Monday night’s 28th annual Helen Hayes Awards had many winners, but the evening’s first was playwright Marc Acito.
He won the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical for his “Birds of a Feather,” a comedy about a pair of gay penguins living together in New York’s Central Park. Acito, who is gay, thanked his own longtime partner who couldn’t make the event.
Next up, Michael Baron (also gay) won Outstanding Director Resident Musical for his work on “A Year with Frog and Toad” at Adventure Theatre. He thanked his partner whom he’d left at home in Oklahoma.
The absentee boyfriend trend soon ended. When topnotch musical director Jon Kalbfleisch was singled out of Outstanding Musical Direction in a Resident Musical, he happily thanked his date who was seated close to the stage.
Presented by theatreWashington, the Helen Hayes Awards was co-hosted by notable local actors Holly Twyford and Felicia Curry. (In recent years, there had been pairs of presenters but no designated emcee per se. The return to hosts is a fun correction). Twyford, who is gay, and Curry underwent a half-dozen glamorous costume changes and traded insider references and gossipy tidbits. It’s exactly what the raucous audience seemed to want. After all, the Helen Hayes Awards is primarily a celebration of all that is local theater.
Every April, the awards are handed out to reward excellence in Washington-area professional theater. During the 2011 season, 53 theatres produced 192 productions that met eligibility requirements in the Jan.-Dec. judging cycle. From these shows, 153 artists, productions and ensembles from 26 theatres were nominated for awards and from these nominees, a large pool of judges carefully selected the evening’s winners.
Longtime Helen Hayes (and now theatreWashington) honcho Victor Shargai presented the prestigious Helen Hayes Tribute (sponsored and awarded by philanthropist Jaylee Mead) to Kevin Spacey, in honor of the famous actor’s enduring career and advocacy for arts funding. A two-time Oscar winner (“American Beauty” and “The Usual Suspects.”), Spacey, who is rumored to be gay but opts not to publicly discuss his orientation, is also a man of the theater: He won a Tony for the in “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991 and most recently toured the world in a Sam Mendes’ production of “Richard III.” He has worked as a director, screenwriter, producer and singer and is artistic director at the Old Vic in London.
Spacey’s acceptance speech was the highlight of the night. In about 10 minutes or so, he dropped several F bombs, did a couple of spot-on impersonations, waxed nostalgic, advised on the importance of giving back and ultimately inspired a house full of theater folks to live their dreams.
The tribute included a short film on Spacey’s career, and — much to the audience’s surprise and delight — a warm videotaped message from Spacey friend and fan, President Bill Clinton. Past honorees include Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, and the award’s namesake, Helen Hayes.
Other deserving winners included delightful newcomer Matthew Delorenzo. He was awarded Outstanding Supporting Actor Resident Musical for his portrayal of Warhol superstar Candy Darling in Studio Theatre 2ndStage’s “Pop!” Michael Bobbitt, Adventure Theatre’s gay artistic director accepted the prize for Outstanding Production Theatre for Young Audiences on behalf of his company’s charming production of “Charlotte’s Web,” staged by talented gay director Serge Seiden. The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theater Company (named in memory of Victor Shargai’s theater-loving, late partner) to Faction of Fools, a performance group rooted in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte style currently in residence at Gallaudet University.
With nearly 80 professional theatre companies, Greater Washington is second only to New York for the number of productions produced each year. Appropriately, the night ended with co-hosts Twyford and Curry melodically encouraging everyone to see more theater: “Who needs the real housewives?” they sang. “Medea’s the original one. Go see a show!”
Visit theatrewashington.org for a complete list of winners.