If you can know a person by the company he keeps, you can judge a playwright by the talent that sticks by him. By this measure, Terrence McNally is one of the most important dramatists of the last 50 years.
In “American Masters — Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life,” the documentary premiering Friday on PBS in honor of LGBTQ Pride month, Broadway luminaries such as Nathan Lane, Rita Moreno and F. Murray Abraham pay tribute to a writer who has given our private struggles the touching comic dignity they deserve.
The triumphs have been many for the 80-year-old McNally since he came to New York from Corpus Christi, Texas, to attend college at Columbia University. Winner of four Tony Awards (two for best play and two for best book of a musical), he was justly awarded a lifetime achievement Tony on Sunday, making him one of the most decorated dramatists working today. But it has been his heartfelt candor about longing and loneliness that has endeared him to audiences.
McNally’s great gift is his flamboyant wit, but his comedy is permeated with an intimate understanding of the flip side of love — loss. The courage to keep loving in the face of disappointment and grief is the central dilemma of McNally’s characters, gay and straight alike.
On Broadway at the moment, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon are waging a post-coital battle for trust in McNally’s 1987 play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune.” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” McNally’s 1994 play about a group of gay men grateful to survive yet still yearning to thrive, could serve as the thematic subtitle for all of his works.
Like Tosca in Puccini’s opera, the characters in McNally’s plays live for art as well as for love. Maria Callas, the subject of “Master Class,” one of McNally’s most popular plays, is given a new “Vissi d’arte” aria at the end, one that articulates the playwright’s own relationship to his work: “The world can and will go on without us but I have to think that we have made this world a better place. That we have left it richer, wiser than had we not chosen the way of art.”
Yet art can also be a refuge for characters who have withdrawn themselves from the romantic playing field. Take Mendy, the role Lane put his indelible stamp on in the 1989 Manhattan Theatre Club production of “The Lisbon Traviata.” Barricaded in his West Village apartment behind a wall of opera records, he justifies his melodic isolation to a fellow Callas fanatic who urges him to start dating again: “Opera doesn’t reject me. The real world does. I don’t understand love. Non capisco amore.”
The documentary, directed by Jeff Kaufman, delves into McNally’s own knowledge of amore. The survey of his relationship history begins with Edward Albee, who lured the aspiring young writer up to his apartment for a nightcap. The affair, tempestuous and alcohol-fueled, didn’t last, but a friendship between the playwrights endured despite a bitter breakup. McNally takes pride that he was there while Albee was writing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But he seems equally relieved that he moved away from Albee’s sphere of influence to find his own more accessible style as a dramatist.
His first Broadway play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” an absurdist family drama with an irreverent attitude toward homosexuality, flopped, forcing him to reevaluate his path. One thing he knew he wouldn’t change was writing honestly and openly about gay characters — an act of considerable bravery in those pre-Stonewall times.
“My goal as a writer became to write in my own voice,” McNally says. “And to find a kind of simplicity that was about my character, not about me.”
Categorizing McNally isn’t easy. Director Jack O’Brien offers a few possibilities (“musical librettist, gay historian, comic writer, romantic”) before punctuating the list with words that capture McNally’s adventurous practicality: “Bring it on!” Now that the mainstream has embraced him with commercial success, it can be easy to forget, as actor Billy Porter reminds us, that McNally has always been a path breaker as a gay writer. Once cutting-edge in stylistic flamboyance, he has remained cutting-edge in his insistence that gay people be seen in their full humanity.
The documentary is more gently biographical than incisively critical. Yet the line between McNally’s life and work is porous. His collaborators are his friends, and the Broadway luminaries who discuss their shared history on camera seem to form a surrogate family.
It was Angela Lansbury’s compassionate straight talk that got him to see he was destroying himself with booze. Moreno, who is shown ecstatically twirling on stage to collect her Tony in 1975 for “The Ritz,” movingly recalls what it was like for a gay man back then to write a play set in a bathhouse. Lane, who jokes that he’s on speed dial for McNally tributes in the New York tri-state area, recounts helping his friend and close collaborator through an impasse in the writing of “Love! Valour! Compassion!”
“Sometimes I’m the last one to understand what I’ve written,” McNally admits. “We find the play together in the rehearsal room.” This collective spirit is what has allowed him to have such a vibrant second career as a book writer for musicals, including “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
The documentary has a sincerity that is especially affecting as the AIDS epidemic casts its pall. A scene from the television version of “Andre’s Mother,” in which Richard Thomas searches for words to eulogize his dead lover, brings back the whole painful era. McNally has known such grief, but as personally informed as his work is, it’s not explicitly autobiographical.
There’s nothing pro forma about the personal testimony from alumni of McNally’s work, including Edie Falco, Joe Mantello, Chita Rivera and John Glover. Nor is Doris Roberts the only actor who has credited McNally with giving her a career.
The generosity has been a two-way street. A tender letter from John Steinbeck, with whom McNally traveled as a tutor for the illustrious author’s children, bucked up his morale after “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” was savaged by the critics. Wendy Wasserstein, fellow playwright, dear friend and unexpected romantic partner whose death McNally continues to mourn, is shown presenting an award to her close friend with as much joy as if she were receiving it herself.
Tyne Daly’s lyrical reading of an excerpt of “A Perfect Ganesh” moved me to recall my own experience of seeing the play at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993. As with many of McNally’s works, including his 2014 Broadway play “Mothers and Sons” starring a somberly ferocious Daly, I loved the charged emotional atmosphere a bit more than the play itself.
Yet his writing has provided a glorious bridge between actors and audiences that has allowed us to connect as an assembled family. During the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, McNally’s plays were a therapeutic necessity. This documentary reveals the losses and the irrepressible life force behind the poignant laughter of this true American master.
Where: KOCE (PBS)
When: 9:30 p.m. Friday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)