Terrence McNally Documentary on AMERICAN MASTERS

Having been involved in NY theatre since 1967, watching Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life stirred up decades of memories. Some of them involve Terrence. I can’t claim to be a close friend, but he and his work have been a constant presence for decades.

He probably doesn’t remember it, but I played organ for the off-off-Broadway production of his play about alcoholic country-western singers, Whiskey at St. Clement’s.

The first show I ever saw at Yale Rep was a play of his called The Tubs which featured my Second City friend Anthony Holland. It was set in a gay bath house and, though it had funny passages, it was a fairly somber play about isolation. Terrence subsequently rewrote it as a flat-out farce, The Ritz. (Robert Brustein, the producer at Yale at the time, harrumphed at its transformation into something more audience-friendly.)

I was at a playwrights conference in North Carolina when a draft of (I think) the first act of Love! Valour! Compassion! was first read. Even that early taste suggested it would be a major play.

One night, I found myself passing a diner on West 23rd Street and saw him and Wendy Wasserstein through the window. I waved, and they signaled I should come in and join them. We talked theatre, of course. I thought, “Isn’t that cool, big-deal playwrights still shmooze and debate over coffee!” I had no sense they were involved. (I didn’t learn that until I read the biography of Wendy. According to that, Terrence was game to go public with their relationship, but Wendy was not.)

In 2001, Terrence and I were both in Chicago putting up new plays. I seem to remember that at the time he hadn’t had much experience with the town, so, since I consider myself a Chicago boy, I thought it would be appropriate to invite him to dinner at the Four Farthings and give him a little background about the history of the theatre scene there. After dinner, we walked south through the Triangle neighborhood and ended up in the lobby of Second City, which I thought might be meaningful to him given his connection with Elaine May. (You may remember I wrote a book about the history of Second City called Something Wonderful Right Away.) We ran into a guy there who invited us to a musical he had written; it was being given a performance late that night in the studio theatre at Chicago Shakespeare. Under his breath, Terrence asked me if we actually wanted to do that, and I told him I knew the guy as a pianist for Second City and thought he was talented. So we went to see what was later titled Melancholy Baby, a show about second-rate Broadway songwriters trying to make a musical out of Hamlet featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. We laughed our asses off. The guy who invited us was Jeff Richmond, who, with his wife, Tina Fey, later wrote the musical Mean Girls.

Otherwise, it’s been mostly friendly hellos as we run into each other in the theatre, and the occasional email of congratulations.

The film, which will shortly run on the American Masters series, is filled with images of friends and lovers and the community it’s a treat to be a part of. Some of it is a little painful to watch. There’s Marin Mazzie talking about working with Terrence on Ragtime, and I think of the last time I saw her, which was in the lobby of CSC after her performance in a play by Terrence called Fire and Air. She radiated joy (as usual) and we talked briefly about a project that we’d been kicking around doing together. I was blind-sided by her death. In retrospect, I think she knew that it was the last conversation we would have.

There’s also a clip of Terrence sharing a stage on a panel with Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson, both friends and both gone (and both in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing).

“Jesu, the days that we have seen.” “No more of that, Master Shallow.”

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Uptown/Downtown

There is a kind of civil war going on on Broadway this season. On one side are the traditional and established parties–the commercial producers, the movie companies, the establishment non-profits that account for the bulk of the productions mounted each year. Call them the uptown gang. On the other side are the more unruly types who are frequently more political and edgier and who are used to working on small stages in remote corners of the city. The downtown gang.

The chief rivals for Best Play are The Ferryman–a three-act blockbuster Broadway production with a company of 35–and What the Constitution Means to Me–a 90-minute piece featuring three performers that is less a traditional play than an autobiographic monologue with contributions from two additional actors. Though I have my reservations about The Ferryman (it includes practically every trope that has ever appeared in an Irish play), it nevertheless has a gallery of engaging characters and a compelling story. It is a marvelous construction that holds an audience utterly captive for more than three hours. Uptown producing on a high level. Constitution speaks directly to our moment, requiring the audience to seriously consider if the foundational document of our country is in need of reform or complete overhaul. Totally downtown.

Constitution played the New York Theatre Workshop before coming to Broadway. So did Hadestown, the downtown entry for Best Musical. My hunch is that its chief competition is an accomplished stage adaptation of the classic movie comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is filled to overflowing with funny lines, bouncy songs, and big performances in the old Broadway tradition.

All of the nominated revivals of straight plays are from managements with long histories on Broadway.

