The writer of Love! Valour! Compassion! and other landmark plays—and, believe it or not, once a Corpus Christi boy—returns to Texas to give a reading at Imprint.
By D.L. Groover
Terrence McNally is a gentleman and a scholar. Gracious, measuring his words with all the rightness of Julia Child spooning out flour, he has spent 40 years in the American theater creating a body of work filled with distinctive flair, sexual sizzle, and characters yearning to connect. Alright, I don’t know if he’s a scholar or not, but he knows more about the human heart than most of us—its aches, its ecstasies—and that’s a good enough reason to write plays, and for us to call him a scholar.
As an openly gay playwright (or as he would rather say, a playwright who is gay), his impressive body of work has done more to bring gay life smack into middle-class America than any of his contemporaries. His gay-themed successes have been big Broadway hits and multiple Tony Award winners (The Ritz; Kiss of the Spider Woman; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart) that tout a can’t-we-all-just-get-along tolerance as well as a take-no-prisoners approach to sex. And his “straight” comedies and dramas—award winners, too (Ragtime, Master Class, The Full Monty, Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune, the libretto for Dead Man Walking, the Jake Heggie opera)—deal in universal themes that speak to all dreamers and lookers for love, regardless of gender.
His most brazenly gay works (Corpus Christi, Crucifixion, and the softer, disjointed Some Men, now undergoing McNally’s extensive rewrites for a New York run in March) and his latest plays (Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, the musicals Man of No Importance and Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, and The Stendhal Syndrome) haven’t been as popular with theatergoers or critics, but each of his new works has always been highly anticipated, whatever the orientation of its characters. They all possess McNally’s love of theater and actors, of the sharp epigram, of the sad/funny human dilemma.
His latest creation, Deuce, opens in May in New York, and has blockbuster potential written all over it, because McNally has pulled off the biggest theatrical coup of the season (and many previous) by luring Angela Lansbury back onstage after two decades away from the footlights. This is equivalent to writing a new musical and having Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, and Judy Garland co-star. As icing, Lansbury’s co-star is the doyenne of dramatic theater, Marian Seldes, a Tony winner for her indelible portrait in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. (Broadway’s a very small world: McNally and Albee were lovers decades ago.)
It’s going to be quite a world premiere.
Filled with Southern conviviality—he grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas—McNally tries to temper his enthusiasm, but can’t help bubble at the news in a telephone interview from his home in New York.
“Everybody loves Angela. She’s a little like Chita Rivera, that way,” McNally says. (Ms. Rivera won her two Tony awards for best actress in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which McNally wrote the books, and she is currently touring in the biographical show Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, also written by McNally.) “But there’re no juicy stories. Angela’s beloved. She’s a pro. People adore her. I am thrilled that this is the first time she’s been on a stage for a play in 24 years. Everybody in the world has been trying to lure her back to Broadway.”
And just how did he do it? “I wrote a play she liked. I sent it to her and she called back within 36 hours. I couldn’t believe it!”
The news had him jumping up and down in his driveway.
“I’m not big talking about my plays. I guess I’m not big talking about them after they’ve opened, either. Audiences will figure out what it’s about. I don’t think anyone’s ever said they didn’t understand a play of mine, or that it’s obtuse.”
Deuce examines the relationship between two women, professional tennis doubles partners, who haven’t seen each other in many years and now are being honored for lifetime achievement.
“The play’s about friendship and change, and women’s roles in society—women outside of home and hearth setting. These were women who went through the change of ‘ladies lawn tennis’ into the ‘Open.’ They became women and stopped being ladies.”
And were they, perhaps, lovers off the court?
“No,” McNally states with gentle emphasis, “they’re both pretty heterosexual.” Then he teases, “So far. If they’ve had any dalliances, they haven’t told me!”
A professional playwright for 42 years, McNally has never stopped working, usually juggling two or more projects at the same time. While Deuce goes into rehearsals, there’s a recital piece by composer Heggie to be adapted from the final scene of Master Class, McNally’s tribute to opera legend Maria Callas. Then there’s also the book for the musical Catch Me If You Can by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, writers of
Hairspray, and the rewrite of Some Men, his provocative and timely play about gay marriage.
“I write about things that interest me, and same-sex marriage is a very important issue. I feel very passionate about it. I think it’s a right that is long due gay men and women.” This past December, McNally and his partner Thomas Kirdahy celebrated the third anniversary of their Vermont civil union.
“Some Men begins and ends at a same-sex wedding. Two men are getting married, and it explains how the guests got there, the events in their lives that led them there. Twenty years ago it never would have happened. How did we end up here? I always start with characters, not themes.
“I certainly think gay marriage is going to happen. I’m 68, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in my lifetime. It’s a civil right that cannot be denied. It’s just painstaking work by a lot of unfamous lawyers who bit by bit get it done, the same way the sodomy laws were overturned.
“We’re no longer marginalized members of society. It’s so inevitable and important, it will happen. Of course, the inevitable never seems inevitable until it happens. No one that night at Stonewall in1969 thought that they were participating in an important moment in American history, let alone gay social history. Who knew? But gay marriage will happen.”
Who could doubt this man? He has won four Tonys, knows Angela Lansbury, and has spent a lifetime writing passionately about the importance of commitment and the human need to be connected. He knows.
McNALLY IN HOUSTON
As if he’s not busy enough in the new year, Terrence McNally travels to Houston on January 22 for the prestigious Brown Reading Series presented by Inprint, the creative-writing organization, at the Alley Theatre. Members of the Alley acting company will read scenes from McNally plays, after which McNally will answer questions from the audience. Tickets: www.inprint-inc.org.