Moviecrazed
  Web www.moviecrazed.com   



HE KNOWS HOW TO MAKE THE BEST OF HIS BAD HABITS

When I interviewed Terrence McNally in 1974 for The New York Times, he was hot because of his Off Broadway hit "Bad Habits." Over the years, he got even hotter with the likes of "The Ritz," "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," "Love! Valor! Compassion!" and "Master Class." --GUY FLATLEY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Terrence McNally plops his Bloody Mary down on the coffee table of his snug West Village apartment and takes a long, immensely satisfying drag on his cigarette. His blond hair is close-cropped, his eyes baby-blue, and as he sinks onto the sofa, sipping and smoking and shushing Charley, his peppery puffball of a dog, he looks like a slightly fallen, 34-year-old cherub.

“I tried to give up smoking once,” he sighs, vaguely southern-sounding. “In fact, I did give it up-–for almost a year. But my whole life became not smoking. I wrote next to nothing and I lost all my friends.”

Now McNally smokes like a chimney, has flocks of friends and is the author of “Bad Habits,” the sort of Off Broadway smash comedy you didn’t think they made anymore. Actually, “Bad Habits” is two plays–-“Ravenswood” and “Dunelawn,” each set in a blissfully mad mental institution.

In the first play, one of the patients-–a chubby chap who made a manly but futile stab at murdering his wife before she could get a whack at him-–has spent many uptight years suppressing his yen to smoke and drink. Until that fabulous day he rambles into Ravenwood and is advised by the man in charge-–the daffy Dr. Pepper--that the quickest road to emotional calm is the one paved with booze, nicotine and whoopee-–with or without the lethal Little Woman.

Not that McNally has had the chutzpah to put himself into his own play. True, he does smoke and drink, but he is slight of build and has never been married or institutionalized. Or even been to a shrink. “I go to the doctor when I feel bad,” he explains.

But don’t expect him to explain “Bad Habits,” since he makes a habit of remaining mum on the meaning of all his plays. “I’ve always been envious of playwrights who give interviews in which they make profound statements about their plays. But I just don’t think that way. Obviously, ‘Bad Habits’ is commenting on certain psychiatric practices, and I’d be curious to know how psychiatrists view the plays. What I really hope, though, is that I’ve created characters people will laugh with and be touched by. That’s how I approach plays-–through characters.”

And frequently McNally’s characters have a talent to shock, as well as amuse. Like the maybe-hetero, maybe-gay hero of “Noon,” who places a lurid ad in an underground paper and ends up with an absurdly erotic mob on his hands; like that sweet-smiling, mealy-mouthed, pea-brained wife of the President of the United States in “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” who persists in making a patriotic speech while being sexually mauled by a retarded teenage girl; like the pathetic roly-poly in “The Ritz"-–McNally’s tenth play, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theater and bound for Broadway–-who suffers a shattering punch in the psyche when he stumbles into a public bath catering to an all-male clientele.

Most of McNally’s wickedly wacky plays have bloomed Off Broadway. But not all. Take, for tragic instance, his first play–-“And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” the bizarre tale of a deliriously decadent lad who brings home his transvestite boyfriend for the family to fondle and reduce to a blithering blob. At the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where the play tried out, McNally was looked upon as a sophisticated, 25-year-old hotshot, and “Bump” seemed the perfect blend of sugar and vice for the Big Apple.

April 26, 1965: Sardi’s. A time and place painfully inscribed on McNally’s memory. The trembly walk from the theater to the celebrity--jammed restaurant was straight out of “The Last Mile.” His parents and his younger brother-–fresh from Corpus Christi, Texas, for the once-in-a-lifetime event--were waiting anxiously. And so were John and Elaine Steinbeck, his buddies since the round-the-world trip he had taken with them during the year he tutored their two teen-age sons.

“I walked into Sardi’s knowing there was no way in the world ‘Bump’ could be a hit, and there was my father, beside the Steinbecks, standing and clapping. I took one look at him and said, ‘Dad, please stop that clapping!’ And then I looked over my shoulder and turned crimson. My dad, and everyone else, was clapping for Eileen Heckart, the star of the show. I’ve hardly been back to Sardi’s since.”

