It's Carbonell time again. The auditorium at the Broward Center has been booked for months, the menu for the sponsors' gala has long been planned and vetted, and South Florida's theaterfolk have already decided what to wear. As I write, the definitive list of winners and losers is sitting in an envelope or a box under the sleepless eye of Leslie J. Feldman or someone equally trustworthy, not to be disturbed until the regional drama awards are handed out April 7. Only one question remains, and it is a question that haunts the minds of dramaphiles from Coral Gables to Jupiter: What the fuck are these people smoking?
The problem is simple: The best production of 2007 received exactly zero nominations. That show was Animals & Plants at Mad Cat Theatre, which was dissed because of an administrative gaffe. The nominators didn't see it soon enough, and by the time they did, it was too late to send in the judges. Whoopsydaisy. Of course, this mishap would be easier to forgive if the single greatest show to appear in SoFla in the months following Animals & Plants — Some Girls, also at Mad Cat — hadn't also been mysteriously snubbed by the Carbonell committee. Once again, next year — when I will join the ranks of Carbonell nominators, for the record — a truly transcendent Mad Cat show will be conspicuously absent from the Carbonell's honor rolls. Even so, the ceremony will take place as planned, as though it all somehow means something.
Well, maybe it does. The Actors' Playhouse production of Mark Hollmann's Urinetown, from 2001, is up for a bunch of musical awards this year — Best Musical; Best Director of a Musical; Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress in a Musical; Best Musical Direction;Best Choreography; and Best Costume Design — which is as it should be. Urinetown was a hell of a show. But the competition was not exactly stiff. If Urinetown doesn't sweep the musical categories, we'll know SoFla's arbiters of theatrical taste are even crazier than we suspected.
And we suspect they are crazy indeed. The big winners so far this year are Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, with 11 nominations, and Mitch Leigh's Man of La Mancha, with 10. (Urinetown and Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore are tied for third, with nine apiece.) There's nothing quite like the feeling of hopeless shame that accompanies the realization that your region's finest contribution to American culture in a given year might have been a rehash of a 56-year-old musical that wasn't even deep when it came out.
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The Boy Friend is a spectacularly successful musical, a skillful piece of work bordering on delightful. It's also the least challenging thing a person can hope to stick on a stage, and its purpose is purely to entertain. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the best theater should entertain an audience through ruthlessly questioning, challenging, and surprising them at the same time. This should be obvious, but it apparently needs to be said. If it didn't, those who produced Man of La Mancha for the 10 millionth time would not be looking at 10 possible Carbonell Awards this year — rather, they'd have been disqualified due to excessive conservatism. La Mancha dates from 1965 and has better music than The Boy Friend, but the two are emotionally and intellectually identical: shows that lazily tug your heartstrings while politely asking you to tap your foot.
And so it is that the three bravest and, after Animals & Plants, best shows of the year — 9 Parts of Desire, Thom Paine, and The Faith Healer — are underrepresented or ignored altogether. 9 Parts was a one-woman show in which Pilar Uribe played a slew of mostly tragic Iraqi women from across recent history; Thom Paine was a one-man show in which Todd Allen Durkin played a free-associating neurotic who, at one point, called an audience member a cunt; and The Faith Healer was an ensemble show about the way small compromises and bad faith can lead to the death of love. All three were difficult to watch. All three cost you something. And all three had the power to re-enfranchise their audiences as human beings, to explore the scary recesses of the human experience from which we all shy away in any other context.
These shows were rewarded thusly: Uribe got a nod for Best Actress, while Stephen G. Anthony and Ken Clement both received acting nominations for The Faith Healer. Thom Paine got nothing, even though Durkin's performance easily outstripped his work in Lieutenant. Meanwhile, conventionally dramatic Talk Radio is up for five awards, a good production of the now-overdone Glengarry Glen Ross is up for four, and a superficial dialectic on race relations called A House with No Walls is up for three.
When the region's theater people get together, conversation inevitably turns to questions such as: How to fill the seats? How to bring in new people? Most important, how to let people know that exciting, challenging work is being done right here, in our own back yards? It's complicated, but when it's all figured out, you can bet that few companies will be rewarded for playing it safe. They tried that in Coconut Grove, and now the playhouse there is full of cobwebs. If South Florida theater succeeds and grows, it will be because the establishment finally decided to have faith in its audience, and to embrace its rebels and dissenters. Post-Carbonell ceremony headlines are poised to declare, "La Mancha Wins Big!" Is that really what we want?