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Stagestruck : Once a Respected Journeyman Playwright, Terrence McNally Has Become a Veritable Hit Machine, Writing About the Search for Love in This Difficult Age

<i> Richard Stayton's last story for this magazine was a profile of playwrights John Steppling and Jon Robin Baitz. </i>

ALTHOUGH IT’S ONLY A PLAY READING, THE REHEARSAL ROOM QUAKES WITH laughter. The cast members turn script pages with trembling fingers, leaning on the table to maintain their concentration. Director John Tillinger pulls his sweater over his ruddy face and chews into the fabric, but he can’t stop the giggles bubbling out of its headless neck.

Keene Curtis, on a break from his recurring role as the snippy restaurant owner in “Cheers,” shows no mercy while reading aloud his dialogue. “But did you hear the one about the terrible actor who was playing Hamlet?” Curtis suppresses a grin and remains in the character of an arrogant drama critic. “He’d barely begun ‘To be or not to be’ when the audience began booing, throwing things, the works. Finally, the actor stepped forward and said, ‘I didn’t write this s--.’ ”

Unlike Curtis and the other working actors, those observing this reading--the technicians, publicists, stage managers and extras--aren’t required to repress their emotions. No longer able to remain detached, all let go with that rarest of human sounds, the belly laugh--and are joined by the cast.

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Yet one figure seated at the table remains silent. No giggles, just a beatific smile. While the actors speak lines, his lips move along with theirs, unconsciously mouthing every word of dialogue. His blue eyes gleam. Just a week before, in New York, this man seemed every day of 52: balding, fatigued, preoccupied. Now years have vanished, and he resembles a boy at his birthday party.

Terrence McNally has reason to celebrate. The first day of rehearsal for “It’s Only a Play” brings the playwright back into what he calls “my good-luck room.” This crudely functional space, located in the Taper Annex behind the Music Center, is where his “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “The Lisbon Traviata” began rehearsals on their way to becoming runaway hits at the Mark Taper Forum in 1988 and 1990. Now his 1986 off-Broadway satire of egomaniacal stage artists is in revival through June 28 at Hollywood’s Doolittle Theatre under Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson auspices. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, McNally’s Chekhovian “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is entering its 11th month. Should “It’s Only a Play” thrive in Hollywood, McNally could boast hit shows on both coasts.

McNally is on a roll: four consecutive stage successes in five years; a critically acclaimed screenplay version of “Frankie and Johnny”; an Emmy for “Andre’s Mother,” his American Playhouse script about a mother, her son who dies of AIDS, and his lover. Of contemporary American playwrights, only Neil Simon and August Wilson share his mainstream audience appeal. It’s no accident that Doolittle ads for “It’s Only a Play” prominently promote the author’s name above the title. McNally is the star with box office clout, even more commercial than an impressive cast that includes Eileen Brennan, Zeljko Ivanek, Dana Ivey and Charles Nelson Reilly (Curtis has since been replaced by Paul Benedict).

But McNally isn’t the star because of talk-show appearances. “Most people don’t recognize me,” he says. “I’m not a famous face.” The slight, blond playwright prefers to hide behind his characters: The cynical waitress and short-order cook from “Frankie and Johnny,” the obsessive opera queens from “The Lisbon Traviata,” the middle-aged couples from “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and the desperate first-nighters of “It’s Only a Play.”

“McNally” above the title signals audiences to expect witty, bitchy dialogue. Director Harold Clurman once ranked McNally among “the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult.” But unlike Neil Simon, who can’t resist manipulating scenes toward a punch line, McNally’s humor always emerges out of his characters.

McNally’s people are trying to live decent lives in an indecent world. Under the specter of AIDS, total freedom is no longer possible. The playwright of diminished expectations, he embraces and accepts and celebrates our limitations. It’s by design that “Frankie and Johnny” ends with the two lovers performing that most ordinary of daily habits, brushing their teeth.

