NEW YORK — A funny thing, identity. Seemingly immutable, a simple fact of who you are, it can suddenly start to chafe and stifle and generally make you want to throw it off like a worn-out garment that no longer fits.
But when you try to change or outrun your identity, things can get mighty tricky.
The complex challenge of trading in an old self for a new one, or a false self for a true one, lies at the core of a striking number of this season’s Broadway shows. In productions and performances competing for Tony Awards Sunday night, that struggle unites plays and musicals that otherwise have little in common: “Once,’’ “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ “Death of a Salesman,” “Venus in Fur,’’ “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,’’ “Follies,’’ “Stick Fly,’’ and even, in an entirely farcical vein, “One Man, Two Guvnors.’’
Perhaps it’s only logical that so many of the year’s most urgent performances were built on the shifting sands of identities that are in crisis or in flux. After all, identity is another word for character. And as we sit in the dark, watching characters grapple with their essential selves, the core of their beings, theater helps us think about the ways we define ourselves, consciously or not.
In the case of the will-they-or-won’t-they duo at the center of the melancholy charmer “Once,’’ the choice is not just whom to love but who to be. Adapted from the Irish indie movie of the same name and developed in a workshop at the American Repertory Theater in spring 2011 before moving to New York, “Once’’ leads the field with 11 Tony nominations, including the evening’s biggest prize, best musical.
Deploying songcraft as soulcraft, the intimate “Once’’ features Tony nominee Steve Kazee as an Irish street busker (identified simply as Guy) whose girlfriend left him and moved to New York, knocking him into a downward emotional spiral. He seeks no wider outlet for his achingly disconsolate songs than a Dublin sidewalk until he meets a gamine-like Czech pianist, identified simply as Girl and played by the exquisite Cristin Milioti, also a nominee. Apart from the accent, she could have just walked out of a Truffaut film.
In an entirely understandable development, Guy falls in love with Girl. Though her own feelings are clear, she holds back, barely, while managing to instill Guy with confidence in his own talent, in effect bringing him back to life by inspiring him to see himself as something more than a street performer. She gets him to imagine — and pursue — a recording career. “You’ve given me a new me,’’ he tells her. But what about a new her? A wistful sadness clings to Girl, who has some weighty personal baggage of her own, and the question mark that floats to the surface of “Once’’ is whether she can imagine — and pursue — a different identity for herself.
On Catfish Row
A fierce love brings together the title characters of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ which premiered at the ART and stars Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, with direction by Diane Paulus. (Paulus, McDonald, Lewis, and the revival itself are among the production’s 10 nominees.) But Porgy and Bess are also linked by another kind of yearning: to escape the narrow, restrictive identities imposed upon them by the denizens of Catfish Row, and by the white power structure whose malign force looms over the community’s social structure.
Because Porgy radiates a freewheeling bonhomie, he is presumed to be content with his loveless, sexless lot. But after the crippled beggar wins the heart of Bess — a drug addict considered a lowlife on Catfish Row — he is transformed. And when Bess finds love with Porgy, it’s not just personal happiness that is suddenly within her grasp, but a kind of wholesale personal redefinition.
What cracks the heart in “Porgy and Bess’’ is that ultimately only one of the two title characters is able to hold on to that hard-won new self. What lifts the heart is the fact that when Porgy determinedly sings “I’m on my way’’ in the final scene, there remains at least a sliver of hope that the same might eventually be true of Bess.
In the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,’’ which has eight nominations and closed in January, the metaphorically fraught setting was a theater that had been home to an extravagant, high-kicking revue for decades but is now decaying and on the verge of demolition. So the performers who danced and sang on its stage during their youth — including Sally and her onetime friend, Phyllis, who is married to Sally’s former lover, Ben — have gathered in middle and old age to salute the past.
But Sally never quite managed to escape the past. She has played it over and over in her mind for 30 years, and she has big plans for this evening that amount to a rewrite of her life, the ultimate do-over. She intends to shed her husband, Buddy, and her role as a Phoenix housewife while recapturing the identity she possessed — or thinks she possessed — way back then: the love of Ben’s life.
Ben, Phyllis, and Buddy are all consumed by regrets of their own about roads not taken, which get a full airing during what turns into a tumultuous reunion, full of flashbacks and confrontations and hard truths. But it is Sally who puts absolutely everything on the line, with shattering results. Call it bravery, or call it folly: Either way, Sally’s fate is a reminder of the risk attached to any effort at self-reinvention, however resolutely attempted.
