This year, the category of Best Featured Actor in a Play is full of oddities. There are three performers from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, including two actors that played women in the all-male production. (One, Mark Rylance, is also nominated in another category for his work in Richard III.) If either of these cross-gendered performances wins, it will be only be the third time a performer has taken a Tony for playing a member of the opposite sex — the other two are Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Continuing in this cross-gender vein, nominee Reed Birney is playing a man who dresses as a woman. Strangeness aside, this is one of the strongest Tony categories this year and it’s anyone’s game.
One of the most prolific actors on the Off-Broadway scene, Reed Birney earns his first Tony nomination for his incisive portrayal of the manipulative Charlotte in Harvey Fierstein’s comedy-drama about a group of crossing-dressing heterosexuals at a 1962 Catskills resort. Birney has won an Obie and a Drama Desk for his Off-Broadway work, but this is only his third Broadway appearance. His debut was in the 1977 comedy Gemini and his second Broadway show was Picnic in 2013.
The role of the boisterous maid Maria in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy usually does not stand out amid all the other fools, clowns and lovers. But in the all-male, Shakespeare’s Globe production, Paul Chahidi made Maria into a delightful scene-stealer. He was also featured strongly in the company’s production of Richard III as Hastings and Tyrrell and has appeared in films such as Notting Hill and on TV’s The Hour.
Best known as half of the British comedy team, Fry and Laurie (with Hugh Laurie of TV’s House fame), Stephen Fry made his Broadway debut as the pompous butler Malvolio in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night. He perfectly captures character’s fussy bravado and huge ego which is gleefully punctured by Maria and her cohorts when they lead him to believe his employer Olivia is secretly smitten with him. Fry’s reading of a forged love letter from his mistress is hilariously delivered and when the deception is revealed, his crestfallen shame is entirely believable.
In stark contrast to his malevolent Richard III for which he is nominated for Best Actor, Mark Rylance is also in the Featured Actor race for his ultra-feminine Olivia in Twelfth Night. He brilliantly conveys the noblewoman’s cool reserve as she mourns her dead brother. Then he transforms into a giddy schoolgirl as her haughty exterior is melted when she falls in love with the page Caesario, who is actually the maiden Viola in disguise.
Brian J. Smith
The Glass Menagerie
The Gentleman Caller arrives late in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, but Brian J. Smith’s sensitive performance makes the role a vital one. He’s been brought to the impoverished apartment of his co-worker Tom as a potential suitor for Tom’s painfully shy sister, Laura. Smith endows this former high-school hero with a painful self-awareness as he realizes his glory days are behind him. Yet he is still kind enough to reach out to Laura and attempt to boost her confidence. Smith’s previous Broadway credits include Come Back, Little Sheba and The Columnist.