What the Jeff Awards left out

June 8, 2011

A Jeff recommendation is the first step. If your production isn’t recommended for somethingon opening night, you can’t be nominated for an award—or get one. So it’s no surprise, looking at this year’s Jeff-recommended productions, to see that the roster is long and inclusive. 

That makes certain curious omissions even curiouser. Like Steep Theatre’s Festen, a production that’s gotten rave reviews—and is sold out through the end of the run, no surprise given the incredible acting, direction, and stagecraft.

But Festen is about incest. Could the problem—for the Jeff committee, anyway—have been the subject?

It’s not the only strange omission. Despite a similar array of dazzling reviews, Trap Door’s Hamletmachine also got stood up for a Jeff rec. What was the issue there? My guess: playwright Heiner Muller’s experimental approach, Jonathan Guillen’s original operatic music, and Max Truax’s chilling staging. All just too weird.

At least Trap Door’s First Ladies—which was about s**t—got recommended, which allowed Nicole Wiesner to get nominated for best actress, which allowed her to tie for the award with Caroline Neff. (Jonathan, you left the best actress awardees out!) But why were supporting actresses Dado and Beata Pilch not nominated for their stellar work in Werner Schwab’s gut-wrenching play? 

Even Tanya Saracho’s El Nogalar, a Goodman/Teatro Vista coproduction that updated The Cherry Orchard to contemporary Mexico, got ignored by the Jeff committee. Completely. Really? It wasn’t good enough in any way to be recommended for anything? Though I’d call that piece a good idea that didn’t quite work out, it was more than worth seeing for the script’s inspired parallels, its comedy, and the impressive acting.

Meanwhile moldy old chestnuts like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Odd Couple got green-lighted. Even the new plays on the list played it safe, including such empty, easy, formulaic fare as Sex With Strangers and The Big Meal. We all hear about the catastrophic aging of the theater audience, but not so often about its possible cause, effect, or both. Could the theater community’s conservative tastes be producing a vicious cycle of the tried-and-true?