Nonetheless, McNally still has a soft spot in his heart for “Bump” and he suspects that he himself may have been a bit to blame for its brutal Broadway brush-off. “Several producers had come out to Minneapolis and they all said, ‘You’ve got a good play here, but what it needs is a new director and a new cast.’ Being a novice, I went along with that, even though we had Larry Kornfeld as the director in Minneapolis, and Joe Chaikin and Leueen McGrath were in the cast. It wasn’t until too late that I realized what an enormous difference a director and cast can make. From the first day of rehearsals in New York, I knew the play was not going to work out. From the first reading, uneasiness came creeping into the room.”

It was almost enough to send McNally creeping back to Corpus Christi, but not quite. “It’s a pleasant town where I come from, but they don’t really need a playwright there,” says McNally, puffing on his cigarette and recalling a not-so-Catholic boyhood of skipping mass on Sundays and playing poker with his pals instead.

“My youth was a little bit like ‘American Graffiti.’ Driving around Mac’s Drive-In in our cars, going to the beach and drinking beer. But there was also listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcast of the opera and reading poetry, and not being made to feel like a freak for it. In high school, there was an English teacher-–Maureen McElroy–-who took several of us under her wing. She had a salon, and we would go to her house after school and drink Cokes and she would tell us things about Shelley and Shakespeare.”

McNally yearned to be a playwright even before Maureen McElroy popped into his life–-although his early efforts were not supposed to be a laughing matter. “My first play was made up from the background notes on a George Gershwin record album, and I had George marrying a pretty girl named Ira. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that not one of my teachers knew enough to say, ‘Nice play, Terry, but Ira was George’s brother'?”

McNally all but blushes at the memory of his naivete. “My play ended with George dying and the cast–-Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman and all the others–-saying, ‘He’d want us to go on with the show.’ The last number in the show had George singing, ‘I’m on my way, I’m on my way.’ I read that play to John Steinbeck one night and he rolled and rolled on the floor and he wouldn’t stop laughing.”

Growing up not altogether absurd in Corpus Christi led McNally to Columbia University (where he received a B.A. in English in 1960), to a strong tie with budding playwright Edward Albee, a “Bumpy” bow on Broadway, a bloody retreat to academe as the assistant editor of Columbia College Today, a $45-a-week job as stage manager at the Actors Studio, and–-finally-–to a crucial friendship with Elaine May, who very nicely nagged him into reshaping “Next,” after its so-so reception at Stockbridge, Mass., in the summer of 1968. The following year, Miss May directed McNally’s close chum James Coco in this Off Broadway frolic about a 48-year-old misfit who is mistakenly abducted into the Army; the results were happy for all concerned.

“Elaine taught me that plays are about what people do, not what they say, that dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. And she taught me to write people instead of symbols. Audiences come to the theater to find out about the people on the stage, not to be lectured by Terrence McNally on the social and political state of America.”

Surprisingly, comedienne Elaine May nixed some of the jokes in “Next.” “At first, Jimmy Coco felt that she was taking all the laughs out, but Elaine said, ‘When characters deal in gags and jokes, you pay a terrible price for them. You’re left without characters and you’re left without a play.’ Elaine realized that although my plays have a comic edge, they must be played dead seriously. The truth is, I don’t think of myself as funny. When a director says, ‘We need a funny line here,’ that’s when I develop writer’s block.”

All the same, McNally is funny, perhaps never more so than when he is poking holes in our rusty sexual armor.

“Yes, there is an element of sex in my plays. But sex is in the air. It’s everywhere. People do want to have sex, but they also want love.”

In “Sweet Eros,” which succeeded in bringing a blush to Off Broadway, there was not only an element of sex, there was a conspicuous element of nudity. That element was Sally Kirkland. Stripped by a kooky kidnapper and tied to a chair, Sally didn’t say a word in the play, but she showed plenty, thereby managing to beat “Oh, Calcutta!” to the naked punch and become the theatrical pioneer of 1968.

