gentrifying white couple. (The cast plays different roles in each act.) Brainy yet accessible, Clybourne Park is loaded with “Did they really just say that?” moments.

The Columnist
This world premiere drama, which begins previews on April 3 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, has three Tony-bait participants: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn (Proof), two-time Tony winning star John Lithgow (as the towering title character, Joseph Alsop), and director Daniel Sullivan, known for his skill at shaping new scripts.

End of the Rainbow
This dark portrait of Judy Garland’s final days, set to begin performances on March 19 at the Belasco Theatre, will probably get more attention for the Broadway debut of London star Tracie Bennett than for Peter Quilter’s script. But with a Tony winner (Terry Johnson of La Cage aux Folles) at the helm, it’s too soon to judge.

The Lyons
Nicky Silver's black comedy is a tour-de-force vehicle for Linda Lavin and an outrageous, often hilarious portrait of a family in crisis. Who would believe that the imminent death of a patriarch (Ben Lyons, played by Dick Latessa) could bring up so much bile—and that audiences would laugh along? Lavin throws a wrench into the Best Actress Tony race, but the fate of the play is anybody's guess.

Magic/Bird
Is it a bad sign that playwright Eric Simonson’s name isn’t mentioned on the website for Magic/Bird? Simonson, author of Lombardi (and a Tony-nominated director), has presumably learned a few lessons about shaping a biographical sports drama as he moves from football to the rivalry and friendship between basketball greats Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

The Mountaintop 
Katori Hall’s drama arrived on Broadway already the winner of London’s prestigious Olivier Award for best new play. Hall had a rougher time of it with New York critics, who were divided on the merits of her re-imagination of the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. A January closing date doesn’t help the play’s Tony chances; a beautifully designed production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett doesn’t hurt.

One Man, Two Guvnors
Every season seems to bring a lauded late entry from London. This time, it’s a knockabout farce based on Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, which begins previews on April 6 at the Music Box Theatre. Consider this the Tony wild card: Will what sounds like quintessential British low humor translate to Broadway? And will the playwright (Richard Bean) get credit for remaking a 275-year-old Italian commedia dell’arte classic?

Other Desert Cities
Satisfying in every respect, including the long-overdue Broadway debut of playwright Jon Robin Baitz (author of gems such as The Film Society, The Substance of Fire and Ten Unknowns), Other Desert Cities will get a ton of Tony love across every category. But the biggest prize is not a sure thing anymore.

Peter and the Starcatcher
Less than 24 hours after Broadway.com published this story, news came that Peter and the Starcatcher is headed to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in April. Rick Elice's swashbuckling retelling of the Peter Pan story is like nothing on Broadway at the moment: a true flight of fancy, with 12 actors portraying 50 characters. The critics greeted the show's off-Broadway incarnation with rapture; this transfer will test the market for family-friendly Broadway plays.

Seminar
The dark horse: Prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck (soon to get national exposure with Smash) is a master at plotting and zinger-filled dialogue, and her current comedy boasts an unbeatable cast led by God…er, Alan Rickman. Who would think that a play about a novel-writing workshop (!) could be such a crowd-pleaser?

Stick Fly
There’s a lot going on in Lydia R. Diamond’s saga of a well-to-do African-American family—maybe too much, given the addition of producer Alicia Keys’ score—but Stick Fly is a big, ambitious play that inspires post-show conversation in the age of Obama. It just may surprise people during awards season.

Venus in Fur
“Unusual” doesn’t begin to cover David Ives’ transformation of the sexy novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (inspiration for the term sado-masochism). The play centers on an intense audition encounter between a young actress and a playwright/director, in award-worthy performances from Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy. The buzzy drama’s Tony chances are helped by its transfer to a second Broadway house, the Lyceum. But will Ives reap the rewards, or just his stars?

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