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Pain! Grace! Redemption! : Through failures and successes, Terrence McNally has risen to the stature of ‘quintessential man of the theater.’ ‘Master Class,’ about Maria Callas, is his latest work to play the Taper.

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At one point in Terrence McNally’s new drama “Master Class,” Zoe Caldwell, as the imperi ous diva Maria Callas, admonishes a student: “This is the theater, darling. We wear our hearts on our sleeves here.”

La Divina, as she was called, closely followed that dictum herself in a career pocked with triumph and tragedy until her death in 1977--and so, for that matter, has McNally, who has summoned her legendary ghost for this, his latest drama, which opens its West Coast premiere engagement at the Mark Taper Forum on May 18.

The Taper, of course, is no stranger to McNally’s driven characters, having previously presented “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (1988), “Lisbon Traviata” (1990) and “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1993). The Center Theatre Group also presented his “It’s Only a Play,” at the Doolittle in 1992.

But now McNally has pulled the stops out even more with “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” which is shaping up to be the biggest hit of his career, having moved to Broadway after a sold-out run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In the acclaimed comedy-drama, eight gay characters expose their hearts--and their bodies--over the course of three summer holiday weekends in a country house.

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“Master Class,” McNally’s follow-up, is a portrait of his favorite opera singer in the context of a master class, those seminars in which a professional coaches select students before an invited audience.

While the diva bullies and cajoles her charges to “subjugate” themselves to art, there are also flashbacks to the tempestuous experiences--an impoverished childhood in war-torn Athens, glory days at La Scala, a heartbreaking affair with a brutally sadistic Aristotle Onassis--which shaped the voice that so captivated the world. Given the playwright’s propensity for outsized emotions, it seemed almost inevitable that he would one day write about this woman whom his play describes as “hurling notes like thunderbolts.”

“I don’t write about repressed people who hide what they’re really feeling,” says McNally. “I wouldn’t say that the feelings expressed in my work are always operatic, but I would say they are almost always on my sleeve. In opera, you usually know what somebody’s thinking and that’s also true of my plays. Otherwise, I don’t know why I would bother.”

But bother he has. Celebrating three decades of writing for the theater this year, including precipitous failures and successes, the prolific 55-year-old playwright has reached a respected plateau as “the quintessential man of the theater,” as Caldwell puts it. Following a fallow period in the late ‘70s, McNally has had a remarkable string of hits, including “Lisbon Traviata,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “A Perfect Ganesh” and the book for the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which is in its third year on Broadway and for which he won a Tony Award. (“Love! Valour! Compassion!” last week was named best Broadway play by the Outer Critics Circle, a group of theater writers who work for media outside New York, and its star, Nathan Lane, was chosen best actor.)

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“What is extraordinary about Terrence,” says veteran actress Caldwell, “is that he has been writing, writing and writing, and growing and growing and growing, and becoming more and more important. That’s what used to happen in the theater to playwrights but no longer does. Nowadays playwrights are snapped up by Hollywood or they win the Pulitzer and you never hear from them again. Terrence has never quit being a man of the theater. And now age and experience have given his work an added compassion and depth.”

W hile none of his works have yet displayed enough com mercial appeal to make McNally into a household name, the playwright could have two plays and a musical running simultaneously on Broadway when “Master Class” opens there this fall after engagements in Los Angeles and Washington. Not bad for a guy whose first show, ". . .And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” in 1965, was a dismal failure.

His tough hide and combative nature is little in evidence when one meets with McNally at a coffeehouse near his Greenwich Village apartment. He quickly gives the impression that drawing his outrageous characters for the stage is an emotional release of sorts. Wearing a baseball cap and a new cashmere coat, he is an odd compendium of boyishness and elegance. But unlike his stage alter-egos, the playwright is a serious, shy and reticent man who clearly does not enjoy the interview process. Maybe it’s just his upcoming appointment with the analyst’s couch, but McNally’s tightly coiled presence recalls a line from one of the characters in “Love! Valour!”: “I got too intense,” the character says, explaining why he can’t keep a boyfriend. “That’s my problem, I get too intense with them.”

“I’m a very shy person in many ways,” McNally acknowledges, “and a major self-flagellator, though I’m getting better. It’s my Irish Catholic background. I can almost always find something wrong with everything. Maybe that’s why I write plays. I can be braver, more confident if I express my feelings through characters.”

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A well-known opera aficionado, McNally says he attended some of the master classes Callas taught at Juilliard, but that is not what inspired him to write the play. Though a devoted fan, he found her classes rather dull and uninteresting, much preferring a session conducted by Leontyne Price, which he audited last year.

