As our nation was emerging from its post-WWII mindset into the dawn of America’s Camelot in 1960, eager young writer Terrence McNally was emerging from four years at Columbia, determined that his literary prowess would play a pivotal role in the development of the new culture of optimism. However, the novel in his head would not make it onto paper.
On to Plan B. As McNally told the graduating class of Columbia College (one of the schools within Columbia University) last May, “I did write the first draft of my first play. I had fallen in love with playwriting and it was time to try my hand at it. I had also fallen in love with a playwright. That’s a long story with an unhappy ending, but today we are dear friends.”
McNally was referencing Edward Albee, the wunderkind of mid-century playwriting, who took young Terrence under his wing artistically as well as romantically. Under Albee’s tutelage McNally’s first original Broadway play …and Things That Go Bump in The Night opened on April 26, 1965 — and closed on May 8, having hit multiple bumps. McNally described the play to the graduates as “a three-act, three-hour–plus piece noir that explained everything that was wrong with Western Civilization and why it was doomed to imminent collapse. When it opened on Broadway, one critic said the American theater would be a better place if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his crib.”
This disaster coincided with the personal fiasco in his romantic relationship, but the lessons he learned from Albee have stayed with him, and his career blossomed into one of the most successful and prolific in American theater history.
He has four Tony Awards (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Ragtime). The producers of the LA premiere of Master Class and the US premiere of Ragtime, which occurred in LA, received Ovation Awards for best play and musical, respectively, in a larger theater, and McNally received an Ovation for lifetime achievement in 1998. He won an Emmy (Andre’s Mother). In the half-century since his horrific Broadway debut, McNally has become well known for his generosity in mentoring young talent and encouraging the art of theater.
McNally’s latest bit of generosity is the lending of his name and literary works to a fund-raiser for Skylight Theatre Company. Next week, from Thursday through Sunday Sept 26-29, the theater honors McNally with a mini-festival including an exclusive dinner party, a writers’ panel discussion about handling gay themes and characters, a master class taught by McNally, a reading of his updated backstage farce It’s Only A Play, and a program of spoken and sung excerpts from his works followed by a reception. Star-studded casts are expected to appear in the reading and the program of excerpts.
Skylight Theatre Company was officially christened on April 15 of this year after changing its name from Katselas Theatre Company. Its mission is to support new plays and emerging theater artists. Through its development umbrella INKubator, the company provides work and performance space through several programs and next year will introduce “unAUTHORized,” a program for playwrights aged 18 to 25.
When Skylight’s producing director Gary Grossman and board president Suzi Dietz set out to create this McNally festival, they sought a director-organizer who had the skills and know-how to properly showcase the great playwright’s life and work. Dietz quickly thought of one of her friends and collaborators, director Sheryl Kaller. Kaller had earlier created a similar but smaller McNally-themed event in 2007 for the Philadelphia Theatre Company. She had directed the Christopher Durang /Peter Melnick musical Adrift In Macao for them in 2005. The company wanted to celebrate McNally’s career, so she worked with McNally’s husband Tom Kirdahy to put together a tribute.
Kaller had known McNally and Kirdahy socially but had never worked on a McNally play. The success of the evening and her collaboration with McNally paid off eight years later when Kaller took the helm of his latest play, Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. That play is now preparing for a Broadway run next spring. Kaller accepted the invitation to direct the Skylight McNally gala, which is being co-produced by Kirdahy, and for extra measure Daly will perform in the benefit.
Kaller, who received a Tony nomination in 2010 for her direction of Next Fall before directing it at Geffen Playhouse in 2011, is enjoying a busy and prestigious career. This is all the sweeter because it came upon the heels of a 12-year hiatus during which she left a thriving theater career to raise two daughters. She had serious doubts about her return to the stage, but “I was very fortunate. I came back into it through Johanna Pfaelzer, artistic director of New York Stage and Film. Then I got Adrift in Macao, with book and lyrics by Christopher Durang and music by Peter Melnick that premiered in New York City in 2007, and frankly I have not stopped working since then.
