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Tony Awards' decision on 'Oleanna' shows inconsistency in dramatic revival category

December 11, 2009 |  5:32 am

Tony The Tony Awards Administration Committee announced Thursday that the recent Broadway production of David Mamet's "Oleanna" will be eligible in the Best Revival of a Play category.

For people familiar with "Oleanna," the committee's decision points to the byzantine and often contradictory logic at work when it comes to determining what is a revival and what is a new play. 

The production of "Oleanna" at the John Golden Theatre, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, represented the first time that the Mamet play had been staged on Broadway. It therefore stands to reason that the drama should have been eligible for the Best Play category.

But the rule book for the Tony Awards states that a production can qualify as a "revival" if the committee deems the work a "classic" or part of "the popular or historical repertoire," even if it has never before been produced on Broadway. "Oleanna" has been kicking around regional theaters since 1992 and enjoyed a lengthy off-Broadway run in the '90s. 

A spokesman for the Tony Awards said the play 
"has been performed in over 25 countries across the globe, with several hundred productions in the U.S. alone. To that end, the Tony Awards Administration Committee deemed that the play holds a position in the 'popular repertoire.' "

Fair enough. But what was the committee's reasoning for placing Patrick Marber's "After Miss Julie" in the revival category? The play is currently having its U.S. debut on Broadway and was earlier performed in London in 2003. It is neither a classic nor is it a widely performed drama, and so Tony rules say that it should be considered a new work.

This isn't the first year that the Tony committee has flown in the face of its own logic. A look back at its decisions shows a number of glaring inconsistencies when it comes to the revival category.

In 2002, a Broadway production of Ivan Turgenev's "Fortune's Fool," starring Alan Bates and Frank Langella, was nominated in the Best Play category. It would seem that a play penned in the 19th century by one of the greatest dramatists ever to have lived would be considered a classic and would therefore fall under the revival category, per Tony rules. But for some mysterious reason, the committee went against its own playbook and deemed it a "new" drama.

Something similar happened in 1996, with the Broadway premiere of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child." The play, which was first performed in 1978 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, had become part of the popular repertoire by the time it reached Broadway, which, according to Tony rules, should have placed it in the "revival" category. (A New York Times review of the production even described it as a "revival.") But again, screwy logic prevailed at the Tonys and the drama was labeled a "new" play.

The Tony Award Committee's rule book contains a clever clause that gives it considerable latitude in deciding these matters. It states that the committee has "sole discretion" to determine what constitutes a classic or what plays are "in the historical or popular repertoire."

Judging from its decision on "Oleanna," absolute power can be a dangerous thing.

-- David Ng

Photo: a Tony Award trophy. Credit: CBS

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