Gartshore, with fellow award winner Erin Driscoll, in Urinetown

“He has the most unusual bellybutton I’ve ever seen.”

That’s the first quote in my Helen Hayes Awards notebook, courtesy of a black-tied theater booster at the fancy-schmancy Governors’ Reception before the gala. So, um, no, the chitchat among D.C.’s theatergoing faithful doesn’t invariably rise to the level of marivaudage.

But whether it was the singularity of Will Gartshore‘s navel (for his was the anatomy at issue) or some slightly higher-browed ineffability that intoxicated the judges at Washington’s annual theater-awards bash, the observation turned out to be presciently on-topic: Gartshore—and Urinetown, the Signature Theatre smash during which patrons had ample opportunity to inspect his oft-bared torso—cleaned up last night at the Warner Theatre, taking home eight trophies, including the one for Outstanding Resident Musical.

And Gartshore, when he stepped up to accept the lead-actor award, had a crack at the ready: “I was going to wear a rip-away tux, but it was just gonna be too much work.”

In the last couple of years, the Helen Hayes gala has transformed itself into a fast-moving affair—and thank God. Back when it was still held at the Kennedy Center, the ceremony ballooned year after year until it became an endless wankfest followed by a rushed party: Attendees would suffer through ass-numbing hours of god-awful presenter banter and rambling acceptance blather, then herd themselves upstairs to the atrium for a hurried drink and a handful of snacky bits before the KenCen’s unionized catering Nazis shut down the party at the stroke of 12:30.

No more. Relocated to the Warner with an afterparty at the J.W. Marriott, it’s now a streamlined two-hour show (written this year by oft-nominated playwright Norman Allen) followed by a four-hour revel complete with fancy eats and an open bar. Much more fun. And, um, more colorful. As a group, it turns out, actors like their liquor.

So the bellybutton business was hardly last night’s only left-field moment:

  • There was the bright young artistic-director thing who turned to a companion, startled, and asked, “Isn’t that Condoleezza Rice?”—only to realize immediately that no, it was the equally chic D.C. actress Lynn Chavis. (No, dear, “they” do not all look alike. Just teasing. Love you. Mean it.)
  • “I’m going to the ladies’ to pull my right cheek down,” said the fetching young actress. She paused a moment, though, to explain the provenance of the beaded gown that was causing the underwear emergency: Loehmann’s, $35. She’d bought two, cut up the spare to make a cute little matching drawstring bag.
  • “Who did Howard’s hair this evening?” asked an actor who couldn’t possibly be named. Because although Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz is probably the least vain theater person on the planet, and he probably wouldn’t care, his hair did in fact have an odd, triangular, Bozo-the-clown thing going on. Which made it all the more fun when he accepted the prize for Outstanding Resident Play (Woolly’s The Clean House shared the honor with Studio Theatre’s Take Me Out).
  • Do what you will, there will always be wardrobe drama, as the redhead and the brunette discovered when they found themselves face to face in the identical green dress from BCBG. There was, to their credit, no audible wailing.

Other random observations:

  • Do not have a dream. In general, it cannot be the wisest thing, in the midst of a rambling acceptance speech that has already acknowledged everyone from the author to the auteur responsible for your character’s fabulous pink shoes, to confess, “Oh, I’m talking too much”—and then to move on, after a pregnant pause, to begin a new paragraph with the observation, “I had a dream….” Franca Barchiesi did precisely this, accepting the supporting-actress award for The Clean House, but somehow on her it was charming. (Though behind her, presenters Chan McQuay and Peggy Yates did fall dramatically into each other’s arms, pretending to weep with fatigue.)
  • What’s a critic gotta do to get despised in this town? Washington Post reviewer Peter Marks and the City Paper‘s own Bob Mondello came in for a musical ribbing at last night’s bash. (It was host Brad Oscar, late of Broadway’s The Producers and Arena Stage’s Damn Yankees, throwing the elbows to the tune of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”: the critics “miss every time,” went the rhyme line. Me, I’m apparently not loathed widely enough to merit a mention. Makes me sympathize with the folks who went home without trophies. (Note to self: Be meaner.)
  • An awards show’s more amusing when winners bite the hand holding the trophy. Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman did just that last year when she took the Post to the woodshed for its theater coverage—while accepting a Post-sponsored award for innovative leadership. At least Zinoman did what she could to keep things lively this year, lamenting director Kirk Jackson‘s decision not to audition hopefuls for Take Me Out (and its multiple shower scenes) in the nude. “This is some small consolation,” Zinoman said, accepting the best-resident-play award, “for missing those 200 naked actors.”