“I have had little down time, which is great for me…I left the business for so long I feel kind of newish compared to other people my age. One of my girls just graduated college and the other is a junior at Tulane and she’s studying in Amsterdam this semester. My husband is an easy, wonderful, patient man. So I get to work all the time. He is not in theater — I call them civilians, you have to have a civilian.”
Kaller is especially excited that her next Broadway vehicle is a new McNally script. “Mothers and Sons is a beautiful new play about family and generation and Terrence’s journey — the play he should be writing right now.” It follows Daly’s character Kathryn who, 20 years after the death of her son, goes to visit his surviving partner. Daly was with the show from its inception and through its workshop process.
“The play takes place in real time,” Kaller says. “It is a four-person play representing four generations: Kathryn, Cal — her late son’s partner, his husband who is of the next generation and their eight-year-old son. It is chill-worthy. When you take that kind of story with Tyne giving life to the character, it is magic. Sometimes doing great theater is like lightning striking, and lightning really struck on this one. It’s going to Broadway. It’s been a short trajectory which is very atypical for new plays. But when you have Terrence it makes so much sense — and Tyne is not chopped liver.”
Kaller was immediately interested in the Skylight event for McNally. She is a bit starstruck at the talent who has agreed to appear. “It’s an incredibly impressive list of people involved — wonderful talented busy people donating their time. What Skylight is trying to do is develop new plays and give new playwrights a home to develop their work. Celebrating someone as prolific as Terrence, who has had that kind of support throughout his career, makes so much sense.
“He’s the first one to say that it is harder now than it ever had been because money is so much harder to come by now. The only way writers are making money is in television. That makes Skylight even more important because it is located in Los Angeles. Skylight’s devotion artistically and financially to produce and develop new works in LA is so vital because so many writers are finding themselves settled out there.”
Much of McNally’s work has centered on gay issues. From the silly gay-baths farce, The Ritz, to the tragic The Lisbon Traviata, to his newest heartfelt Mothers and Sons, the playwright has never shied away from the subject. As part of the tribute weekend at the Skylight, a panel will discuss “Does it Take One to Know One? …a conversation with Terrence about writing Gay themes and characters.” Among the planned participants are the Emmy-winning Will and Grace creator Max Mutchnick, Dan Bucatinsky — who just won an acting Emmy for Scandal — and his husband Don Roos, writer/director of The Opposite of Sex and Web Therapy.
Roos has known McNally for three decades. They met socially in California when McNally was writing for the short-lived Norman Lear sitcom Mama Malone and Roos was writing Hart to Hart. Roos had no idea that McNally was an important New York playwright. “Terrence is my oldest friend, though we never worked together. I just knew he was a playwright, and I was in TV, so I felt sorry for him. I knew nothing about the theater world. I did eventually look him up and realized how accomplished he was even 30 years ago. I just thought he was extremely funny and intelligent and clearly streets ahead of me in knowledge of culture, opera, literature, all of that. He was just completely fun to hang around with. I am so thrilled they are honoring Terrence, who I think is amazing. Of course now I have read everything he has written. Some of them he wrote at my house when he stayed out here. He’s a dazzling talent.”
Roos made a bit of a stir at an Outfest panel “Coming Out in Hollywood,” when he reasoned that audiences could be put off by openly gay actors playing straight. “I think the relationship between an audience and an actor is a very complicated thing, especially in a romantic lead. When you’re in a movie theater, what’s on the screen isn’t necessarily appealing to your best instincts. Most of the audience is going to be homophobic, they’re mostly violent in their hearts and that’s what they’re responding to on the screen, and you can’t wait to have a career until the audience is not homophobic.”
Nearly three years later, Roos clarifies his thoughts. “What I did say is this: when I came out, it didn’t cost me a penny. It didn’t affect my career. Nobody cares if a writer or a director is gay. But I hate to ask anyone to come out if it will cost them more than it cost me. Also, as a director, it is not that helpful for me to know anything about the actor. I don’t want to know their politics, whether they are married or not. I don’t find it useful. But it is a conflict with my life as a gay man where I want everyone to be out of the closet. I think everybody should yell it from the roof tops. But in my directing I want to use only talent as a basis, not their personal life.”
