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Jeremy Piven fight for Tony Award goes to round two

March 26, 2009 | 11:25 am

Three-time Emmy Award winner Jeremy Piven ("Entourage") is being brought before an arbitrator who will decide whether the actor owes damages to the Broadway producers of "Speed-the-Plow" for his abrupt departure from the hit show in December. Piven said he left because of fatigue brought on by high levels of mercury in his bloodstream. And the reason given for these elevated levels? His sushi addiction. As the play's author, David Mamet, acidly remarked at the time, "My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."

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At the first hearing on this matter in mid-February, Jeremy Piven won over the five actors in attendance with his tale of woe while the five producing representatives remained unconvinced. Now the producers of the show just need to win over one man, arbitrator George Nicolau. The producers did minimize their losses as Piven's replacements — first Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") and then Emmy winner William H. Macy — proved to be good draws. The show closed as scheduled in late February having turned a profit.

While Piven may ultimately avoid any financial payout to the producers, his actions have probably cost him a Tony Award nod. Piven was a frontrunner for lead actor in a play. For his Broadway debut as Bobby, one of a pair of Hollywood hustlers, in "Speed-the-Plow," he earned rave reviews when the play opened Oct. 22. Jeremy Piven costarred opposite perennial Tony nominee Raul Esparza, as Charlie, and another Broadway newcomer, Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men"), who played their secretary, Karen. Ironically, the arbitration begins the day after the June 7 kudocast.

Raul Esparza, who has struck out in three different Tony Award categories — featured actor in a play ("The Homecoming," 2008), lead actor in a musical ("Company," 2007) and featured actor in a musical ("Taboo," 2004) — could be rewarded by the theater community for adapting his performance to those two successive replacements for Piven. Ron Silver, who originated Esparza's role in 1988, won a Tony for  lead actor in a play. While his costar Joe Mantegna (in Piven's part) did not get a Tony nod, they did compete for the Drama Desk kudos, where Silver prevailed. Alas, Madonna, the poorly reviewed third side of that original lopsided triangle, had to make do with being grateful that there was no theater equivalent to moviedom's Razzie Awards.

Twenty years ago, "Speed-the-Plow" lost the Tony Award race for best play to David Henry Hwang's gender-bending "M. Butterfly." This season, three Tony best play winners have been revived with mixed results: "All My Sons" (1947), "A Man for All Seasons" (1962) and "Equus" (1975). The Noel Coward comedy classic "Blithe Spirit" recently opened to respectable notices while "Waiting for Godot" is doing just that in the wings. Therefore, there should be room in the best revival race for this well-received production. Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross" won that Tony Award in 2005.

For Ben Brantley of the New York Times: "Mr. Piven has the pivotal role, and he executes it with uncanny grace and intelligence." And Elysa Gardner of USA Today thought, "Jeremy Piven's Bobby is softer-textured but also more disturbing than the showbiz animal he plays on 'Entourage'; we see the anxiety and flickers of good intentions underlying his cool arrogance." Michael Kuchwara of the  Associated Press found that "Piven's Bobby is the play's moral center, or at least, the one person on stage who has qualms about what is happening and doesn't quite know what to do about it. The actor has perfected the persona of bad-little-boy-lost and wears the snarling bewilderment here with considerable expertise." And Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News also lauded him: "Piven is an excellent foil. While downplaying the loudmouthed, sharklike behavior we've seen from him on 'Entourage,' he shows Gould's power-mad side as well as the vulnerability that gradually becomes more apparent."

Whether this latest chapter in the ongoing saga will affect Piven's long-term award prospects remains open for debate. At January's Golden Globe Awards, he lost his supporting actor bid for "Entourage" though he had taken the award the previous year. Piven has won the last three consecutive comedy series supporting actor Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the manic Ari Gold.

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Photo: Ethel Barrymore Theatre

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Geoffrey Rush is now the strong frontrunner for best leading actor in a play. Exit the King has a shot at Best Revival too but there are others yet to be seen- Godot, Desire under the Elms and Joe Turner, maybe more


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