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Stagestruck : Once a Respected Journeyman Playwright, Terrence McNally Has Become a Veritable Hit Machine, Writing About the Search for Love in This Difficult Age

April 12, 1992|Richard Stayton | Richard Stayton's last story for this magazine was a profile of playwrights John Steppling and Jon Robin Baitz.

ALTHOUGH IT'S ONLY A PLAY READING, THE REHEARSAL ROOM QUAKES WITH laughter. The cast members turn script pages with trembling fingers, leaning on the table to maintain their concentration. Director John Tillinger pulls his sweater over his ruddy face and chews into the fabric, but he can't stop the giggles bubbling out of its headless neck.

Keene Curtis, on a break from his recurring role as the snippy restaurant owner in "Cheers," shows no mercy while reading aloud his dialogue. "But did you hear the one about the terrible actor who was playing Hamlet?" Curtis suppresses a grin and remains in the character of an arrogant drama critic. "He'd barely begun 'To be or not to be' when the audience began booing, throwing things, the works. Finally, the actor stepped forward and said, 'I didn't write this s--.' "

Unlike Curtis and the other working actors, those observing this reading--the technicians, publicists, stage managers and extras--aren't required to repress their emotions. No longer able to remain detached, all let go with that rarest of human sounds, the belly laugh--and are joined by the cast.

Yet one figure seated at the table remains silent. No giggles, just a beatific smile. While the actors speak lines, his lips move along with theirs, unconsciously mouthing every word of dialogue. His blue eyes gleam. Just a week before, in New York, this man seemed every day of 52: balding, fatigued, preoccupied. Now years have vanished, and he resembles a boy at his birthday party.

Terrence McNally has reason to celebrate. The first day of rehearsal for "It's Only a Play" brings the playwright back into what he calls "my good-luck room." This crudely functional space, located in the Taper Annex behind the Music Center, is where his "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" and "The Lisbon Traviata" began rehearsals on their way to becoming runaway hits at the Mark Taper Forum in 1988 and 1990. Now his 1986 off-Broadway satire of egomaniacal stage artists is in revival through June 28 at Hollywood's Doolittle Theatre under Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson auspices. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, McNally's Chekhovian "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" is entering its 11th month. Should "It's Only a Play" thrive in Hollywood, McNally could boast hit shows on both coasts.

McNally is on a roll: four consecutive stage successes in five years; a critically acclaimed screenplay version of "Frankie and Johnny"; an Emmy for "Andre's Mother," his American Playhouse script about a mother, her son who dies of AIDS, and his lover. Of contemporary American playwrights, only Neil Simon and August Wilson share his mainstream audience appeal. It's no accident that Doolittle ads for "It's Only a Play" prominently promote the author's name above the title. McNally is the star with box office clout, even more commercial than an impressive cast that includes Eileen Brennan, Zeljko Ivanek, Dana Ivey and Charles Nelson Reilly (Curtis has since been replaced by Paul Benedict).

But McNally isn't the star because of talk-show appearances. "Most people don't recognize me," he says. "I'm not a famous face." The slight, blond playwright prefers to hide behind his characters: The cynical waitress and short-order cook from "Frankie and Johnny," the obsessive opera queens from "The Lisbon Traviata," the middle-aged couples from "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" and the desperate first-nighters of "It's Only a Play."

"McNally" above the title signals audiences to expect witty, bitchy dialogue. Director Harold Clurman once ranked McNally among "the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult." But unlike Neil Simon, who can't resist manipulating scenes toward a punch line, McNally's humor always emerges out of his characters.

McNally's people are trying to live decent lives in an indecent world. Under the specter of AIDS, total freedom is no longer possible. The playwright of diminished expectations, he embraces and accepts and celebrates our limitations. It's by design that "Frankie and Johnny" ends with the two lovers performing that most ordinary of daily habits, brushing their teeth.

McNally is a gentle humanist, staging how we live now. A McNally play means exploring the little things in life, rarely major philosophical themes. "It is precisely the small things, the little details, that give life meaning," a character says in "Lips Together." Actress Swoosie Kurtz said she discovered while appearing in that play "a helluva lot going on in the emotional map . . . like I'm not acting, I'm just being."

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