But the two shows nominated for Best Revival of a Musical offer a study in contrasts. Kiss Me, Kate has been modestly revised for a contemporary audience (the lyric that from Shakespeare that began, “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is now “I am ashamed that people are so simple), but it is securely within the tradition of previous stagings. The Oklahoma! directed by Daniel Fish looks like no production of it you’ve ever seen. It is staged in three-quarters with the playing area defined by picnic tables, the orchestra has been replaced by a country-western band, and no effort is made to invoke the period in which the story is set. Instead, Curly often plugs in a guitar to sing, and use is made of video when the stage is thrown into darkness for the smokehouse scene. The original production of Oklahoma! opened during World War II and was meant to remind the audience of the values Americans were fighting for–neighborliness, true love, picnics. This production suggests that there was a lot of violence and hypocrisy not openly acknowledged in the story. The show’s putative hero turns out to be a killer and the cheerful neighbors choose to be accessories. A downtown perspective if there ever was one.

I’m betting that at least two out of the three cases, the downtown gang will prevail. It’s not just that the shows themselves are bracing and refreshing, it’s that the voters have largely grown up in a theatre that was transformed by the downtown artists that began revolutions in the Sixties and continued to define themselves in opposition to traditional Broadway-style productions. We see this in other productions. Gary is a downtown play with an uptown budget and Sam Gold’s take on King Lear is meant to challenge traditional stagings not only in casting women in what are usually male roles but in its aggressive anachronisms.

I don’t have a concluding sentence. Do I need one?

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Patterns

Maybe one of the differences between a blog entry and an essay is that an essay should be a shapely, elegant composition.  With, you know, a structure, a build. The final sentence should give the reader a sense of arriving at a destination. A blog–as I see it–can be jottings of things that occur to you without much development or elaboration.

So here are a couple of things that occur to me about this season:

Shakespeare. In Be More Chill, a high school is putting on a post-apocalyptic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Tootsie, the project Dorothy Michaels is cast in is a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Gary is a sequel to Titus Andronicus. I have still to see Tootsie and Gary (I’ve heard good things about both), but do you think maybe, after this season, we can give the fucking around with Shakespeare joke a rest for a little while?  (Notice that I’m not mentioning Kiss Me, Kate because it’s a revival.)

Lanford Wilson’s Burn This and Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. An emotionally-withdrawn woman finds herself besieged by a volcanically emotional guy who can cook and they have great sex while the woman tries to figure out what she really wants. Both plays. They both premiered in 1987, they both were revived in 2002, and now both are playing on Broadway. I must say I was especially moved by the note in the Burn This program by McNally.

If this were an essay I would go on. It’s not an essay.

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Bad Behavior

Richard in Richard III is intended to be a villain. Shakespeare paints him as evil on legs. And yet, we get impatient when he’s off the stage. Clarence has a long speech filled with poetry. Yes, yes, beautiful, but could you wrap it up and bring the monstrous brother on again? Richard’s treatment of the women in the play? Appalling. And clearly Shakespeare expected the perverse members of the audience to enjoy it. Richard seduces Anne, the widow of a man he has killed. Once she is gone, he marvels at how credulous she is. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience usually laughs.

The audience frequently laughs with Iago, too. I remember seeing a production of Othello with Christopher Walken in the role. Walken quickly made common cause with the audience as if to say, “The rules these others are playing by are so square. We’re hipper than that, aren’t we? We’re modern.” On some level, he suggested that Othello and Desdemona deserve what they get because they believe in such dated crap as fidelity and honor. Again appalling. But how many times have you see a production in which Iago hasn’t run off with the evening?

One of my favorite Restoration comedies is William Congreve’s The Double-Dealer, which begins (like Richard III) with the villain, the well-named Maskwell, addressing the audience with a frank confession of his villainy and his intention to screw over everybody in the play. Ultimately he is thwarted, but he has a long run of doing damage to the more virtuous people onstage, and his hypocrisy and cynicism are both horrifyng and funny. And appalling yet again.

Taking this to modern drama, we have Stanley in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the things that reportedly dismayed Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy was that some in the audience quite evidently were on Stanley’s side in taking down Blanche. John Osborne took it a step farther. When he wrote what I believe is his response to Streetcar, Look Back in Anger, he clearly meant for our sympathies to be with the abusive Jimmy Porter. Yes, he behaves badly, but underneath he is honest, sensitive, and that makes up for so many petty failings.  Right?

A few dramatists took early shots at these guys.  The Wheelhouse Theater company recently revived Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which was an attack on the Hemingway model of masculinity. The original production in 1970 did well enough (well enough to be made into an obscure film starring Rod Steiger) but the play itself was largely forgotten until Wheelhouse gave it an efficient staging. I have always found the script to be a little too self-conscious, but there’s no denying that Vonnegut was early to arrive at laughing at this kind of guy rather than with him. Another notable critique of the rogue male came a year later c/o Jules Feiffer’s script for the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge (it was originally written as a play; director Mike Nichols decided to take it straight to the screen), in which that cinematic personification of the rogue male, Jack Nicholson, ultimately can only get it up in the last scene if the hooker played by Rita Moreno engages him in fantasy games.

