The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard
Coming off the commercial success and Oscar win of "Shakespeare in Love," Tom Stoppard arrived on Broadway this season with a decidedly difficult and upscale work, The Invention of Love, which captures prickly poet A.E. Housman on his deathday. Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard have earned kudos (and Tony noms) for playing the scribe as an older and younger man. Jack O'Brien's fluid direction helped audiences follow the word-filled drama by the author of Arcadia, Hapgood and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
King Hedley II, by August Wilson
August Wilson continues his decade-by-decade look at disenfranchised blacks in America, this time in the dead-end of 1985 Pittsburgh, where Hedley, just out of prison, tries to start fresh by raising money to open a video store. His "plan," however, is to rob another store to raise the capital, and Hedley's eventually undone by a chain of family history so complicated, critics and audiences couldn't quite unravel it (but went with the play's potent mix of poetry and melodrama anyway). Considered high among America's greatest-living dramatists, Wilson's previous works include Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Jitney.
Proof, by David Auburn
A Pulitzer Prize, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award and John Gassner Award have already followed David Auburn's Proof to this point, as the gentle drama of a young woman hoping not to follow in her father's shaky mental footsteps maintains its season-long spell on theatregoers. Mary-Louise Parker, who originated the lead at Off Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club last season, continues in what has become the role of her career (so far) on Broadway.
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, by Charles Busch
For more than a decade, Charles Busch was penning campy, spoofy, wildly weird gay comedies (The Lady in Question, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Queen Amarantha) in the Ridiculous Theatrical tradition. Not only that, he was starring in them — usually in drag get-up second only to Everett Quinton in outlandishness. But 2001 saw Busch move to the uptown crowd, as his MTC hit, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, proved a Broadway draw for its story of a bored, suicidal housewife whose glamorous old friend proves just a little too sexually liberated.
Analysis: Proof has won just about everything else, and the Tony will be its final jewel. The play has both heart and craft and is both respected and almost universally liked, a quality none of the other nominees quite enjoys to the same degree. The Invention of Love is a critical hit, with a core intellectual audience that's eating it up, but another segment of the audience (and not just the "bridge n' tunnelers") are bored and find the play an intellectual exercise with too little narrative. King Hedley II often wows the crowds with its melodramatic fireworks, but the critics found its storytelling confusing and its arias sometimes overwritten. (The general consensus is that had Jitney made the move to Broadway rather than Hedley, it would've been Proof's strongest competitor.) While The Tale of the Allergist's Wife has proved a popular draw all season long (as much, one gathers, from the presence of Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts and Michele Lee as for the play itself), the show is perceived as a lightweight in this crowd and a toss-up for the fourth nomination slot that could just as easily have gone to Neil Simon's The Dinner Party or Judgment at Nuremberg. — By David Lefkowitz