“Price had a friendly, down-to-earth, non-ego presence, and I remember being struck with the fact that the format of a master class was very theatrical,” he said. “It’s all a kind of manipulation of the audience, but I never thought to myself, ‘Ah yes, here’s a play.’ ”

The memory of that class, however, was fresh when the idea did click, one of those “extremely rare” moments of epiphany, says McNally, when the idea for “Master Class” crystallized. It was at a benefit tribute to the playwright presented last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has been McNally’s nurturer and home base for the past nine years. Nathan Lane, who rose to stardom as the outrageous Callas devotee in “Lisbon Traviata,” did a monologue from the 1989 drama and was followed by Zoe Caldwell, who re-created a scene from “A Perfect Ganesh,” McNally’s 1993 drama at Manhattan Theatre Club.

“It struck me at that moment that I could combine my love for Callas with my love and admiration of Zoe as an artist,” says the writer. “I even knew what the first and last lines of the play would be.”

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The first line of “Master Class” is: “No applause. We’re here to work” and the last is “Well, that’s that,” both of them signaling McNally’s unsentimental approach to the art of making art. In between is a rambling monologue interspersed with scenes in which Callas attempts to prepare three students for the harsh and competitive opera world by cruelly putting down their naive efforts and offering some practical advice: “It’s important to have a look, a signature so people will remember you,” she says at one point. Turning to someone in the audience, she glares, “You. Yes, you. . . . You don’t have a look. . . . Get one, as quickly as possible.”

When the show, directed by Leonard Foglia, premiered in Philadelphia earlier this year, critics praised Caldwell’s authority and conviction even though, as a non-singer, she recites the arias rather than singing them. The moments of triumph in Callas’ career, however, are re-created in the show’s reveries through her actual recordings. But a replication is not the point, says McNally: “This was never meant to be a docudrama of Callas’ life. It’s fiction.”

“I never go into writing with certain themes in mind,” he adds. “I just see a bare stage and I want to fill it. But, as it happened, this play turned out to be very much about my feelings of what price an artist pays, whether you’re talking about a singer, a writer, a poet or a painter. There are those who say that artists who deal in emotion must protect themselves by singing only on their interest rather than their capital. I wanted to explore what happens to those who sing on their capital.”

Though McNally answers--a little too quickly perhaps--that he isn’t sure if that applies to him as well, there is little doubt he appreciates and has been inspired by those who, like Callas, have dug into their capital to express their artistry. While the actual writing of the first draft of “Master Class” took only two months, the playwright concedes, “I’ve spent my whole life preparing to write this play,” he says.

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T he son of a beer distributor and a part-time bookkeeper, McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., and raised in Corpus Christi, Tex. Salvation for the slender and bookish young McNally came in the form of Edith Piaf records, the occasional trip to New York to see musical theater and a fifth-grade parochial school teacher who played Puccini love duets in class.

Both of his parents were originally from New York and his father had a special fondness for Piaf, the French street chanteuse who definitely wore her emotions on her sleeve. Though McNally refuses to characterize his childhood as either happy or unhappy, he will say that his tendency to idolize singers with eccentric voices stemmed from his father’s unusual musical taste. “I was a 6-year-old going around the house singing ‘La Vie En Rose’ and all those French songs. The feelings and emotion I heard in her voice was just something I responded to.”

Describing himself “as stage-struck as Martin Scorsese is movie-struck,” McNally says the seeds were planted when he accompanied his parents on two trips to New York. On the first one, at age 6, he saw Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun.” Six years later, he saw Gertrude Lawrence in “The King and I,” just weeks before the legendary stage star died and was buried in her gold gown from the musical.

McNally says that he “cried bitterly” when he learned of Lawrence’s death. “What she represented is what Zoe represents, what Callas represented, a tradition that isn’t compromised, as it is today, by doing theater only because you can’t get a television or movie gig in Burbank. You can’t create that kind of stage magic without being steeped in that tradition of Gielgud, Olivier and Bernhardt any more than I can write plays without being steeped in the tradition of O’Neill, Williams and Chekhov.”

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McNally’s road to a place in that tradition began when, at age 17, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University. As a freshman, he camped out for three days at the box office of the old Metropolitan Opera House to buy a standing-room ticket for Callas’ debut in Bellini’s “Norma” in 1956. Callas gave a mere 20 performances in New York. She was cheered--and booed--at nearly every one.

McNally’s devotion to her had actually begun years earlier when he first heard her haunting voice in opera radio broadcasts in Texas.

“I heard sympathetic vibrations. That’s the only way I can say it,” he recalls. “That person is talking to me. That person has feelings I can get solace from. . . . Later, I learned about her tragic life, about the glamour, the gaining weight, the losing weight, the loss of her lover. But when I was 15 years old, I knew none of that. I only knew that it was something I liked.”

I t quickly became apparent to McNally that theater was the avenue in which he could express similar feelings. In part, this was because he and Edward Albee were lovers at a time when the playwright of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was enjoying his greatest success. But mostly, says McNally, it was a case of naivete. “I used to get physically ill when a play of mine opened,” he recalls.

