Let us now praise It’s Only a Play. Channeling Neil Simon on a blue bender, Terrence McNally’s caustic catalogue of beastly zingers places so far down on the totem pole of his accomplishments that it didn’t even rate a mention in his New York Times obit, notwithstanding the fact that its Broadway premier in a belated revival was a huge commercial hit.
That 2014 production revealed a great deal about a playwright whose career had more uphill climbs, dizzy-making plunges and hairpin turns than the Coney Island Cyclone. For one thing, the play began life as an out-of-town flop in 1978 (under the title Broadway, Broadway). It was revised over the next decades through off-off and off-Broadway turns when the playwright himself was becoming the Tony-laureled author of Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! and book writer for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime, among many other celebrated works.
The bilious cocktail that might well have seemed unearned for a youngish playwright had, by opening night 36 years later, mellowed into a kind of truth serum for a Broadway that had grown more venal, greed-driven and corporate in the interregnum. No irony, then, that It’s Only a Play, with its A-list cast (Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham, Rupert Grint) and Harry Winston ticket prices, should chomp down so gleefully on the hand that fed it. (Well, certainly no more irony than seeing Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, his love letter to just-folks Kathy Bates and Abraham, turned into Frankie and Johnny, a film starring just-folks Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.)
The objects of McNally’s infection included everyone from Faye Dunaway to Ben Brantley to Lady Gaga to the late John Simon to the cast of A Delicate Balance (which was playing next door at the time and had been written by McNally’s long-ago lover, Edward Albee) to Frank Langella. All in the service, as Brantley himself wrote in his damning-with-faint-praise review, the show’s “raison d’être, which is to sling a whole lot of mud in the nicest possible way … It must be sweet for Mr. McNally, whose own fortunes in the theater have zigzagged dramatically, to be able to have his cake and spit it out, too.”
I leave to others the encomiums deservedly rained on McNally following his death in March. I want to celebrate what fueled his work along with his wit, knowledge, style and compassion: Terrence’s anger, which was, indeed, well earned. Anger, we know, is the fusion element without which humor cannot burst into flame. From the very beginning, McNally was an out gay artist who survived bigotry, stupidity, marginalizing, AIDS, negative reviews, positive reviews and the premature deaths of nearly everyone important to him. In Love! Valour! Compassion!, his most self-consciously Chekhovian play, Lane played Buzz Hauser, a Broadway costume designer who’s HIV+ and whom we first see dressed in an apron and nothing else.
“I’m sick of straight people!” Buzz says, and he’s not kidding (at least not entirely). “Tell the truth, aren’t you? There’s too goddamn many of them! … They’re taking over. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s true.”
“Once, just once, I want to see a West Side Story where Tony really gets it, where they all die, the Sharks and the Jets, and Maria while we're at it, and Officer Krupke, what's he doing sneaking out of the theatre? – get back here and die with everybody else you son of a bitch!,” he explodes in a sudden fit. “Or a King and I where Yul Brynner doesn't get up from that little Siamese bed for a curtain call. I want to see a Sound of Music where the entire Von Trapp family dies in an authentic Alpine avalanche. A Kiss Me Kate where she's got a big cold sore on her mouth. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum where the only thing that happens is nothing and it's not funny and they all go down waiting – waiting for what? Waiting for nothing, waiting for death, like everyone I know and care about is, including me. That's the musical I want to see, Perry, but they don't write musicals like that anymore. In the meantime, gangway, world, get off my runway.”
Many years ago, McNally was invited to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of commercial theater producers and owners. He was an odd choice, and he made the most of it. “The American theater had a great year,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), peering out at the group, “but you weren’t anywhere to be found.” Unspoken was how much he really wanted to be part of that world, but on his own terms.
Nearly all of the obituaries cited McNally’s significance in writing openly and broadly and empathically about gay men and women. And that certainly is central to any appreciation of him. But I salute his anger as well.
“The idea that a gay person can’t have the authentic emotions of a heterosexual – that drove me insane!” he told Times writer Philip Galanes. “So, gay anger, loss, grief and rage run through a lot of my plays.” Roger that.