McNally is a gentle humanist, staging how we live now. A McNally play means exploring the little things in life, rarely major philosophical themes. “It is precisely the small things, the little details, that give life meaning,” a character says in “Lips Together.” Actress Swoosie Kurtz said she discovered while appearing in that play “a helluva lot going on in the emotional map . . . like I’m not acting, I’m just being.”

Although McNally’s world has plenty of passion, it’s always aimed at a single target: love. But for McNally characters, love is bound by compromise and never offers ultimate satisfaction. During one of his annual lectures for radio’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast, McNally declared that in life, as in Wagner’s “Der Tannhauser,” love is “idealized, sensual, spiritual, self-sacrificing, and there can never be a synthesis of all the disparate strands that involve our hearts, bodies and minds when we speak of it.”

McNally’s empathy with the human condition extends to his fellow playwrights. He’s learned from the best: Primary mentors include Edward Albee and Elaine May. In turn, he’s taught the best: His apprentices include Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein.

“He’s a surprisingly generous colleague,” says Innaurato, author of “Gemini,” who often guests with McNally on the Texaco Opera Quiz radio broadcast. “Socially, he’s extremely adept, but he’s very honest with people. He’s not a flatterer. You know where you stand with him.”

The few with anything negative to say about McNally usually criticize him for straddling the gay and straight worlds. From the straight press, New York magazine critic John Simon condemned “Lips Together” because “McNally seems to have only a very foggy notion of what heterosexual love talk sounds like.” Those with politically correct agendas claim he’s retrograde. The gay press has bashed McNally for not being more “open” about his political positions. A Theater Week magazine critic accused “Lips Together” of reinforcing “faggot” stereotypes. Although McNally has discussed his sexual orientation with a few members of the gay press, he prefers to keep his private life out of interviews.

A quintessential New York man of the theater, dividing his life between a Greenwich Village apartment and a Long Island house, McNally seems to belong to an earlier generation of playwrights. He’s stage-struck in an old-fashioned way. The theater is his passion, his first love, his wife and children (he has neither). When not working in the theater, he’s at a theater. His private life includes season subscriptions to Manhattan’s dance, opera and music companies. “He’s the classic person from a province who’s always wanted to live in New York,” notes Innaurato, McNally’s Manhattan neighbor. “He’s living the dream of New York.”

“His is a little-boy state of wonder over the theater,” says Christine Baranski, a Tony-award-winning actress for whom McNally often tailors roles. But he’s no child when it comes to the business of the theater. As vice president of the Dramatists Guild, McNally has led a contentious debate about a new League of Regional Theaters contract for playwrights.

In conversation, though, confrontation gives way to reticence. McNally loathes what he calls our “age of hype” and dreads the entertainment world’s “cult of personality.” He rejects celebrity, but reluctantly endures interviews if they will help his plays.

Endures? Suffers may be the better description.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE DOOLITTLE REHEARSALS FOR “IT’S ONLY A Play,” McNally is tense, nervously seated in a rehearsal room in the Manhattan Theatre Club office building. “I’m most alive in a room with actors, rehearsing a play,” he says. But the flip side of that statement is evident the day of the interview: In an empty space, without a play to work on, waiting to start his Los Angeles rehearsals, McNally is at a loss. As if to mock his loneliness, echoes from other rehearsals drift down the halls: Shouts from a distant actor make McNally flinch with longing.

“These rooms are very rich for me,” he says of the cold, barren, featureless space. “I’ve been sort of living in these rooms since 1985, when we did ‘It’s Only a Play.’ I’ve done a play a year in here for six years. I can easily see Kathy Bates reading ‘Frankie’ over there. I can see Nathan (Lane) standing there, auditioning for Mendy (the Maria Callas devotee from ‘Lisbon’). He read literally one line and I said, ‘That’s it. Get him.’ ”

McNally faces the tape recorder with grim determination, like a man cornered by a tax auditor. Let’s get this over with, his expression says, as his voice asks, “What is it you require?”

