R.I.P. Terrence McNally

Well, it has ceased to be abstract. The great American playwright Terrence McNally (1938-2020) has died of complications related to Covid-19. All of you who aren’t taking this seriously, go screw yourselves.

In the interest of rapid response, by way of tribute I share some raw, incomplete thoughts about the writer’s work from my notebooks, which I may polish and fill in over time:

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…One thing I like a great deal about McNally is the variety of voices among his characters. I find very few playwrights actually achieve this. McNally does. Look at the differences in voices between the characters in Frankie and Johnny and Master Class or even within a single play as in Lips Together. It’s more an inborn talent than an accomplishment, but few seem to have this ear for different speech styles. The urge to capture that is one of my whole motivations for writing.

The other reason I think McNally is important is that he occupies a distinct and important niche in American drama (I feel). He bridges the gap between writers of commercial comedy in the Neil Simon mode with more substantive playwrights from off-Broadway and regional theater. To be able to do this: to make crowd-pleasing vehicles that are at the same time rich and thought-provoking, that is the goal. Most major British playwrights have always achieved this. In America, we’ve always had this unhealthy dichotomy. McNally is a successful model of how the desired fusion can be accomplished.

On some of the plays:

Bad Habits (1974) Two very funny related one acts, each set at a different sanitarium. The first, “Ravenswood” features a doctor who indulges his patients in everything they want to do, smoke, drink, eat rich food, have sex. It seems to be a place for couples therapy. It’s full of hilarious lines, but I’m damned if I can find an arc in it. The second “Dunelawn” is not as funny, but better constructed. Here, it’s a substance abuse facility. Two autocratic nurses, Benson and Hedges, keep everyone sedated on drugs. Meanwhile they secretly have their own issues. In both these early plays on the whole McNally demonstrates a common foible of the beginning playwright…letting the funny lines drive the bus.

The Ritz (1975) Very funny (if dated) farce concerning a marginal mob figure who hides out in a place that turns out to be a gay bath house. McNally gets a ton of mileage out of the surprise, culture clash etc…lots of door slamming and hiding under beds. Then the mob guys show up to kill him, and they go through the same, even as the hero is running for his life. The movie version, directed by Richard Lester didn’t do a very good job of adapting it—it’s very much stuck in the play. The cast includes Jack Weston, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, a very young F. Murray Abraham, Treat Williams, and Rita Moreno as a singer everyone assumes is a drag artist (but, who, I ask you would ever mistake Rita Moreno for a dude?).

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1988) F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates starred in the original stage production, Al Pacino and Michele Pfeiffer in the film version. From the top it’s the sort of scenario I ordinarily hate – a couple of people in a room talking. By the second act it truly gets cooking and it does have a terrific arc. A short order cook and waitress have just had a one night stand. The cook has decided it’s true love and comes on intensely, wanting it to last forever. This creeps the waitress out and she wants to get rid of him. Usually, the latter is a “negative” and dramatically negatives are boring and inactive. The reason this play works then is that the waitress doesn’t REALLY want to get rid of him, she is letting herself be ruled by her fear. The action of the play consists of him convincing her (and often shooting himself in the foot) and her convincing herself to risk relinquishing control to this larger thing. This is what makes this a worthy and thought-provoking play. It’s an open question whether she made the right choice. Is he a psychotic nut who’ll ruin her life? He often seems like he may be. Or is he her last chance for happiness? We confront this choice in every realm of our lives, and as we get older the choice gets more dire. (As such chances may well be our last ones). Wonderful that he made these characters very humble people (we don’t get enough of them on the stage) and also that he made them intelligent despite being rough around the edges.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1992) Wonderful, wonderful play, mixing humor with a sort of questioning, probing meditation on death and denial. Two couples, a brother and sister and their spouses, are staying at a house on Fire Island for the Fourth of July. The house, it turns out, belonged to the brother’s wife’s brother, who has died of AIDS. This doesn’t come out for a while, though, nor do many other secrets, such as that the spouses of the brother and sister have had an affair, and that the sister’s husband is dying of cancer. But this stuff sort of percolates, burns through the tissue of a vacation, with all the little chitchat and diversions around meals, suntan oil, etc. Yet death surrounds even this. A wife watches a swimmer swim to his death. Their kids want to go for a hayride in a lightning storm. And everyone is afraid to swim in the pool because they’ll get AIDS. It’s really marvelously written. Original cast was Nathan Lane, Christine Baranksi, Swoozie Kurtz and Anthony Heald. 

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993): to follow

Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994): to follow

Master Class (1995) Hilarious character portrait, based on Maria Callas. Extremely recognizable to anyone who has taken a class with an elderly artist, especially one of stature. The wisdom mixed in with bullying, ego, inappropriate ad hominem attack, self-indulgence, etc. The play takes the form of a class, which is brilliant –- the audience in essence become participants. Then, it goes another step beyond, we get a glimpse into her own past when she was a fat peasant girl, etc. Her vulnerabilities that lead to this huge, hidebound personality. Will these impressionable young students wind up the same way? There is also some knowing satire about the idiocy of Americans…even these students at a master class with a world class opera diva, coming in half-cocked, unprepared and unapologetic about it. Again McNally’s wonderful ear…Callas’s worldly European voice encounters a student named “Sharon Graham.” I thought that was hilarious…very good writing. It’s actually a very small detail. Callas doesn’t make fun of the name. It’s just there for us to contrast with “Callas” and “La Scala” and “Milan”. A good actress, I think, would squirm slightly when she has to tell Callas her name…be embarrassed about this perfectly nice but awfully plain American name, like a set of braces or a face full of pimples.

Ragtime (1998) Absolutely terrific. Catches all the novel’s themes and plots. The emphasis is different from the movie…there is far less of Evelyn Nesbitt. And Houdini is in it (whereas I don’t recall him being in the movie at all). Same with the polar exploration subplot. For people who don’t know the book or film it might be confusing. My kids were a bit confused (but they liked it). We saw it in an excellent off-Broadway production at the Astoria Performing Arts Center of all places. (I reviewed it — I’ll try to dig out the review within a day or so).

The Full Monty (2000): to follow

GO WITH GOD, TALENTED MAN.