American dramatist David Beaird is the talk of the town here-- all because of a play he insists was rejected by every major theater in America.
His semi-autobiographical "900 Oneonta" (the title refers to the street address of a rambling family mansion in Louisiana) opened at the Old Vic July 18 to a chorus of praise from Britain's normally skeptical theater critics.
The London Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer, who called "900 Oneonta" "astonishing," added: "Beaird's name will, I suspect, figure prominently when it comes to voting on the best new play of the year, and there will be no justice if the Old Vic doesn't play to a roaring trade for months to come."
Jack Tinker of the London Daily Mail wrote: "An important new play . . . Beaird writes with a bold and dangerous dramatic vision . . . what an original storyteller this man is." Like other critics, he favorably compared Beaird (who also directed the play) to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.
"I wrote this script and we sent it to every theater in America," Beaird confirmed. "Wouldn't you think it would get a reading from at least one American theater somewhere? I even made a videotape, at a cost of $5,000 to myself, of a reading of the play, with the audience laughing and roaring. It made no difference. So why can I come to London, open the play and get all these terrific reviews? I want to know what that's about."
I n truth, "900 Oneonta" may have been too rich for the taste of most American theater managements in this era of political correctness. A brilliantly plotted slab of Southern Gothic, it deals with a bigoted, dysfunctional family made wealthy by the business cunning of Dandy, its dying patriarch, a foul-mouthed wildcat oilman. This family contains incest victims, a dopehead, a cancer patient, an alcoholic, two impotent men and a woman made infertile by an illegal teen-age abortion. The crux of the play is whether the family line will survive, and to whom the patriarch will leave his fortune.
Despite its heavy subject matter, "900 Oneonta" is savagely, outrageously funny, and critics here have praised comic performances by two American actors in its mainly British cast--Leland Crooke as Dandy and Jon Cryer (best known for the film "Pretty in Pink" and the TV series "The Famous Teddy Z") as Gitlo, his grasping, sycophantic grandson.
Now, ironically, the London producers of "900 Oneonta" plan to take it to Broadway next year. And, says Beaird, a Hollywood studio and a currently hot production company are eager to secure film rights. Beaird declined to give the names of the companies.
This is ironic, too, for Beaird, 41, is a refugee from Hollywood; he wrote and directed seven films (including "My Chauffeur" and "Scorchers," a movie based on three one-act plays by Beaird which were first presented at Sherman Oaks' Whitefire Theatre), and wrote, produced and directed the canceled TV series "Key West" for Fox, before quitting town in disgust.
"It was hell on earth," he says of "Key West." "I had committees of people standing over me, rewriting scenes. After a while the 27-year-old executives at the studio convinced me I didn't know what I was doing. I literally felt I was stupid, that I couldn't write at all. So I took the money when I got out of that experience, came to London and put on this play."
Beaird makes no secret of his loathing for Hollywood, and astonished London's theater community by penning a piece for the Guardian newspaper the week "900 Oneonta" opened, in which he described himself as "a whore."
"I work in Hollywood," he wrote. "I know about lying and money. I know how to get movies made at the major studios. I know how to 'create and produce' a TV series. I know how to make a room full of executives think my idea was 'their' idea. I know about prostitution."
Beaird also argued in the Guardian that too many modern playwrights have abandoned plot and story. Pinter and Beckett were invaluable experiments, he claimed, but they had been copied in "a carnival of rip-offs--two character plays on blank sets, which just happen to have cost the producers damn little money, while ticket prices stay astronomical."
"What's wrong with a rise in dramatic action and tension?" he wrote. "Were Shakespeare, Moliere, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller really that trite? I am screaming for a return to passion and heart-stopping excitement in the theatre."
The success of "900 Oneonta" and the publication of his views have made Beaird controversial; much speculation about him centers on how autobiographical his play is.
"I grew up in a dysfunctional family in an alcoholic community," Beaird admits. "A lot of those events are real, and some of the dialogue is direct dialogue.
"My basic theme is that bigotry, alcoholism and sexual abuse are all part of the same issue. I grew up in Shreveport, La., in a bigoted community. I think of myself as a recovering bigot.
"I used to go to a church where they spent $10,000 a month to keep the organ in tune, but they wouldn't let black people in. In the backyard of the school I grew up in, they'd set up crosses on Friday nights for KKK meetings. There was time when a person who was abused as a child or raped was not marriageable--they became the old aunt locked up in the closet. So, yes, the play is partly autobiographical."
He insists that only after "900 Oneonta" has opened on Broadway will he allow talk of a film. He is now in pre-production on a movie he has written and will direct for MGM, "Wasted Grace."
A return to being a whore, then? Beaird grins. "Half whore, half artist, I hope. I've learned there's only one way to deal with Hollywood--strictly on your own terms."*