By Joseph Hurley
The 52nd annual Tony Awards ceremony, held Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall, and hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, proved to be a reasonably great night for the Irish, with four major citations going to “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” specifically to the director, Garry Hynes, and to three members of the play’s four-actor cast.
The award for Best Actress in a Play went to Marie Mullen, co-founder with Hynes of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company, for her performance as Maureen Folan, the repressed and dominated daughter of tyrannical old Mag Folan, partners in a deadly domestic stalemate in a dreary cottage in Leenane in County Galway’s Connemara region.
The Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play went to veteran actress Anna Manahan, who is Mag in the hit play written by the 28-year-old Anglo-Irish playwriting sensation Martin McDonagh, while the award for Best Featured Actor in a Play was won by Tom Murphy, a Dublin-born actor making his American stage debut in the role of Ray Dooley, an inquisitive and troublemaking neighbor of the Folans.
What kept the evening from being an outright triumph for the Irish contingent was the fact that McDonagh’s play lost out to Yasmina Reza’s “Art” when the time came for presenting the award for Best Play, perhaps the most eagerly sought after prize of the evening, along with the nod for Best Musical, which went this year to “The Lion King,” the predicted winner in the song-and-dance category.
If the victory of “The Lion King” over its nearest competitor, “Ragtime,” could hardly qualify as an upset, the same was definitely not true of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which was a heavy favorite to triumph in the Best Play category. In most quarters, “Art,” by the Iranian-born French Reza, wasn’t regarded as much of a threat to the four-actor work which served to introduce the London-born, Irish-derived McDonagh, already something of a phenomenon in Britain, to American audiences.
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The entire “Beauty Queen” cast, in fact, was Tony-nominated, but since Murphy and his colleague, Brian F. O’Byrne, were both nominated in the same category, that of best performance by a Featured Actor in a Play, it was foreordained that, except in the virtually impossible occurrence of a tie vote, only three of the play’s actors would be taking a Tony home.
The coveted little prizes, handed out by the American Theater Wing since 1947 and more formally known as the Antoinette Perry Awards, were named in honor of a long-forgotten theater personality of over half a century ago.
One final Irish Tony loss, albeit a totally predictable one, occurred when the Cork-born designer Bob Crowley, winner for “Carousel” a few seasons ago and nominated this year for the sets and costumes he provided for Paul Simons’ short-lived “The Capeman,” was defeated by Richard Hudson’s spectacular designs for “The Lion King.”
Hynes’s victory marks the first time a woman has ever been named Best Director, a milestone underlined by the fact that “The Lion King” also had a woman in charge, namely Julie Taymor, motivating one New York newspaper to dub its coverage “The Tony Year of the Woman.”
The failure of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” to win its expected Best Play Tony, coupled with the disappointing reception met by the Public Theatre’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the second Martin McDonagh play to face local audiences, put something of a damper on playwright Martin McDonagh’s initial experience in the New York theater. If 1998 didn’t turn out to be “The Tony Year of Martin McDonagh,” it might be well to remember the old baseball adage that goes, “Wait till next year.”