The panel at the Skylight gives Roos the opportunity to discuss any evolution in his thoughts since the Outfest panel. The topic this time is not about actors, but about writers. It’s a complicated question about whether a writer must be gay to write gay characters. Roos recalls an incident when actor Denzel Washington left the production film Love Field (replaced by Dennis Haysbert) because he felt Roos would not be able to justice to his character. Roos recalls, “we lost him because he thought I couldn’t write about black men, maybe he thought I couldn’t write a straight man. He did not consider me qualified. But, you know, I’m not sure if he was right or wrong. I really am interested in what everyone has to say about these issues.”
Roos and his fellow panelist and husband Bucatinsky produce Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, which Roos also directs. And they were able to get Kudrow to commit to the McNally celebration’s celebrity reading of McNally’s updated classic comedy It’s Only A Play.
Web Therapy is a return to directing for Roos, who has concentrated on writing and producing for the last five years. But the concept was too entertaining for him to pass up. “It’s nerve-wracking to direct again, but there is nothing more exciting than two characters talking. Talking is action. It’s so cool to see what world you can make with two talking heads.”
He has also enjoyed working with the guest stars whom Kudrow is able to pull onto Web Therapy. “Whenever Lisa is out on the town and someone says to her, ‘Oh, I love your show!’ She says, ‘great, wanna be on it?’ That’s how we got Meryl Streep. They were at a function for Vassar College, where they are both on the board. She said, ‘Your internet show is so funny.’ And Lisa said, ‘Well you have to be careful telling me that because I’ll ask you to be on it.’ Meryl said she’d love to do it. We went to a hotel in New York and rented two hotel suites — she came in on a Saturday morning and was there for four hours. It was the one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
Another participant in the reading of It’s Only a Play is performance artist and television regular John Fleck. Fleck is a friend of Grossman and Skylight co-artistic director Tony Abatemarco and says he’s happy to help with the McNally celebration. He was particularly pleased to accept the role of the “young” director in this play about a play.
“I like the ‘young’ – in theatah we can create that illusion. It’s an hysterical play. Really anybody who’s in the theater will see themselves. It’s after opening night on Broadway at the New York City mansion of the producer. All these wild characters come prancing through. It’s an honor to be there for this great playwright — also there’s a real gay celebration to the whole thing.”
Gay issues have long played an important role in Fleck’s life and art. He became famous as part of the NEA Four in 1990 when he, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were denied National Endowment for the Arts grants. The artists still often appear together for various remembrances and updates of their often queer-themed performance pieces. Though his solo stage work is his signature art form, Fleck has recently had a great deal of success on television — more recently playing less than flamboyant characters.
He played a very serious FBI agent in a recurring role on Weeds. “I can play normal as well as the next guy. Maybe? For about six years, all I played were freaks and fags. So it was nice to play an FBI agent.” But he’s still ready to jump into a freaky role when asked. “Did you miss me on True Blood where I played a sadistic scientist and had my genitals just ripped off? This has been a good year for doing television. I just did a couple episodes on Anger Management with Charlie Sheen. Thank God for all those residuals. I have been so fucking blessed with quality shows.”
The great blessing of residuals is that they allow him to keep his stage career afloat. Locally he is working with Poor Dog Group. He is also collaborating with longtime friend David Schweizer on a piece for Moby Dick month at Broad Stage. “Didn’t you know it was Moby Dick month? I am going to come out in a bath tub and do the sperm speech from Moby Dick and then I am going to morph into a little angel and sing an aria at the end.”
Skylight Theatre Company 2013 Salute to Terrence McNally. Sept 26-29. All-events pass available or individual event ticketing. www.skylighttheatrecompany.com.
Dinner with Terrence McNally, Sept 26, 7 pm – private residence. Tickets: $500.
Industry writers’ panel: “Does It Take One to Know One?” Fri, Sept 27, 8 pm. Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N Vermont Ave, Los Feliz, 90027. Tickets: $30-50
Celebrity reading of It’s Only A Play. Sat, Sept 28, 3 pm and 8 pm. Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N Vermont Ave, Los Feliz. 90027. Tickets: $60.
All-Star Celebration — Salute to Terrence McNally. Sunday, Sept 29, 8 pm, Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills 90211. Tickets: $35-350.