It is a typically generous question from one frequently described as “a gentleman.” There seems little of the egocentric vanity in McNally that inhabits many of his characters.

But the playwright emphasizes that once back in rehearsal, he would have no time for distractions. His work, as always, comes first; questions about his personal life, he implies, come last. Ask him, for example, if his Texas childhood was “happy or unhappy, pain free or painful,” and he’ll admit only: “It’s safe to say that I had a childhood.”

He was not always like this. A writer’s initial impulse is toward autobiographical self-expression, and McNally was no exception. His first serious attempt at playwriting occurred in his early 20s and was a one-act titled “This Side of the Door.” That rough beginning might have ended his playwriting career.

“It’s the only play I’ve ever written that was so autobiographical I found it painful to watch,” he says. “I put that play away. I don’t know where it exists.”

In fact, a crudely typed original script of “This Side of the Door” exists in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. To read it is to find very little evidence of the later, mature McNally. In it, an alcoholic, abusive, failed salesman rages at his “fairy son”: “Want to hear about my problem?” the father drunkenly asks. “I was born with a perpetual, perennial, eternal and life-ever-after hard-on.”

Violence, rape, sexual abuse and histrionic excess populate this play. The writer’s voice sounds more like Eugene O’Neill or Sam Shepard than the tender McNally of “Frankie and Johnny.” McNally condemns it as “emotionally too autobiographical. This was a get-your-parents kind of play, expressing all my anger about growing up.”

McNALLY CHOSE NOT TO OPEN THAT PANDORA’S BOX AGAIN. remaining on a more discreet side of the biographical door, McNally only relaxes when discussing The Theater. So you relax him by asking how a boy growing up in 1950s football-rich, theater-poor Corpus Christi turned out so stage-struck.

His father was a Schlitz beer distributor, and his mother worked part time, keeping the books. Twice they brought him to New York, and on each trip he saw a single Broadway play. When 6, he saw Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun.” At age 12, it was Gertrude Lawrence in “The King and I.”

“If I hadn’t seen those plays and those larger-than-life stage stars--and they were both great stage stars, not movie stars, which is significant--I don’t know if I would have been taken by theater,” he says of those Broadway exposures.

What may have seemed in his youth a deprivation in retrospect proved a blessing: Corpus Christi was the largest town in America without television. “We didn’t have TV until almost 1960,” McNally says. “That’s probably another reason I write plays. I was still listening to the radio even in high school. I had to imagine what things look like.”

In the fifth grade, McNally heard something that would profoundly stimulate his imagination. A Catholic parochial teacher played Puccini love duets, and McNally “just loved it instantly.” He spent each Saturday staring at the miniature Metropolitan Opera House model and sets he’d constructed to accompany that afternoon’s radio broadcast, live from New York City.

McNally admits to having been “a closet playwright” in his teens, fearful that God might punish him for writing something as pleasurable as plays. But he risked heavenly wrath with an early full-length play that revealed how isolated his adolescence was: Based on liner notes, it was an imagined biography of George Gershwin--so imagined, in fact, that George marries his girlfriend, Ira.

A high school teacher named Maureen McElroy encouraged McNally to found a literary magazine, and soon he was writing short stories as well as articles for the school paper. Through McElroy’s influence, McNally received a scholarship to Columbia University. By 1961, the 17-year-old Texan was headed to the heart of the theater world, New York City.

Between studies at Columbia, the undergraduate English major attended plays. He slept on the sidewalk to buy standing-room tickets for “My Fair Lady"--which he saw “either 13 or 14 times.” The stars seen by the insatiable McNally still seem imprinted on his memory: Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Judy Holliday in “Bells Are Ringing,” Laurence Olivier in “The Entertainer,” Geraldine Page and Paul Newman in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

When the graduating McNally won a literary prize for fiction from the English department that came with a few thousand dollars, he decided to write “the great American novel” and traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. For a year all he accomplished was reading Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and writing “This Side of the Door.”

