NEW YORK — It is Christmas Day 2000 in Act 2 of Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties.’’ George W. Bush has just been named the victor in the contested presidential election, and Faye, played by Judith Light, absolutely cannot contain herself.
Not that we want her to, the uncontained Faye having proved so compulsively watchable in Act 1. Light’s Faye doesn’t just speak in italics; she lives in italics.
“Do you believe this new idiot?’’ Faye exclaims in a near-croak of incredulity, addressing her sister-in-law (Jessica Hecht) and a family friend (Jeremy Shamos) as she builds to a crescendo of comic indignation. “Is he depressing? I mean, the president of the United States? I’m starting to get nostalgic for his father. Who always felt to me like middle management in a fluffernutter factory, but I mean. What a way to start a century!’’
And what a way to steal a scene. Light — a Tony Award nominee for best featured actress in a play — does that a lot in “The Assembled Parties.’’ Likewise a small flock of other Tony nominees in the featured actor and actress categories, including Shalita Grant and Billy Magnussen in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ Condola Rashad in “The Trip to Bountiful,’’ Judith Ivey in “The Heiress,’’ and Carrie Coon in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’
Of course, the impact of some nominated performances in smaller roles stems mainly from a single showstopping number: Andrea Martin’s lusty, acrobatic rendition of “No Time at All,’’ an anthem to seizing the day, in “Pippin’’; Gabriel Ebert’s swaggering, Elvis-like turn in the spotlight as Mr. Wormwood in “Matilda the Musical,’’ singing “Telly,’’ an ode to the medium that made him the lunkhead he is today; Annaleigh Ashford’s marvelously rubber-faced performance, in “Kinky Boots,’’ of “The History of Wrong Guys,’’ in which a young shoe-factory worker suddenly realizes she has utterly lost her heart to her boss.
But this year’s Tonys, which will be televised Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 4, can be seen partly as a tribute to the stealthy art of scene-stealing. A longstanding tradition in the theater, it can be a way to launch, restart, or simply preserve an acting career. It’s the grandest of thefts, perpetrated nightly in front of hundreds of witnesses, sometimes by deploying nothing more lethal than an arched eyebrow, a cocked hip, or a slightly inflected line delivery.
However they pull off these heists, the fact is it’s often the actors in supporting roles whom we’re buzzing about after the performance, on our way up the aisle — not the leading men and ladies they’ve just upstaged.
I’ll wager that Grant and Magnussen, who pilfer scene after scene in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ generate a lot more post-show audience chatter than the comedy’s two best-known stars, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce — his lead-actor Tony nomination notwithstanding.
Grant, a 2010 Juilliard School graduate who appeared last year in Kirsten Greenidge’s “The Luck of the Irish’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company, delivers a remarkably inventive performance in her Broadway debut. She plays Cassandra, a maid who insists she has psychic powers. To her despondent 50-something employers, Vanya (Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), that seems like a dubious claim.
When Cassandra is struck by one of her “visions,’’ Grant executes a little ballet of convulsion: first reeling, then stiffening, as if she has just run into a cosmic door frame. This unnerves Vanya and Sonia but tickles those of us in the audience. When Cassandra delivers one of her prophecies, which range from the ominous (“Portents of dismay and calamity yawn beneath the yonder cliff’’) to the baffling (“Beware of Hootie Pie!’’), Grant skillfully parodies the classical locution of doom-ridden Greek tragedy, then turns on a dime and transitions back to everyday speech. And when Cassandra sticks a pin in a Snow White doll that represents Weaver’s haughty Masha, and Masha howls in pain, the expression of surprised gratification on Grant’s face is priceless. Cassandra’s not done wielding that pin.
Magnussen’s Spike also occupies a world of his own, one in which every other character functions as a mirror to his narcissism. The birdbrained boy toy to movie star Masha, Spike is an actor who “was almost cast in the sequel to ‘Entourage,’ ’’ Masha says. Spike seems camera-ready, all right: He parades about for stretches of the play in nothing but underpants, the better to show off his six-pack abs, which Magnussen ripples like a Chippendales dancer. When Masha asks him to put his clothes back on, Spike takes it as an invitation to do a “reverse strip-tease,’’ enacted with a hilarious combination of lewdness and sincerity.
For all his randy ways, groping Masha and playfully twisting the nipple of a transfixed Vanya, Spike wins us over because Magnussen turns the character’s vanity into an exuberant celebration of youth and life in the face of middle-aged ennui. When Vanya asks Sonia, “Why does he take his clothes off so much?’’ and Sonia wails in reply, “Because he can!,’’ the unspoken response of many in the audience is likely to be: Well, exactly. (It’s as if Spike is the non-thinking man’s version of the principle enunciated by the late Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,’’ her 2006 collection of essays: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.’’)
If over-the-top physical comedy is key to Grant and Magnussen’s scene-stealing in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ a subtler form of larceny was performed by stage veteran Judith Ivey in “The Heiress,’’ which closed in February on Broadway. The role of Catherine, the shy and repressed heiress of the title, was played by Jessica Chastain, while Ivey portrayed Lavinia, Catherine’s seemingly-obtuse-but-maybe-not aunt. Chastain could not have been a hotter commodity — “Zero Dark Thirty’’ had just been released — but that didn’t matter inside the Walter Kerr Theatre, where Ivey walked away with every scene they shared.
She did so in small ways that had to do with hard-won craft and masterly timing — and, crucially, in ways that fit the character. So Ivey’s Lavinia would pause hesitantly midsentence, as if unsure what to say or whether to say it, or give forth a little laugh that could have signaled either befuddlement or delight. (Ivey forced the audience to figure out which.) She sometimes lingered over a phrase in a way that suggested worlds of meaning; two simple words, “Oh dear,’’ seemed to signal not just momentary alarm but an old-fashioned society matron’s deep-seated dismay at what she views as a tear in the social fabric.
Speaking of coming apart at the seams: The Steppenwolf Theatre Company revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’’ which closed in March, featured an unforgettable performance by Carrie Coon, making her Broadway debut in the role of Honey, one half of the married couple who rashly agree to an evening in the lion’s den presided over by George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton).
Coon steered clear of the cloying sentimentality that Sandy Dennis brought to the film version, while negotiating one of the toughest challenges for any actor: to make inebriation genuinely funny. To me, though, the most impressive aspect of Coon’s performance was the aura of unpredictability she brought to a character whom Martha describes as “a mousey little type,’’ and who is often played that way. There were times when her unhinged Honey seemed like the most out-of-control person in the room — which is saying something in a drama whose central couple stop at nothing as they tear each other to shreds.
In Horton Foote’s much quieter “The Trip to Bountiful,’’ Condola Rashad is suitably understated yet still radiant in her portrayal of Thelma, who briefly becomes the traveling companion of Cicely Tyson’s Carrie Watts, an elderly woman determined to reach her tiny, long-ago hometown. Not that Rashad upstages Tyson. Their scenes together are lovely, but no one upstages Tyson.
Rashad’s subtle scene-stealing comes when Carrie’s son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) loudly quarrel about the runaway Carrie in a crowded bus station, where they’re looking for her. But the bickering pair are just background noise as far as the audience is concerned, because our attention is focused on Rashad. We see in her expressive eyes Thelma’s decision not to betray Carrie.
Whether it involves a small, wordless moment like that or a fiery monologue, there has been so much thievery on Broadway stages this season that every single nominee for best featured actress in a play — Light, Grant, Rashad, Ivey, Coon — is guilty of it (happily for us, the innocent and grateful bystanders). One of them will walk away with a Tony Sunday night.
Sometimes crime does pay.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.