I had the pleasure of knowing Terrence McNally from his off-off-Broadway period. Because I worked free in those days, I played keyboard for the 1973 production of his play WHISKEY at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street. Kevin O’Connor directed. It was about a group of alcoholic country-western stars and their horse (Whiskey). Quite a cast for off-off: Charlotte Rae, Beeson Carroll, Susan Browning, and Michael Sacks. As I recall, there is a fire in the hotel and they all perish, except the horse. And there’s some suspicion that the horse set the fire.
Mostly I knew Terrence from our encounters at the Dramatists Guild Council. Being a member of the Council has been one of the thrills of my life. The group is made up of many of the leading playwrights, composers and lyricists of our time, and to be in the same room once a month figuring out ways to be useful to our colleagues offers an opportunity to see these folks doing work they love and believe in deeply. (I sometimes found myself sitting next to Edward Albee, who would occasionally mutter ironic commentary. Edward would sometimes be the lone dissenting voice on a vote, just because he was suspicious of anything that passed unanimously.)
I have two particular non-Guild memories:
In October 2001, not long after 9/11, I was in Chicago. My play, then titled IMMORAL IMPERATIVES (I’ve since given it what I think is a better title, STAY TILL MORNING), was running in an off-Loop theater where I was a resident writer. I heard Terrence was coming to town to participate in a production of the musical version of Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT (with a score by Kander and Ebb). I may be wrong about this, but I was under the impression that this was the first time he was going to work with a Chicago company. Though I live in New York, I’ve long identified myself as a Chicago playwright (most of my plays have been developed and premiered there), and I thought, as a self-appointed representative of the community it would be appropriate to invite Terrence to dinner. We met at a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. He was curious about the politics of the Chicago theater scene. I offered my opinion that Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, the Compass and Second City were the spark that started the movement. He talked a little about getting to know Elaine May when their double bill, ADAPTATION and NEXT, ran off-Broadway.
The meal over, I thought I’d show him some of the residential housing of the Ranch Triangle area of Old Town. It’s a neighborhood that never fails to charm me as I stroll past block after block of modest architectural delights. I couldn’t claim to be a close friend of Terrence’s, but he had lost someone close to him recently and he started to talk about coping with that and about the good the walk in this particular neighborhood was doing him. I felt the best thing I could do was shut up and listen.
We found ourselves near Second City. I suggested we go in so that he could see where a lot of our friends had started their careers. I showed him the photos of the various famous alumni when they were young. As we were standing in the lobby, a guy I knew a little as a pianist at Second City came over to say hi. He asked if we had plans for later that night. He had a little show that was being done in the small theater at Chicago Shakespeare and he would love it if we would be his guests. (I’m guessing he recognized Terrence.) Terrence quietly asked me if we wanted to see something by this guy, and I said, “I think he’s talented. Why not?” So we cabbed over to Chicago Shakes and watched a show called HAMLET, THE MUSICAL, featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. The conceit is that some second-rank forties songwriters made a musical out of HAMLET. Terrence and I laughed our asses off. After that, I dropped him at his hotel and I thought it had been a pretty damn perfect evening. (The composer of the show, by the way, was Jeff Richmond, who later wrote the musical version of MEAN GIRLS with his wife, Tina Fey.)
My other memory is a smaller one. For some reason, one evening (I can’t remember what year) I was walking west on West 23rd Street and looked through the window of a diner. Sitting at a table were Terrence and Wendy Wasserstein. They spotted me and waved me in, and the three of us spent an hour or so talking playwriting stuff. I remember thinking that it was cool to see celebrated colleagues hanging out. That was a lot of the romance of New York to me – the conversations over coffee with other people passionate about the same things. I didn’t know till way later, when I read Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy, that in fact Terrence and Wendy were dating at the time. Yes, we playwrights are real good observers of people.
Aside from the many fine plays he gave us, what I admired most about Terrence was his persistence. Through good fortune and bad, he kept writing, and he kept writing about what he wanted to write about. And he helped change the theater. When he started writing, he was writing about what the mainstream thought was fringe subject matter. By the end of his career, the mainstream had moved to him. He hadn’t compromised a millimeter.