David Usborne: Our Man In New York

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Officially, the 2006 season on Broadway ended this weekend. Most observers say it was the most successful ever in box office terms.

Stuff Happens by David Hare I have seen, and The History Boys is next on my list. For flops, look no further than Lestat, a musical based on the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice with music by Elton John. It closed last night after 39 performances - a humiliation, by anyone's standards.

So today is Memorial Day, which means summer is here for real. Theatres don't just go dark, of course. Those with decent shows will hope to keep packing them in until autumn and beyond. Yet, it is still a time for reflection on achievements past. In other words, the next big event on Broadway is the Tony Awards next month. Alan Bennett will surely win something and the evening will be broadcast nationwide.

The Tony's may be among the biggest of them, but awards nights are a bit of a New York speciality. The scene is usually the same: a cavernous ballroom in the Hilton, Sheraton or Waldorf, a tuxedo that doesn't fit any more, Sarah-Jessica Parker, or someone, uttering kindnesses about the organisers, until finally the honoree arrives at the microphone and thanks us for all the fuss.

Things last Thursday night followed something of the same pattern - cocktail, dinner and serial speeches - but in most other respects were pleasingly different. I began to relax when the master of ceremonies summoned a white-haired comedian from Glasgow to the podium to offer the night's first toast and proudly introduced him as Billy Connolls. (Mr Connolly didn't so much as blink.) The best came much later, however, when Natasha Richardson hurried me into a side room to share a cigarette while loudly announcing to anyone who cared to wonder that we were leaving for a bit of sex.

Nor were we in a hotel but rather at 229 West 43rd Street, otherwise known as the New York Times building.

We were ushered first to the 14th floor entertainment lounge with westward views of midtown Manhattan before the call was made to descend three floors to what I assume was the editors' dining room, which curiously had the whiff and decor of a sad seaside hotel in Hove or Worthing.

This was a night that had clearly been designed to avoid the pretentious and swank - no red carpets or paparazzi - in favour of intimate and cosy. They had managed to make it an occasion for friends and family too. Aside from Natasha, her husband Liam Neeson was there and so was Lynn, the sister of the night's star, whose name, of course, was Vanessa Redgrave. Billy said it: "The reason I am here is not for her Oscars, for her Julia or her charges of the light brigades. I am here because I like Vanessa."

It was Lynn who was most recently on stage in New York, playing Lady Bracknell at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For Vanessa we must wait a few more months. Early next year, she plans to appear on Broadway in a solo piece based on Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. So there was no Tony for Vanessa on Thursday but a prize more obscure but arguably more personally satisfying: The Lee Strasberg Artistic Achievement Award. Those who have previously received it are Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and, last year, Johnny Depp.

The late Lee Strasberg, who founded the Actors' Studio in New York, remains a figure widely revered in the industry. In the family spirit of the evening, Lee's daughter, Anna Strasberg, was among those at Vanessa's table.

A night with Vanessa can't pass without a few allusions to her far-left politics. "I was extremely conservative as a young girl," she subsequently informed us, "and my father got extremely worried." This was conservative, of course, with a small 'c' and referred, she explained, to her affection for heavy red curtains when she went to the theatre as well as extravagant period costumes and expensive scenery.

The medicine prescribed by Michael Redgrave was to dispatch his daughter first to watch a relentlessly spare production of Richard II at Stratford East in London and thence to New York to see how things were done at a fledgling institution dedicated to the actor's craft known, of course, as the Actor's Studio. "I realised then there was another world out there of exploring theatre," she said.

And thus, with Vanessa's almost poetically appropriate recollections, ended an awards night blessedly removed from most others in New York. And lest there be any confusion, no inappropriate relations of any kind were committed in the secret smoking room. Aside from anything else, Liam was just down the corridor and he is a lot bigger than me.