Charles Brown, King Hedley II
This is Brown's second turn in a Broadway August Wilson production, after Fences. His most enduring professional association, however, is with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he appeared in many plays, including A Soldier's Play, Nevis Mountain Dew and Home. The last won him a best actor in a play Tony nom back in 1980.
Larry Bryggman, Proof
Bryggman has been paying Broadway dues for years, appearing in such shows as Prelude to a Kiss (with Proof co-star Mary-Louise Parker), Richard III, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Ulysses in Nighttown and The Lincoln Mask; his turn in Picnic got him a Tony nomination in 1994. His Off-Broadway work—much of it at Manhattan Theatre Club, where Proof began—has been even more extensive.
Michael Hayden, Judgment at Nuremberg
Hayden has been a steady presence on and Off-Broadway and on major regional stages since making headlines with his performance as Billy Bigelow in the Nicholas Hytner revival of Carousel. His portrayal of Oscar Rolfe in the short-lived Judgment was his most highly praised work since the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Robert Sean Leonard, The Invention of Love
Since becoming a film star in "Dead Poets Society," Leonard has, paradoxically, never flagged in his devotion to the New York stage, starring in Broadway mountings of The Iceman Cometh, The Speed of Darkness, Candida, You Never Can Tell, and Philadelphia, Here I Come!. The latter three were at the Roundabout Theatre Company, with Candida getting him a Tony nom for best featured actor in a play. One of his best known performances was in another Stoppard piece, Arcadia, also produced by Lincoln Center Theater.
Ben Shenkman, Proof
Shenkman is the new guy on the block in this category, with Proof being his first major Broadway credit. He has worked much Off-Broadway, however, in such productions as Peter Hedges' Baby Anger (Playwrights Horizons); Vanessa Redgrave's production of Antony and Cleopatra (Public Theater); and Venus (Public Theater). Analysis: This is one of the year's tighter categories. Of the five contenders, only Shenkman, the newcomer, doesn't really stand a chance. History has shown that actors lucky enough to land a showy August Wilson role often net a Tony nomination, as Brown has done—and nearly as often, they win (Brown recently copped a Drama Desk award for his work). However, Brown doesn't seem as much of a shoo-in as such past Wilson actors, like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, have been. Much of the limited amount of praise that went to Judgment at Nuremberg was directed at Hayden, but the fact that his show has closed will hurt the actor's chances. That leaves Bryggman and Leonard. Though there's a great difference in their ages, both are viewed as veterans. Bryggman has regularly appeared on the stage, despite the great demands made on him by a full-time day job in the soaps, and his work is reliably good. Leonard, meanwhile, has arguably sacrificed a career as a major film star to his love of the stage. Both actors' performances are widely regarded as their best to date. A toss-up, with maybe a slight edge to Leonard, who has the showier, and arguably more difficult role.
—By Robert Simonson