“Sally acted the part superbly, but I don’t think the audience really heard ‘Sweet Eros’-–the news story overwhelmed what the play was trying to say,” McNally says, mixing his second Bloody Mary of the afternoon. “I wonder how it would go now, or wonder how it would have gone then if Sally had not played it in the nude. Of course, I wrote it that way, but somehow I never thought it would be produced that way.”

Sally’s sadly funny abductor in “Sweet Eros” was Robert Drivas, the talented young actor who had played the sickee son in “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” and who managed to persuade McNally not to throw in the theatrical sponge. “I thought I should crawl under a rock after ‘Bump,’ but Bobby encouraged me to write another play.”

Lucky for Bobby, for he won smash reviews as a gently schizoid drifter in McNally’s “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?’ in 1971. And now, with “Bad Habits,” Drivas has taken a giant step in the direction of directing.

“One night, Bobby and Elaine May and her husband were here for dinner, and afterward Elaine said, ‘O.K., let’s read a play.’ So we read ‘Bad Habits’ and Elaine said, ‘Bobby, you should direct this play.’ And he’s done a great job of it. I think actors make splendid directors, and I hope one day Jimmy Coco will direct something of mine. Jimmy and Bobby both intuitively know what I’m saying, what I’m all about.”

McNally is a playwright in search of actors. “I need actors who have a certain style, a heightened sense of realism, the ability to give the essence of a situation. I go to the theater often, and I keep lists of actors I’d like to work with. I’d love to work with Zoe Caldwell, and-– from the very beginning-–I had envisioned Irene Worth as the mother in ‘Bump.’

“When I’m writing a play, I frequently think of a particular actor-–a Jimmy Coco or a Doris Roberts-–and then I just visualize what that actor would bring to the part. Sometimes it turns out that the actor doesn’t want the part, but still it helps to be concrete in my writing. Over the years, I had seen Doris Roberts in many things, and it was so nice to send her the script for ‘Bad Habits,’ as opposed to saying come to the Royale Theater at 10:15 A.M. for an audition. Readings are so unfair to actors.”

Occasionally an actor will get away-–like Michael Moriarty, a Broadway sensation this season as a homosexual who loses his head over a married man in “ Find Your Way Home.”

“We had Michael in my play ‘Whiskey’ last year, but we let him go during rehearsals so that he could do ‘The Glass Menagerie’ on television with Katharine Hepburn. And in ‘Bad Habits,’ we lost one actor to ‘Lorelei,’ which I think was crazy of him, because there’s only one person in ‘Lorelei.’”

And even though James Coco was a huge draw in “Next,” he was allowed to leave the show. “After all, Jimmy was a friend, and if a movie comes along you can hardly say, ‘You can’t do the movie because you have a contract to do this play for $175 a week.’ Everyone in the theater is entitled to make a living, and the best you can do is try to make your actors feel at home and hope they’ll come back. I’m sure David Merrick wouldn’t let an actor out of a play to take a part in a movie.”

David Merrick will never get McNally’s vote as the theater’s most benevolent producer. “I wrote Merrick a letter, asking him to come see ‘Bad Habits’ when it was being done at the Manhattan Theater Club, and I never even got an answer from him. He sits and waits for a star to head up his show. It’s easier for Carol Channing to walk into his office and say I want to do a revival of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ than it is for me to get him to see my new play.

“It’s the producers who are at fault for not finding new American playwrights. You put together a workshop production, you sit down and write invitations to Alexander Cohen and Saint Subber, and they don’t even respond. They know who we are, but their lack of interest in what we are doing startles me. Granted, they might hate it once they see it, but they won’t even take the trouble to see it.

“I’ve known Al Pacino and Bobby De Niro and Jimmy Coco for years,” McNally says, lighting another cigarette, "and I’ll tell you something about them. They haven’t gotten one bit better-–they were just as good five years ago. David Merrick should have used them then.”