April 8, 2010 at 5:04 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Celebrating the best of local theater

It’s not every day that two ex-boyfriends take center stage to sing one another’s praises before a rapt audience. But that’s exactly what happened at the 26th annual Helen Hayes Awards at the Warner Theatre on Monday night.

In what was arguably the high point of an exceedingly lively evening, famed gay playwright Terrence McNally, 70, warmly presented the Helen Hayes Tribute to his “friend, colleague, and ex,” the even more famous gay playwright Edward Albee (the pair were lovers in the 1960s). McNally lauded Albee’s genius as evidenced by a long list of extraordinary works, including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Zoo Story,” and “A Delicate Balance;” as well as the 82-year-old playwright’s serious dedication to bolstering the careers of younger artists.

In return, Albee, whose career will be celebrated in a festival next season at Arena Stage’s revamped Southwest complex, spoke eloquently of McNally’s courage to tackle the difficult issues, citing his controversial “Corpus Christi,” a passion play with gay male characters, as an example. Impishly, Albee slipped in an account of when he first met McNally at a Manhattan cocktail party — “A knockout blonde — he had hair then.” Clearly these great writers share a history, a sense of humor and a mutual respect.

While the theater elders were indeed honored, so too were the up-and-comers. Particularly the wildly enthusiastic young cast of The Keegan Theatre’s hot production of the musical “Rent” who were named outstanding ensemble for a resident musical. Cast member Parker Drown was singled out as outstanding lead actor in a resident musical for his high-energy take on Angel, a feisty drag queen percussionist battling gentrification and HIV/AIDS.

Each year the Helen Hayes Awards are doled out to reward standouts in Washington-area professional theater. The nominees and recipients are painstakingly selected by 63 judges.

Rather than rely on a single emcee, Monday’s show was hosted by an ever-changing pair of presenters comprised of local talent. Livening up the proceedings was a group of talented singers and dancers including John Lescault, Amy McWilliams, Aaron Reeder, Lauren Williams, and Bobby Smith who graced the “In Memoriam” portion of the show with a poignant rendition of “Any Time (I Am There)” from “Elegies”).

Holly Twyford was named outstanding actress in a resident play for her performance as Diane, the Hollywood super agent in Signature Theatre’s production of gay playwright Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy “The Little Dog Laughed.” Impressively, Twyford was also nominated in the same category for work in Folger Theatre’s “Arcadia,” and Theatre J’s “Lost in Yonkers.” Looking chic in a simple black dress and deep red heels, Twyford, who has been out her entire career, thanked her parents for taking her to the theater as a kid and her longtime partner (now fiancée) for her unflagging support.

Cate Blanchett won outstanding actress in a non-resident production for her luminous portrayal of Blanche Dubois in the Kennedy Center’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Karl Miller, who played Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, in Forum Theatre’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” shared outstanding actor in a resident play honors with Stacy Keach who played the title role in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “King Lear.”

Jim Brochu was named outstanding lead actor in a non-resident production for his work in “Zero Hour” at Theatre J. The affable gay actor charmingly thanked everyone connected with the show (currently playing off-Broadway at the DR2 Theater), and gave a special shout out to his partner of 25 years: “He’s the wind beneath my wings, and it takes a lot of wind to lift me.”

The always-entertaining Maurice Hines took choreography honors for a resident musical for MetroStage’s “Cool Papa’s Party,” an original piece based on the life of Sammy Davis Jr. When the trophy fell apart in the gay dancer’s hands, Hines let loose a quick expletive and moved on like the professional he is, thanking colleagues, past teachers, his brother (the late Gregory Hines), and then plugged his next project- Arena Stage’s soon-to-open production of “Sophisticated Ladies” at the Lincoln Theater.

The D.C. love-in continued: Broadway’s Christiane Noll couldn’t say enough about the local theater scene as she picked up her best actress prize for her role in the Kennedy Center’s “Ragtime” (book by Terrence McNally) And presenter John Glover (who is wowing audiences as Mendy the opera queen in Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata” at the Kennedy Center through April 11) stressed that D.C. is “Fab-u-lous!”

The John Aniello Award for outstanding emerging company was presented to 1st Stage of Tysons Corner. A well-loved patron of the D.C. arts scene, the late Aniello was the longtime partner of Helen Hayes Chairman Victor Shargai.

Prior to naming Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “King Lear” outstanding resident play, Shargai expressed a heartfelt thanks to the members of the Washington theater community for the joy they bring to his life. By measure of the explosive applause, those in attendance on Monday night couldn’t have agreed more.

For a complete list of Helen Hayes Awards winners and nominees visit helenhayes.org.

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