On a whim, McNally mailed his one-act play to Molly Kazan, director of the Playwrights Unit of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. She shocked the novice by mailing back an encouraging response, noting that he was “very talented but didn’t seem to know much about theater.” A year later, McNally found himself apprenticing in her workshops. He stage-managed the workshop productions, setting up chairs, making coffee, operating the primitive light board. A “reward” came with the workshop staging of “This Side of the Door.” He became close friends with another unproduced playwright, Edward Albee.

After about a year, Molly Kazan asked McNally if he’d be interested in sailing around the world, all expenses paid, as a salaried tutor. The wife of director Elia Kazan scribbled on a scrap of paper an address and the name of McNally’s potential employer: John Steinbeck. For the next year, McNally tutored the sons of Elaine and John Steinbeck. The only lesson McNally remembers receiving from the Nobel laureate was, “Don’t write for the theater.”

By the time McNally returned to New York, he had completed one act of a second play. After an Actors Workshop presentation, the 24-year-old’s “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” premiered on Broadway in 1964.

McNally’s professional debut was an absurdist, symbolic melodrama about good and evil that infuriated the mainstream press. “Confused, imitative and pubescent,” declared Women’s Wear Daily’s critic. Wrote Newsday’s George Oppenheimer: “Mr. McNally’s play is ugly, perverted, tasteless.” It closed in less than three weeks. His younger brother had come from Texas for the premiere. After reading the reviews, he observed, “Well, there’s no way to go but up.”

“He was right,” McNally says. “Now I see that effort as pretentious. But there I was, a failed playwright at 24. What next?”

Two years later, a Guggenheim writing fellowship rescued him from a series of menial jobs and a laborious position as editor of the Columbia University alumni magazine. He was desperate to finish a new play before his grant money ran out.

A crucial strength in McNally has been his ability to learn from negative experiences. He was not about to repeat his mistakes. His second professional play would have fewer characters and be written for specific actors. It would also be much simpler than “And Things That Go Bump in the Night.”

When the failed Broadway playwright initially met the unknown, struggling James Coco, he listened to a frequent lament: “No one writes leading roles for fat character actors.” And so McNally fashioned “Next” to Coco’s tragicomic style.

Coco was surviving with a bit part in a summer-stock play directed by Elaine May, whose career was in eclipse following her professional separation from Mike Nichols. Coco showed May “Next” and she eagerly volunteered to direct McNally’s two-character comedy about a reluctant draftee reporting for an Army physical.

In 1969, “Next” became an off-Broadway hit. With it, three new stars appeared above the New York theater horizon: Coco, May, McNally. “Just about everything I know about playwriting I learned from Elaine May,” McNally says.

“In a funny way, the only break I ever had was with ‘Next,’ ” he continues. “Some years I have been living very, very, very poorly. Once my parents visited from Texas, and my mother burst into tears when she came into my basement apartment. But since my mid-20s, I’ve earned my living as a playwright. There aren’t a hell of a lot of writers who can say that.”

McNally’s financial survival came through an unbroken series of successes: “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” (1971), “The Tubs” (1974), “Bad Habits” (1974) and “The Ritz” (1975), a farce set in a gay bathhouse that ran more than a year on Broadway and became McNally’s first produced screenplay.

After more than a decade as a successful playwright, McNally decided it was time to write an affectionate homage to his life in the theater. His concept emerged while he observed the opening-night travails of some friends.

“We were in a bedroom in the Village,” he remembers, “hiding out while the critics were just savaging their play. On nights like that your heart does go out to them. You ask yourself, ‘Why do we do this to ourselves?’ ”

But the playwright saw humor in their pain. He titled his new comedy “Broadway, Broadway.” Such luminaries as Geraldine Page and Coco graced his cast for the Philadelphia tryout. So certain of success were the producers that New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre was reserved in advance for Christmas, 1978.