I find it intriguing that 48 years later, Feiffer’s daughter, Halley, has created her own spin on the rogue male and why a smart woman (one who writes for The New Yorker!) would fall for him in a play called The Pain of My Own Belligerence. (I note that Halley’s gifted mother, Jenny Allen, actually does write for The New Yorker.) The character Hamish Linklater plays, Guy, is even more radioactively alarming than the one Nicholson played, openly copping to his own sociopathology. Halley stars as Cat, the target of Guy’s attentions. The first of the play’s three scenes is a marvel of writing and playing, a dance of advances, retreats, mock punches and real bites. Clearly, Halley doesn’t think much progress has been made in the half century since her father first explored the topic. (The rest of the play is also strong, if a shade less intense.)

There are a few non-toxic men onstage this season. Atticus Finch, for one (in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Give me a few minutes and I probably can come up with a few others. OK, I liked some of the guys in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (though the villain is a nasty piece of work). As for the two leading sort-of sympathetic male figures in the stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, one is a raving lunatic and the other is pathetically chasing his fading youth in an adulterous affair.

The truth is, we seem to be at a point when figures of masculine virtue in serious drama are pretty rare. The husband of the character Tyne Daly played in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is a menacing brute. The head of the halfway house in which Marin Ireland’s character takes shelter in Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge is a hypocrite abusing his position of authority. The rich art collector played by Alan Cumming in Jeremy O. Harris’s Daddy is a charming predator. And the people responsible for the faltering organizing document of our country, as described in Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, were a batch of propertied white guys who owned slaves. (I have still to see the stage versions of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton in Ink and Hillary and Clinton.)

Hell, even the title character in Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates–a classic heroic figure if there ever was one–is oblivious to the needs of his wife and family.

But maybe all of this isn’t surprising given the unappetizing lump in the Oval Office. Ya think?

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Wandering Through History

Sometimes I think of the past as a huge black box, and any time you read a book of history or a biography or a historical novel it’s like shining a concentrated beam of light through that darkness, briefly bringing to light what is in its path. Other beams may come from a movie or play or TV series.

Lately I have been having fun reading simultaneously two books that take place within years of each other. Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch, concerns a group of Jewish kids growing up on Chicago’s west side in the Twenties and facing early adulthood in the Thirties. I’ve also been reading Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd stories, a series of 11 novels concerning the illegitimate son of a New England munitions manufacturer who is raised in Europe by his free-spirited mother and, because he becomes an art dealer, has access to many of the leading political and cultural figures of the time. In the book I’m reading now, A World to Win, Lanny is continuing to pretend to vaguely right-wing sympathies so that he can report back to FDR what is going on in those circles. In The Old Bunch, the characters talk about what an anti-Semitic bastard Henry Ford is (Ford was still very much alive when the book came out); in World, Lanny meets Ford to take his measure for FDR. In The Old Bunch, the gang deals with the effects of the Depression on their personal lives and businesses. In the Lanny Budd books, Sinclair offers a view of how the Depression disrupts Europe and hastens WWII.

These books can’t help but bounce off my memory of Voices of Protest, Alan Brinkley’s double portrait of Father Coughlin and Huey Long. (Lanny meets Coughlin in one of Sinclair’s novels.) And, of course, reading about Coughlin and Long can’t help but remind me of the thug in the White House, who similarly used populism to accrue power. (Long may have ultimately been something of a gangster, but you have to credit him with having built schools, hospitals and roads that brought Louisiana into the twentieth century. A crook, yes, but he left a legacy of having done more of value than most of the other southern governors.)

Netflix has also been offering some unconventional views of history. I am a big fan of Babylon Berlin, a German series set in Berlin in 1929 which throws together Stalinists, Trotskyites, gangsters and the early stirrings of the Nazis to make an intoxicatingly toxic brew. Since most of Berlin was destroyed during WWII, the show is a recreation of the city that had to be researched in old books, newsreels and photos. (I wrote a play at the end of the war called Berlin ‘45. When I thought vaguely of flying over to look around, a friend familiar with the town said, “Why? You won’t see anything there left of the world you’re writing about.”) It’s a world Lanny would have known well. In fact, when in Berlin Lanny usually stays in the Hotel Adlon, which I could picture with some specificity having seen a very good German 2016 miniseries (available on Amazon streaming) called, yes, Hotel Adlon.

Another Netflix offering I’ve started watching is a new British series called Traitors. It is about a young woman with Tory sympathies (played by Emma Appleton) who is manipulated into spying on the British government for a rogue American agent (Michael Stuhlbarg). The story has its share of intrigue and murders, but I’m most taken with the vivid picture of post-war Britain, particularly the split between the Tories–shocked that Winston Churchill was thrown out of office as the war was ending–and Labour supporters, the non-aristocratic people who hope postwar politics will actually do something by way of housing, education and health. These impressions in turn link up with the comedies Ealing Studios put up which focused on how a lot of the common people copes with scarcity and change.