In a much less weighty manner, identity, both mistaken and concealed, is central to the uproarious “One Man, Two Guvnors,’’ Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters.”
Drawing from the unapologetically lowbrow tradition of British music-hall comedy, “Guvnors’’ stars Tony-nominated James Corden as Francis Henshall, a harried (and perpetually hungry) chap who finds himself employed by two bosses and must prevent each of them from finding out about the other. One is a tough guy who is not who he appears to be, and is in fact not a guy at all, but rather the twin sister of a murdered gangster; the other is a fop who is in love with the woman in disguise and who in fact killed her brother. In the midst of this, Francis assumes still another guise, this time with an Irish accent, part of his attempt to extricate himself from a jam with a young lady he’s been wooing.
The brilliantly executed slapstick by Corden and Co. is enough to make your head spin, and so, in a very different way, is the psychosexual power struggle that unfolds in David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,’’ a best play nominee.
For a playwright-director named Thomas (Hugh Dancy) who is looking to cast the lead in his new drama, it has been a wearying, wasted day by the time he reluctantly grants an audition to a persistent young actress named Vanda. Played by the chameleonic and Tony-nominated Nina Arianda, Vanda initially comes across as a scatterbrain, and Thomas, a cocksure figure, treats her as such. But with a script in her hand, Vanda utterly becomes the chillingly elegant, aristocratic 19th-century European dominatrix in Thomas’s play.
As they enact erotically charged scenes from the play and quarrel about its gender implications, questions start to simmer: Is that an expression of unease on Thomas’s face, or a different emotion? Why does Vanda seem to know the play so well, even when the script is not in her hand, and to know so much about Thomas? How on earth is she able to glide so effortlessly back and forth between such radically different personae? All of a sudden, Thomas’s own persona is not so solid, and neither is his grip on power in a relationship that turns out to be loaded with switches and surprises.
Secrets and lives
Speaking of which: A young woman named Cheryl, portrayed by Condola Rashad in a Tony-nominated performance, gets a doozy of a surprise about her true identity in Cambridge playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly,’’ a drama about an affluent African-American family that takes place over a revelatory weekend in the family’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. (One of the stops along the way to Broadway for “Stick Fly’’ was the Huntington Theatre Company, where the play was produced in 2010 with a different cast.)
Cheryl is the daughter of the LeVay family’s longtime housekeeper, and on this weekend she is filling in for her mother, who is ailing. When Cheryl learns that her connection to the family is a lot closer than she knew, she is forced to recalibrate everything about her life: what her years of diligent study at a prestigious school add up to, whether and how her close bonds with the family’s two adult sons will be affected, and, most fundamentally, who she is.
A similar question confronts William Russell, an erudite, idealistic, Adlai Stevenson-like presidential candidate in “The Best Man,’’ a best revival nominee whose very title suggests the moral struggle that forms the spine of Vidal’s prescient 1960 drama. Russell, played by John Larroquette, has to decide whether a presidential nomination is worth abandoning his principles and employing blackmail against Joseph Cantwell, a venal, ruthless, Joe McCarthy-like opponent (played by Eric McCormack) whose election would be disastrous for the country.
It will require self-defining action — not just the words he so adeptly marshals against Cantwell — for Russell to resolve questions as relevant today as they were a half-century ago: What does it take, and what does it mean, to be the best man?
A presidency is one thing; a human being’s soul is another. Perhaps nowhere on Broadway this season was the struggle with identity fiercer, and were the consequences more dire, than in best-director nominee Mike Nichols’s production of “Death of a Salesman.’’ Nominated for best revival, it starred best actor nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman and wrapped up last weekend.
Willy has spent his life on the road, selling products he did not make, even though he has always been happiest working with his hands. “There’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made,’’ his older son, Biff (Tony nominee Andrew Garfield), remarks. But when Biff tells Willy that the family took a wrong turn — “We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or, or, carpenters!,’’ he says — Willy responds angrily: “Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter!’’
However, Biff has also turned his back on his own nature. He had found contentment, purpose, and meaning in the outdoors, working on ranches out West and in Texas, but now he has returned back East, driven by the same misguided definition of success that has consumed his father’s life. “Whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, ‘My God, I’m not getting anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, 28 dollars a week! I’m 34 years old; I ought to be making my future,’ ” he says. “That’s when I come running home.’’
What Biff finds when he gets home, eventually, is his true self. But it’s too late for Willy. Standing at his father’s grave, Biff delivers a kind of broken eulogy that doubles as a vow that the words he speaks will no longer apply to him: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. . . . He never knew who he was.’’