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‘Carnal Knowledge'--the Play : Jules Feiffer Revives the Stage Version of His Tale of Casual Sex and Boredom

In 1969, Jules Feiffer wrote a play. Its premise was that men really don’t like women. He showed it to Mike Nichols, famous director by trade.

“He loved it and said, ‘I want to do it, but I think it’s a movie, not a play.’ ” Feiffer said.

Two years later, it was a movie, “Carnal Knowledge,” a controversial tale of casual sex, desperate boredom and a certain amount of nasty. It starred Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel and Ann-Margret.

“Carnal Knowledge” is a play again. With Gregory Harrison, Marilu Henner and David Marshall Grant starring, it opens tonight at the Pasadena Playhouse. It comes preceded by what you might call Pasadenan-discretion warnings. “Due to strong language,” say the ads, “this play is recommended for mature audiences only.”

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Whether the language would prove too strong for the screen concerned Feiffer in 1969. Not Nichols. The movie opened, critics gasped, the Republic survived and the story’s stage rights reverted to the author in 1976.

That it now is on the boards is due to a letter Feiffer got in 1986 from Ted Swindley of Houston’s Stages Repertory Theater. Swindley thought the movie script of “Carnal Knowledge” might work as a play.

There is a stage version, Feiffer replied. A slightly reworked version of it, directed by Swindley, opened to fine reviews last spring in Houston. (Swindley also directs the Pasadena Playhouse edition.)

“The odd thing about it in Houston was to go at this material as if it were a new play,” Feiffer said. “For the film, I made a number of changes and cuts, because there are a lot of long speeches you simply can’t do on screen, or the audience gets restless.

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“I put a lot of that stuff back in . . . and then, I found that in many cases, (Mike) Nichols was right, and I started taking things back out again.”

Nor did he update the play to reflect the fact and fear of AIDS, unheard of in the anything goes late ‘60s.

That would have required a complete rewrite, he said. He left the story “in its time frame, which goes from the ‘40s into the early ‘70s.”

A cheerful man of occasionally mordant wit, and the renter of a studio whose roof recently collapsed, Feiffer lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his second wife, Jennifer Allen, and their 3-year-old daughter.

His wife is a journalist who, Feiffer said during a recent interview, was out covering the Bess Myerson trial, a case known locally as the Bess Mess.

Such could provide fodder for his syndicated once-a-week cartoon strip that appears in about 90 papers, including The Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his strip’s social commentary.

Born 57 years ago in the Bronx, he has drawn since childhood. But he didn’t really succeed in the cartoon business until 1956 when the Village Voice started running his work. under the title, “Sick, Sick, Sick.” It now simply is known as “Feiffer.”

He waited until 1961 to take his first stab at stage with a satirical revue, “The Explainers,” in Chicago.

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“I always had ambitions to be a writer, but I never had the courage to act on them until I was successful as a cartoonist,” he said. “That gave me the courage to fail in another form. I loved doing the cartoon but I was really getting bored with it in the mid-'60s, because it was the only thing I did. It was once a week. It took a day, maybe a day and a half. I had six days to hang around, and what the hell was I going to do?”

A tragedy--the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963--got him going.

“It threw me into a deep depression that I couldn’t get out of. I had an idea that I was going to use in a cartoon. But it was too extended. So I started it as a novel, and I got nowhere. In desperation, I tried to dramatize the material and discovered I was a playwright.”

The work: “Little Murders,” a morbidly funny comedy about life in the madness of urban America in the late 1960s. On Broadway in 1967, it quickly expired, only to be rediscovered by audiences two years later, when it was an off-Broadway hit later made into a movie of the same name.

He wrote the script for the film, also the movie version of “Carnal Knowledge,” and for Robert Altman’s film musical version of “Popeye.”

A fourth screenplay of his, “I Want to Go Home,” currently is being filmed in France. “It’s about a has-been American cartoonist who goes to Paris to reclaim his daughter,” said Feiffer, whose older daughter from his first marriage is working as an assistant on the production.

He currently is writing a new play, “Elliot Loves,” a comedy whose Elliot “is at least one character who could have been right out of ‘Carnal Knowledge.’ But the tone is different. It really tests the theory that the hardest thing anyone does in life is live successfully with another person.”

It bothers him not that his plays tend to demand a lot from an audience:

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“When I started writing for the theater, I wanted to write out of a tradition that made me want to go see plays in the first place, plays I had seen when I was young, such as ‘Death of a Salesman’ . . . plays that made demands on me.

“I found that when a play didn’t ask of me anything but to love it, I almost never loved it. But when a play attacked me, confused me, made me wonder about myself and my attitudes, I found that, in the end, most entertaining and most edifying.

“When something shifted my views or in some cases changed my life, that was what I wanted out of theater. And that was the kind of theater I was hoping that I could learn to write.”


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