Paradoxical as it may seem, sometimes people who love the theater need to have their faith in the theater restored.
As a rule restoration of faith is seldom accomplished by actually going to the theater, though right now you can do so by going to see David Cromer's revelatory production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at Greenwich House. The play itself is a tribute to the power of the theater. This production displays that power by stripping it of the accumulated bric-a-brac of decades and rediscovering Wilder's intention -- to remind us of the wonder of life's simplest moments.
In general, however, to go to the theater these days is to be reminded of how parochial and amateurish it has become.
My own faith, burnished a week ago by Cromer's work, was totally restored last night at the Irene Sharaff Awards, an annual presentation sponsored by the Theater Development Fund to benefit its Costume Collection, which lends costumes to theaters all across the country.
Last night's ceremony was inspiring because it reminded us of the extraordinarily high standards consistently met by costume and set designers. I have often said that these designers rarely let us down -- they have such an understanding of their craft and they generally have thought about their work so deeply that the frame they provide for a play is usually immaculate.
Depth of craft or thought do not always apply to those who stand in front of the sets or inhabit the costumes.
The awards are named for Irene Sharaff, whose credits are -- to use a word that is ludicrously overused but is the only one here applicable -- awesome, going back to the 1937 "On Your Toes" and forward to such landmarks as "The King and I" (both on Broadway and in Hollywood) and the original "West Side Story."
Designer Suzy Benzinger produced a 20 minute film about Sharaff that reminded us of her staggering achievement. Tellingly, when she made her first visit to Paris, in the '20s, Sharaff visited the studio of Brancusi, a valuable stop for someone whose work would often have a monumental sculptural quality. Benzinger also included some of her original designs for "West Side Story" -- I was startled to see how her denim creations had Renaissance silhouettes, a witty reminder of the "source materials."
Benziger also had a hilarious anecdote about an afternoon that three of Sharaff's former assistants, some of the most eminent names in costume design, were all putting finishing touches on their work at the Barbara Matera Studio when they learned their former mentor was on her way there. They all instantly fled, a reminder that she was a difficult person but also of the unbelievable regard in which she was held.
As William Ivey Long, one of the honorees, put it, "Some of us are afraid to get up in the morning because the stakes are so high."
One of the honorees was Bob Crowley, who received the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design. He was introduced by director Jack O'Brien, who recalled meeting Crowley at the opening of the "Carousel" he designed for Lincoln Center Theater. "Bob and I, both being Irish, loathed each other at first sight," he quipped. "He thought I was cold, and I thought he was arrogant."
O'Brien also noted, "When it comes to the Irish, truth and integrity have nothing to do with it, but hyperbole helps." The two went on to many brilliant collaborations, including several Tom Stoppard plays.
Their banter is something I associate with the spirit of the theater. Alas, it seldom finds its way to theater award shows.
Willa Kim presented the Artisan Award to costume maker Sally Ann Parsons, whom she met 40 years ago. At that time Kim was designing costumes for a young choreographer named Eliot Feld. She came to Parsons with a new, unknown fabric called Lycra Spandex and was pleased that Parsons was as eager to see what it could do as she was.
The Young Master Award went to Clint Ramos. After the presentations the curtain at the Hudson Theater parted to reveal a stage full of the costumes of the various recipients, and I was delighted to see an elegant 18th century dress for a production of "Cosa Rara," the opera that is an "in-joke" in "Don Giovanni." It was amazing to realize somebody actually revived it and had the good sense to hire someone as resourceful and witty as Ramos to costume it.
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Long, whose sublime work has graced Broadway stages for more than three decades. Among the costumes on view onstage were the delicious dress he created for Harvey Fierstein in "Hairspray" and the miraculous see-through outfit he did for Anita Morris in the original "Nine."
His award was given to him by Jerry Zaks, who urged us not to be fooled by the way Long presents himself. "That preppy Southern gentleman look is a cover -- he's a good ol' boy."
What nearly brought me to tears was that Long had built a tree for the occasion, each leaf of which represented someone who had influenced him or who continues to help his work. I'm afraid the profound generosity implied in the tree -- I need not point out that, as gracious as the idea was, the execution was even moreso -- gives the lie to Zaks' assertion that William Ivey is not a man who could wear spats effortlessly. The tree proves that Long is not only a worthy successor to Sharaff but to that most patrician of theatrical designers, Oliver Smith.
I walked out into the harsh reality of Times Square warmed by a new appreciation of all the unseen and Herculean efforts that have been made every time a curtain goes up.