ATCA at Sardi’s

Critics Lunch with Broadway Stars

By: - Nov 07, 2018

For the past five years American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has organized a New York Conference. That was initiated by the contacts and charisma of co-chairs, the late Ira Bilowit, and cabaret entrepreneur, Sherry Eaker.

A highlight of the conference is the annual Sardi’s luncheon with Broadway stars.

 As MC, with elegant ebullience, Eaker announced that word of mouth has encouraged celebrities to participate in the meet and greet with critics. She even revealed being lobbied by press agents on behalf of their clients.

The ambiance of the event results in priceless moments and evocative insights. The actors reveal tricks of the trade. Over pricey boilerplate food we were on the edge of our seats eager to gobble every rare bon mot.

It seemed that a record number of artists answered the call. That meant keeping things tight. The designated ATCA presenters were confined to a single question. Unlike the past there were no questions from the floor.

The pace is brisk as a number of the actors rushed to matinee performances.

There was an abundance of riches with representatives from thirteen current productions and sixteen actors, directors and playwrights. What follows are highlights.

Our Chicago correspondent, Nancy Bishop, introduced actor Bill Irwin and artistic director Charlotte Moore. During a recent visit to New York, primarily to cover Bruce Springsteen, she reviewed his acclaimed one-person show “On Beckett” at Irish Repertory Theatre.

Irwin was down to his final three performances. Most unusually, Moore told us that she has attended every performance of the critically acclaimed, sold out run.

With lilting charm, and a switch of vocal projections, Irwin navigated the challenges of an Irish American interpreting the Irish born playwright. With some irony he commented that the Irish were relatively late to embrace Beckett who wrote in French and then in English. He was recognized for his bravery during the Resistance. All too briefly Irwin gave us a tantalizing taste of the richness and complexity of Samuel Beckett. It was thrilling.

Table hopping I engaged Ronnie Marmo about his show “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce.” He came with his daughter who, one assumes, is shielded from the dark side of the stridently, politically incorrect Bruce. Marmo admitted to difficulty portraying some of Bruce’s frank language including liberal use of the N word. I asked if he does “Lima, Ohio” or “Wilt Chamberlain” a couple of my favorite bits. As a Brandeis graduate we discussed controversies about the papers left to the university. Even today Bruce has the ability to evoke kerfuffle. Now more than ever we need the spirit of Lenny.

When Eaker saw “Fireflies” she had an epiphany to invite Afro-Queer playwright, poet and filmmaker Donja Love. With compelling transparency he told us of beginning to write ten years ago when he was diagnosed as HIV positive. Initially, he reflected on that experience but the reach broadened with critically acclaimed and evocative works. His moment at the podium set a bench mark for style and duende.

Bonnie Milligan of the musical “Head Over Heels” made a heart wrenching suggestion to the critics. Noting that art is subjective, in evaluating plays, she requested that critics bear in mind that the actors they write about are human beings. She noted that reviewers comment on her dimensions and suitability for a role as a beautiful woman. That approach of body shaming has a negative impact on young women. Hopefully, it was a point well taken by the assembled critics.

With a soupcon of wit and irony Joe Iconis remarked on how the seemingly benign release of a CD led to Broadway. Based on that music he is bringing a production of “Be More Chill” to New York in February. His musical “Broadway Bounty Hunter” premiered at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. He has also performed there as a cabaret artist.

Although the ATCA conference was held on Broadway, in the belly of the beast of American theater, there were numerous references to the importance of regional theatre. Currently performing multiple roles in the musical “Mean Girls” Jennifer Simard talked about growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a young girl she recalled performances at an elegant, vintage theater that was just fifteen minutes from her home. That first experience was transformative as she decided to pursue a career in theatre.

ATCA nominates and votes on the annual regional theatre awards. This year the recipient was NY’s Off Broadway company, La Mama, founded by Ellen Stewart. During a Sunday morning meeting ATCA member Jonathan Mandell interviewed current artistic director, Mia Yoo.

In addition ATCA administrates two awards: The Francesca Primus Prize, for an emerging woman playwright, and The Elizabeth M. Osborn award for an emerging playwright.  Within a relatively brief time frame committee members for each of the awards read and evaluate twenty or more scripts.

The Osborn, which comes with $1,000, is presented during the Humana Festival in Louisville. The Primus Prize, which includes a $10,000 award, was presented during the Sardi’s luncheon.

In presenting the plaque, Kerry Reed of Chicago, the committee chair, announced that the decision was unanimous for Martyna Majok and her play “Cost of Living.” We heard from her during a panel “Beyond Straight White Men: Diversity on Page and Stage; Part Two- The Playwrights.”

It appears that the Primus committee chose wisely. Majok’s play has also been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Her difficult and poignant play, which focuses on two actors with disabilities and their care providers, had its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival. I told her that it was one of the most difficult and challenging reviews that I ever wrote. Like the audience I struggled with a work that leveled all prior approaches and assumptions. With her permission it is being adapted as a musical.

Like a racehorse after such a brisk workout I needed to walk off and cool down from absorbing such a rich feast of theatrical information. Sitting with my buddies and BFA contributors, Herbert Simpson and Jack Lyons, we lingered over a two hour deconstruction of the current state of theatre. The scholarly Simpson talked a lot about productions of the classics and Shakespeare at the annual Stratford Festival.

Eventually, the room was stripped, and it was time to leave when caterers arrived to set up the next event. Still buzzing we made our way uptown to “King Kong.” But that’s another story, and like Milton Berle, Jack has a million.

 Report on ATCA's NY Panels.