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That he has been able to make a living as a playwright since 1967 is no small achievement to McNally--particularly because he almost quit in the late ‘70s, following the humiliating debacle of “Broadway, Broadway.” Bitter and burnt-out, he “retired,” sulked and drank. He kept in the public eye--or ear--as a panelist on the Texaco Opera Quiz, a radio broadcast, but stayed away from the theater. The price of being an artist had become too high.

“The way you pick up the pieces is simply to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and pull yourself up,” McNally says. “I was lucky in that I had very supportive friends and a home in the Manhattan Theatre Club--that’s very important to a writer. But I think the turning point came when somebody in a store stopped me and asked me if I was Terrence McNally. I expected him to tell me that he’d seen ‘The Ritz’ or one of my other plays and he said, ‘I recognized your voice from the Texaco Opera Quiz.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, great. If I drop dead now, this is my obituary: “Terrence McNally, the former Texaco Opera music panelist, died yesterday.” I better go write some plays.’ ”

Ironically, the plays he chose to write in quick succession--"It’s Only a Play,” “Frankie and Johnny” (which was later made into a movie, starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer), and “Lisbon Traviata"--dealt in part with the theme of rejection, which he himself had just painfully experienced. Was it a case of dipping into one’s capital--or interest--to paint such naked expressions of longing and desire, of alienation and rejection?

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he says. “Obviously, you can’t write about what you haven’t experienced. But if one asks, ‘How did Callas get such tragedy in her voice?’ I think the only possible answer is, well, you have to be her to sound that way. You have to have been born Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulou on Dec. 2, 1923. And had the experiences she had. It’s probably that simple.”

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In 1989’s “Lisbon Traviata,” which begins with a heated discussion about a pirated recording of Callas done in Lisbon in 1958, McNally was able to recapture some of the feelings he had for the diva. The first act featured extremely funny banter between two “opera queens,” the campy, denigrating term used to describe fanatics. (When asked for his own definition of the phrase, McNally quips, “Those who agree with me about Callas are opera lovers. Those who don’t are opera queens.”) But the second act turns ugly when one of the opera lovers returns home to confront a faithless boyfriend and ends up stabbing him to death. Such lightning shifts in mood are typical of McNally’s work.

“There’s no question that we’re laughing one minute and are seized with intense jealousy the next,” he says. “It’s all part of what it means to be alive.”

Death, too, is part of that meaning and it has been a large and operatic theme in nearly every one of his most recent plays, including “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “A Perfect Ganesh” and, of course, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” The deaths of his closest friends--director Robert Drivas in 1986 and actor James Coco in 1987--had a tremendous impact on McNally. “I do think of their deaths as part of my second wind,” he says. “I felt I owed it to them to go on and contribute something to society.”

He says that he intentionally chose the title of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” in order to force himself “to write big.” (“You gotta keep raising the stakes,” he says.) One can argue that they can go no higher than in a scene in which a beautiful, blind young man walks to the lip of the stage, faces the audience and asks, “Do you believe in God?”

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“I think there is a very strong line of redemption in Terrence’s plays,” says Caldwell, who explored just that as a woman bitterly grieving for her dead gay son in “A Perfect Ganesh.” “He offers no easy answers. But I do believe that Terrence sees salvation in art, in beauty, in compassion and, curiously, in the details of everyday life.”

“I do believe that life is basically mysterious,” says McNally. “It’s wanting to kill your lover and jumping out of the closet to scare your friend. You can be terrified of dying one minute and the next, there’s a shooting star and it’s so beautiful that your mouth falls open. Humans make terrible mistakes and hurt one another and then there’s that arm around your shoulder.”

There is little doubt McNally will continue to explore those issues in the theater. He adapted “The Ritz” and “Frankie and Johnny” into screenplays, is currently working on the script of “A Perfect Ganesh” for Merchant Ivory Productions, and his teleplay “Andre’s Mother” won him an Emmy, but he says he hasn’t been seduced by Hollywood and isn’t likely to be. “I don’t want to have one of those nightmares where you get fired from your own project and your Meryl Streep vehicle turns into a movie for Schwarzenegger,” he says. “In Hollywood it’s ‘Take the money and run.’ But in theater it’s ‘What money? And run where?’ I’m stuck here.”

For McNally, that prison has become more comfortable of late. While his plays have been filled with how people fail each other and how artists fail their muses, there is also an undercurrent of grace and humor. “I guess it stems from the potential that lives in each human being,” he says. Whether he is writing about some campy South American hairdresser with a fondness for musical fantasy, as in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” or a legendary diva like Callas, the message is basically the same: “No one is trivial. We all matter.”

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“Master Class” opens May 18 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135. N. Grand Ave., (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000, TDD (213) 680-4017. Performances: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. $28-$35.50.


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