In 1963, Terrence McNally first had his name in a Playbill when his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's The Lady of the Camellias opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. His most recent credit is the libretto for this past season's Anastasia, currently playing at the Broadhurst. Within that span of fifty-four years, he has earned the recognition of his peers as a master dramatist: four Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards, two Obies, and an Emmy. McNally is perhaps our greatest living playwright of a certain age. And that age would be seventy-nine today.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, we (and McNally) are lucky he got out of there alive. As a young boy, he was putting on operas in his garage, which is something a young gay man didn't do in rural Texas in the late 1940s and early '50s without severe consequences. Largely ignored by his mother and father, he still managed (through the good graces of one particularly wonderful teacher who encouraged his writing) to head for New York City at seventeen and Columbia University, where more great teachers helped shape and mold the man he would become.
It was my honor and pleasure to have the chance a few days ago to see some advance scenes from an upcoming documentary about McNally titled Every Act of Life, which covers in loving detail his life in the theatre. His life in life, really. For without utilizing the tools of everything a playwright has learned in a lifetime, how else does anything get written? McNally has been at it a long time, calling out injustice, insensitivity, intolerance and insipidness whenever possible, with humor, grace and humor (I know ... I said humor twice).
The glimpses into his plays the documentary highlights are funny; achingly so at times. But with the exception of a few, like his hilarious farce The Ritz (1975), McNally's humor is based more in exploiting life's every day foils and tribulations than anything else. It's who the man is, so it's what his plays are. It's as simple as that, but like everything McNally does, making it look simple is part of his genius. As but one example, take his beautiful play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which I was fortunate to see in its original Off-Broadway production with Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh in 1987. In it, the curtain rises on a couple who have just finished love making. As the evening unfolds, we get to know them at the same pace and timing as they get to know one another. The play is positively profound in its simplicity. Beginning with two people naked in the dark, we witness their interaction in real time—which after a hundred minutes or so brings us to the play's final moment—both of them in their bathrobes, sharing the intimate act of brushing their teeth in the light. I will never forget how glorious McNally could make such a common act. Art isn't easy.
Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh in Frankie and Johnny (1987).
As it is in both life and in art (hard to separate the two, isn't it?), many are called upon in the film to talk about McNally. It's the common way a documentary is structured and this one is no different, except for the fact that all who speak are so invested in the man. Actors like Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Edie Falco and F. Murray Abraham are not just McNally's friends and contemporaries, they have also, on occasion, served as his muses. So did actors no longer with us like James Coco and Robert Drivas, who was once McNally's lover, as was the playwright Edward Albee. All contributed in different ways to who McNally would become as man and artist, and it makes the journey all the more interesting as it unfolds as a film, telling its story as it does in such an interesting and ultimately moving fashion.
Even with ringing endorsements, such as his back-to-back Best Play Tonys for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class (1995 and 1996), there is one failure of his that I have always equated a success even alongside other more notable triumphs. It is the story of the very first of his original plays that opened on Broadway, as told by the playwright himself in a 2010 interview in the Washington Post:
"I've never felt like a critics' darling. And Things That Go Bump in the Night opened April 26, 1965 and closed twelve days later. I thought the reviews would say, 'flawed, uneven, by a vital, talented playwright,' but one said, 'It would have been better if Terrence McNally's parents smothered him in his cradle.' Actually, two reviews of my first play mentioned my death."
Such notices had the power to invoke what they so cruelly suggested. And had the play closed in one night, there was every chance he might have packed his things and called it a career. But that's not what happened, and it's why I love this story so much. For when the play's producer, Theodore Mann, discovered there was a surplus in the play's budget, he realized he didn't have to close it quickly. Able to afford keeping it open another week, he ran an ad offering theatregoers the chance to see it for a $1 a ticket. Even though that only meant a handful of additional performances, it served to bolster McNally's faith in his abilities, by virtue of his being able to hear audiences laugh for a week beyond those devastating reviews.