Moises Kaufman’s `33 Variations’ wins big award

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has selected Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations to receive the 2008 Harold and Mimi Steinberg /American Theatre
Critics Association New Play Award
. The announcement was made Saturday, March 29 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The award includes a commemorative plaque and a cash prize of $25,000 – currently the largest national playwriting award. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days and Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone also received citations and $7,500 each. Ruhl previously received a Steinberg/ATCA citation in 2005; Kaufman and Laufer are first time honorees.

“The long-standing partnership between the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and the American Theatre Critics Association has recognized some of today’s greatest writers, and helped identify the great playwrights of tomorrow,” said trustee Jim Steinberg. “We’re delighted to help support the unique telling of tales on the American stage.”

The Steinberg/ATCA Award was started in 1977 to honor new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City, where there are many new play awards. No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year (in this case, 2007).

Kaufman’s 33 Variations debuted in September at Washington’s Arena Stage. It offers a fictional imagining of Beethoven’s creation of 33 brilliant variations on a prosaic waltz. The composer’s obsessive pursuit of perfection parallels a modern tale of a terminally-ill musicologist struggling with her own obsession to unearth the source of Beethoven’s.

Laufer’s End Days premiered in October at Florida Stage in Manalapan. Sometimes comic, sometimes moving, it studies the challenge of maintaining faith in a world dominated by science and fear. A Jewish family copes with the aftermath of 9/11 as the mother, now a born-again Christian, tries to convert them before the rapture arrives — on Wednesday.

Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone made its bow at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in June. The quirky comedy examines the fallout when a lonely woman takes the cell phone from the body of dead man she discovers sitting next to her in a café and begins answering his calls.

These three were among six finalists selected from 28 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 12 theater critics, led by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and vice-chair George Hatza of the Reading (Pa.) Eagle. Other committee members are Michael Elkin, Jewish Exponent (Pennsylvania); Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Virginia); Michael Sander, Back Stage (Minnesota); Herb Simpson, City Newspaper (Rochester, NY); Chad Jones, formerly of the Oakland (Cal.) Tribune; Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Ellen Fagg, The Salt Lake Tribune; Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today; and Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, NJ).

“The amazing range of work — dramas, fantasies, musicals, farces, melodramas — was uplifting confirmation that theater remains a vital and evolving art form that can speak to every generation,” Hirschman said.

Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award in 1977, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lee Blessing, Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers.

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars to support new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

Tip-top ten

Happy holidays, Theater Dogs!

Thanks for reading the blog in 2006. I’ll try to make it bigger, better, funnier and fresher in 2007.

Below you’ll find my Top 10 list of favorite theater experiences in 2006. I’d love for you all to share some of your favorites as well, so use the comment feature liberally.

1.The Clean House,TheatreWorks

Sarah Ruhl’s immaculate play — is it a comic drama or a dramatic comedy? — reveals a writer so attuned to the human heart that her work may actually be beneficial to your health. This production, helmed by Juliette Carrillo, sure was. Love is a mess, Ruhl tells us. It’s dirty (like a good joke), messy and, at its best, like really good homemade chocolate ice cream.

2. The Glass Menagerie, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The news that Rita Moreno, the Bay Area’s resident living legend, would tackle the role of Amanda in this Tennessee Williams classic was intriguing. Could Moreno handle it? Anyone who doubted Moreno’s chops was quickly proven wrong by her powerhouse portrayal of a mother desperate to see her children succeed in a harsh world. Director Les Waters gave us such a fresh approach to the play that it almost seemed newly minted.

3. Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, Shotgun Players

Playwright Marcus Gardley did a magnificent thing with this world-premiere play: He turned a neighborhood into art, and in doing so made the specific universal. Gardley immersed himself in the history of Berkeley’s Lorin District — from the recent past clear back to Native American days — and, with the help of director Aaron Davidman, managed to capture something significant about each era leading up to the present. The cast of more than 30 professionals and nonprofessionals found the heart of the piece and showed us over and over again that without community, we’re not much.

4. Hunter Gatherers, Killing My Lobster

Of all this year’s comedies, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s world premiere for sketch troupe Killing My Lobster was the meatiest. Maybe it had something to do with the onstage slaughter of a lamb at the play’s start. Or maybe it was the huge chunk of roasted meat that factors into the play’s bloody end. Whatever, this was an aggressively funny play about our primal, cave-man impulses, man’s need to hump (or kill) everything in sight and woman’s need for chocolate.

5. 4 Adverbs, Word for Word

San Francisco’s Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) ended his “Series of Unfortunate Events” books this year, but not before releasing a book under his own name. Four chapters of that book (Adverbs) became the basis for a typically wondrous production by Word for Word, the company that translates short fiction to the stage without changing a word of the original text. Kind of makes you glad Lemony Snicket is taking a break.

6. Dessa Rose, TheatreWorks

A musical about slavery sounds like a glum proposition, but in the hands of composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, glum turns into serious, which turns into transcendent. Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, the story of an escaped slave and the slave owner she reluctantly befriends bears the weight of history and the healing power of music.

7. In On It, Encore Theatre Company

Canadian playwright/director Daniel MacIvor’s work isn’t that well-known south of our northern border, but based on this dynamic, beautifully directed and performed piece,
MacIvor should be in demand. Actors Ian Scott McGregor and Glenn Peters broke the fourth wall, bent time and concealed key details as they told us the story of actors who used to be lovers working on a play about their relationship. Or were they?

8. Gem of the Ocean, American Conservatory Theater

The late August Wilson received a beautiful valedictory production of his second-to-last play from ACT and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The electric jolt of Wilson’s language — “So, live!” are the play’s final words — coursed through the nearly three-hour show, but the sturdy cast, headed by Michele Shay as Aunt Ester, made it very much alive.

9. Restoration Comedy, California Shakespeare Theater
San Francisco writer Amy Freed’s effervescent comedy is based on two 17th-century comedies that wished they could have been this fresh and funny. Special mention must be made of the hilarious Danny Scheie, who played Sir Novelty Fashion who later becomes Lord Foppington, the star of the show-stopping Act 2 fashion show (Anna R. Oliver provided the costumes).

10. Permanent Collection, Aurora Theatre Company

This serious drama about race relations by Thomas Gibbons veered into polemics, but before it did, the battle between a black man and a white man over a collection of art is humane, disturbing and, best of all, thought provoking.

The best shows that didn’t necessarily originate here (or were on their way somewhere else — like Broadway) include: Jersey Boys (Best of Broadway/SHN); A Chorus Line (Best of Broadway/SHN); The Miser (Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Theatre de la Jeune Lune); The Light in the Piazza (Best of Broadway/SHN); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stone, Nederlander, Barrington Stage Company et al); Swan Lake (Best of Broadway/SHN).

For more 2006 highlights, check out Jones for Theater.

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