Don't Call Them The Carymores

By Cary M. Mazer

Well, the Barrymore Award winners have been applauded and feted, so who am I to second-guess the panel of nominators? After all, they dragged themselves out, in all weather, to see much more stuff than I could bring myself to see last season.

Not that it wouldn't be fun to second-guess the awards. It's tempting, for example, to imagine what the field of competitors would have been like had Terrence McNally's wonderful Master Class, with the magnificent Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas, not sailed through Philadelphia for its out-of-town try-out at Plays and Players (oops: I mean its initial production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company) before heading on to Los Angeles, Washington and New York).

The problem is that I just didn't enjoy myself half as much in the theater this past season as did most of my fellow critics, not to mention people who are usually referred to as "average theatergoers" -- though I've become convinced that all theatergoers are extraordinary individuals, praiseworthy for their courage and their patience.

Many plays that were enjoyed by all, and praised to the skies in print, left me relatively cold: Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate at the Cafe de Grand Boeuf at the Arden (may he continue writing and getting produced; he's too valuable to the community to lose); Blanka Zizka's production of Road at the Wilma (which I thought would have been more disturbing if it had been less in-your-face; the same goes for Pearce Bunting's virtuosically annoying freak-show ringmaster); and The Old Wicked Songs at the Walnut Studio.

Plenty of stuff was just plain good (A Little Night Music by the Arden at the Arts Bank); lots of stuff I wanted to like more ( Lovers at the Arden , with some very watchable performances by two new young actors); other things I was ashamed at having liked so much (The Taming of the Shrew , also at the Arden). McCarter (where Artistic Director Emily Mann built the wonderful Having our Say ) is beyond the pale of the Barrymores. Some things that, I'm told, were very good I just didn't get to see (Freedom's Black Nativity , and Pinter's The Caretaker at the Walnut Studio). And one thing I liked (Abigail Adams's production of Shaw's Misalliance at People's Light) I can't legitimately praise in print because I worked on the production.

But so much in the past season just didn't quite work as well as I hoped it would, or felt it could: The Cherry Orchard at the Festival Theatre for New Plays (despite some wonderful supporting performances by Pearce Bunting, Ceal Phelan and others), Yankee Dawg You Die and God's Country by InterAct, and Marie Antoinette and Shadow Saver at Independent Eye .

So here, in lieu of awards (my editor wanted me to call them the "Carymores" -- ugh!) are a few scattered impressions: things that touched, or moved, or inspired me, if only in subtle ways or in small doses. Some of these productions and artists have been appropriately recognized with nominations or awards by the Barrymore folk; others not.

Susan McKey's terrifying monologue in Joyce Carol Oates's Here She Is at the Festival Theatre; and Lisbeth Bartlett's equally on-the-edge performance from the same collection of one-acts. Bartlett has become an actor to watch, even in AMTF's Bad Girls Upset by the Truth ; don't miss her in Three Viewings at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Frank X's solo story-telling performance in Louis' Lottery at the Independent Eye. (I also couldn't take my eyes off of him as the revolutionary in InterAct's The Disappeared ).

Peter DeLaurier and Marcia Saunders nailing both their characters and their characters' difficult relationship in Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee , part of the Short-Stuff Festival at People's Light.

Mets Suber's supporting performance (in a wonderful ensemble) in Distant Fires at People's Light.

H. Michael Walls' surprising subtlety and depth in his cameos in Road .

Composer David Eckman's lovely musical evocation of the titular Wind in the Willows, at People's Light.

Grace Gonglewski's performances: both her Katherine in Shrew (which almost excused that hateful play) and her gem of a supporting performance in the Arden Little Night Music

Stephen Novelli, in the final sequences of Louis Lippa's The Sign of the Lizard , once the vivid theatrical devices had peeled away one after another, and Federico Garcia Lorca was left with nothing but his own terror, as the sun rose over the mountains (set by David P. Gordon, lights by James F. Pyne), the soldiers of the firing squad and Lorca's fellow prisoners smoked and chatted awaiting the dawn, and death loomed around the corner.

The new actor in town to keep your eye on: Benjamin Lloyd (who last year appeared at People's Light, the Drama Guild and InterAct).

Anything and anything by costume designer Marla Jurglanis.

And just about everything in Of Mice and Men by the late and lamented Drama Guild. Mary Robinson had the integrity and courage to fill in as the production's director, even after she had been summarily fired as artistic director of the company only a few weeks before; and she had the artistic courage to be non-realistic and ruthlessly non-sentimental with a play that skirts awfully close to sentimentality.

And yes, I loved Master Class . How not?

Finally: the year's theatrical obituaries:

R.I.P. The Philadelphia Drama Guild.

R.I.P. Stage III, Temple Center City. Temple President Peter Liacouras sold the building, leaving Novel Stages and Venture Theatre homeless, and Temple's own Theatre Department without a Center City base.

R.I.P. St. Stephen's Alley: Will the church ever let another company rent it, now that the Arden has moved to its new gorgeous digs?

R.I.P. The Tabernacle Theatre: Will anyone be able to rent it again, at the rates that MTI is charging in order to balance its budget, now that they are no longer actually producing any of their own stuff?