And then I start thinking about John Osborne and Jimmy Porter and Suez and the arrival of the Beyond the Fringe gang and John le Carré and the Beatles and … The associations don’t end.  The various stories insist on chattering in an endless dialogue in my head.

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Icons of the Fifties–Bruce and Holliday

On successive nights I saw shows about two entertainment icons of the 1950s. Neither quite worked, but seeing them in succession triggered a few thoughts.

I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is by Ronnie Marmo and features him as the groundbreaking comic, and Smart Blonde by Willy Holtzman is a 90-minute survey of the life of Judy Holliday. What struck me about them is they were both Jewish entertainers who changed their names (from Schneider and Tuvim, respectively), came into conflict with toxic aspects of American society and died young. (Bruce died at 41 in 1966; Holliday died at 43 in 1965.) Bruce had famous battles with law enforcement who kept tossing him into jail for his use of what were then deemed obscenities in his act. Holliday had a scary run-in with the House Committee on Un-America Activities (HUAC) that threatened to damage her career.

Smart Blonde is a bit more effective because, though sketchy, the script makes some attempt to provide a context for her political troubles. I have a hunch, though, that someone not already familiar with Bruce’s story would be puzzled by I’m Not a Comedian and would wonder why this guy was supposed to be a big deal. Marmo does a solid job performing some of the better-known routines, but the society he was rebelling against is barely characterized. Julian Berry’s play Lenny and the film Bob Fosse derived from it surrounded Bruce with representations of the people and the institutions he was challenging. Without something to dramatize the repression he battled, Bruce in Marmo’s play is turned into a shadow-boxer, throwing punches but not connecting with much.

The best part about Smart Blonde is watching Andréa Burns evoke something of the spirit of Judy Holliday. It’s not exactly an impersonation, but it is close enough to provide some of the pleasures those of us who grew with Holliday remember. My Google search offered news that a film version is in the works that would star Annaleigh Ashford, and I bet she’ll be swell, too. Onstage, all the supporting characters are played by three people calling themselves but rarely having the time or material to evoke figures like Harry Cohn, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein and Gerry Mulligan. Presumably the screen will handle this better.

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Life Sucks

Once upon a time, when a musical opened on Broadway, it was common for a combo to release an LP (everybody remember what an LP is?) of jazz impressions of the score. Shelley Manne released Jazz Performances of Songs from Li’l Abner. Bobby Hackett released The Swingin’est Gals in Town featuring his takes on songs from Sweet Charity and Mame. And there were uncounted jazz explorations of West Side Story. The songs on these albums were recognizable – the basic tunes and the chords were there – but the tracks offered hip, colloquial transformations garnished with improvisations.

Life Sucks strikes me as the jazz album version of Uncle Vanya. Again, the basic tunes and structure are there, but playwright Aaron Posner has updated and reshaped the material to include meta-theatrical flourishes and contemporary riffs on themes that Chekhov dealt with in the original.

Generally, I get cranky with post-modern messing with the classics. Classics are classic for a reason, and they usually don’t need lesser contemporary talents to attempt to improve them. (Almost any contemporary talent compared to Chekhov is lesser.) But Posner isn’t trying to displace Uncle Vanya (which his actors addressing the audience in a prologue acknowledge is the better play), but engage many of the same concerns Chekhov did embracing contemporary language, which alternates between the frequent use of “fucking” as a modifier with genuinely expressive passages.

The best-known actor here is Austin Pendleton, playing the aging professor. Coming on the heels of his performance in Broadway’s Choir Boy, his off-Broadway direction of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, I can’t help but wonder if he ever has a moment to himself to draw breath. At any rate, as someone who has watched Pendleton since his days with ACT and the original production of Fiddler on the Roof,  this strikes me as a high point in an astonishing career.

Also striking is Nadia Bowers as Ella, the professor’s wife, and the object of interest by much of the rest of the dramatis personae. At one point, breaking the fourth wall, she attempts to take a poll of how many in the audience would want to sleep with her. This reads more as an expression of her sense of exasperation than a desire to provoke. I prefer Posner’s version of this character to Chekhov’s. Certainly Ella is more assertive and funnier than Yelena, who has always tried my patience a little.

The rest of the cast (mostly people I can’t remember encountering before) is on the very high level Pendleton and Bowers set. Jeff Wise’s direction is among the season’s best.

Life Sucks is produced by the Wheelhouse Theater Company and is running at the Wild Project at 193 East 3rd St.

 

 

 

 

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