The rest, as they say, was disaster. Critics were invited to preview a show that was technically accident-prone. After the negative notices, the backers decided not to risk taking “Broadway, Broadway” to Broadway. McNally was suddenly enduring his first failure since “And Things That Go Bump in the Night.” He suffered through a mid-career writer’s block. He stopped writing and started drinking.

“I sulked,” he says of that rare fallow period. “I lost my nerve. Anyone who works creatively must have a certain self-confidence and courage. If you’re scared, you can’t write. If you’re scared, you can’t act. If you’re scared, you can’t do anything. And I guess I got scared.”

For more than a year the Eugene O’Neill Theatre remained dark, but on the marquee, hugely visible from Times Square, McNally could always see in enormous letters “A New Comedy by Terrence McNally” above the title of his fiasco.

IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS, THE ONLY WRITING McNALLY RISKED WAS a book for the musical “The Rink.” His fear did not begin to be purged until director John Tillinger suggested he rewrite “Broadway, Broadway.” When the improved version, retitled “It’s Only a Play,” opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1986, Frank Rich’s rave review in the New York Times pointed out, “Only a writer who loves the theater and has survived its bloodiest wars could have written a comedy like this one.”

And that’s the ultimate irony in the title “It’s Only a Play.” The playwright who resists talking about his personal life has disguised his most autobiographical of confessions within a satire. Only by writing out of his own experiences, by going on the other side of the door to his past, could McNally escape his worst career crisis.

In the introduction to the published version, he wrote, "(It’s) a comedy, but it’s one of the most serious plays I have ever written. . . . It is probably the closest thing that I will ever write to a documentary.”

During its preview period, McNally received “the best Christmas present any playwright ever got”: Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow promised she would produce his next play sight unseen. McNally completed “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” in less than two months, the “fastest playwriting I ever did.” That breakthrough came from risking personal exposure, however disguised behind comedy. “I’ve only begun to realize how emotionally autobiographical my plays are,” McNally recently wrote.

The MTC became McNally’s theatrical home. After “Frankie and Johnny” came “Lisbon” and “Lips Together.” When he ventured outside MTC’s secure confines--a farce at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, “Up in Saratoga,” and the infamous musical version of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” devastated by uninvited critics at its Purchase, N.Y., tryout in 1990--the results proved painful.

“His is a story of renewal and coming back from the brink,” says Innaurato. “He had a bad few years, but Terrence pulled himself together and stayed in there and fought. He’s had the life he wanted to have.”

By the end of the interview at the MTC, McNally has relaxed. Obviously relieved to be done with a dirty but necessary task, he happily prowls the corridors. He points at a door and says, “Joan Collins rehearsed in there last week for ‘Private Lives,’ ” a fact that seems to amuse and amaze him. Later he attends a performance of “Lips Together” to say goodby to two actors leaving the cast. On his way home, in the subway, a young woman asks him to autograph her program. She is taking an acting class, she says, and everyone knows his plays.

A new generation of stage-struck kids are now drawn to his work, just as he once was to the work of Tennessee Williams and William Inge. “The kids auditioning now for our classes,” says Anna Strasberg of New York’s Lee Strasberg Institute, “rarely choose scenes from Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett. More and more, they’re choosing ‘Frankie and Johnny.’ A speech from ‘And Things That Go Bump in the Night’ has become very popular for young people’s auditions.”

That scene opens like this: “The way I live is . . . the best I can do. I try. I mean I really try. And I think I am improving. I think I am becoming a better human being day by day.”

Listening to McNally after the first day of rehearsal in Los Angeles for “It’s Only A Play,” one hears echoes of that speech: “I’m rapidly maturing, and I don’t mean physically,” he says during a brief break in the reading. “I like myself. I’m comfortable with myself, my life. I’m not afraid of an audience anymore, which is a big difference in my work. I don’t hide.”

He looks around at the empty room that is again filling up with actors returning to their scripts--his play. And he smiles. “I’m where I want to be.”


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