"I know what you're thinking," said Hardball's Chris Matthews as he took the stage at the Warner Theatre last night. "Why's he here?"
It was an apt question, given that the roster of presenters at last night's Helen Hayes Awards skewed heavily toward the political. In addition to Matthews, awards were doled out by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative Jim Moran from Virginia's eighth district, and DC Councilman Jack Evans, as well as NPR's legal correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Luckily, the evening was given some showbiz glamor by the presence of Academy Award-winning actor and director Kevin Spacey, recipient of the Helen Hayes Tribute for his contributions to theater. But even that wasn't without its political edge: Before Spacey took the stage, he was lauded in a video message by none other than Bill Clinton.
Spacey responded by entreating the crew to turn up the house lights so he could see the audience, before launching into his best Bubba impression. In his acceptance speech, Spacey praised Helen Hayes herself for her philanthropy and love of theater, and recalled asking Jack Lemmon to provide him with references when he needed to rent an apartment in New York. "He said, 'As far as I know him, he's a terrific young man, and the only thing he's ever stolen is my scenes,'" Spacey said.
With all the famous names onstage, the awards themselves seemed almost like an afterthought, but the big winners of the night were Signature Theatre, which scooped up five awards including Outstanding Resident Musical for its production of Hairspray; and Synetic Theater, which took home four for its wordless King Lear. Outstanding Resident Play went to Arena Stage's production of Ruined, an adaptation of the heartbreaking Pulitzer-winning drama by Lynn Nottage.
The show was hosted by local actresses Holly Twyford and Felicia Curry, who incorporated countless costume changes and in-jokes into their skits, including a poke at both their roles in children's productions. There were a few (albeit not particularly surprising) disappointments: Neither Cate Blanchett nor Hugo Weaving were present to collect their Outstanding Actress and Actor awards for the Kennedy Center's production of Uncle Vanya, but Ruined's Jenny Jules, a Brit, showed up to help collect the show's award for best play. Euan Morton, a Tony nominee for his role in Taboo, graciously accepted his award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical for Theater J and Ford's Theatre's co-production of Parade. "When I came to Washington, Victor Shargai gave me some advice," the actor said of the TheatreWashington board chair. "He said, 'Sleep with me, and you'll get a Helen Hayes Award.' And I did."
Smaller companies did better than usual this year, picking up a number of awards. The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical went to Marc Acito for Hub Theatre's production of Birds of a Feather, while Kendra Rai received an award for her vivid costumes in Constellation Theatre's The Green Bird. The Outstanding Leading Actress award for a resident play was shared between Studio Theatre's Erica Sullivan (Venus in Fur) and Bay Theatre Company's Rena Brown, for Wit. The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company went to Faction of Fools, a commedia dell'arte company.
Will this year's ceremony quell the debate over how nominations and awards are decided? Probably not. But it succeeded in feting local companies, crews, and performers in an elaborate event, culminating in a celebration at the Marriott down the street. So if nothing else, at least we'll have something to talk about until next year's nominations.
For a full list of the Helen Hayes Award winners and nominees, visit TheatreWashington's website. To read our reviews of the award-winning plays, visit the After Hours Blog theater section.