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Kiss of the Playwright Popular plays: Tony winner Terrence McNally's works are taking off all over the country.


WASHINGTON -- Terrence McNally's time has come.

Winner of the 1995 Tony Award for "Love! Valour! Compassion!" he had a new play produced even before he won the award.

The new play, "Master Class," opens on Broadway tonight after sold-out runs in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington.

In addition, the touring production of McNally's previous Tony Award winner, the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman," opens at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Wednesday. And many of his two dozen other shows are being revived at theaters across the country.

In Baltimore alone, three of his most popular recent plays are being produced by community theaters this season. "A Perfect Ganesh" is on the boards at AXIS Theatre. "The Lisbon Traviata" will be staged by Everyman Theatre in January, and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" will be done at Fell's Point Corner Theatre in May.

A playwright whose work has been compared to that of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, McNally has been described by Time magazine as "at the height of hot." And that was two years ago -- before the debut of "Master Class" or even "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

Why this surge of interest in McNally? The playwright, soft-spoken and without a trace of his Texas upbringing in his voice, modestly claims not to know the reason.

But Fred Ebb, lyricist of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," suggests, "I just think he's been out there all along and we finally had the good sense to discover him."

Similarly, actor and former Marylander John Glover -- who won a Tony Award last season for his role in McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" -- feels the recent spate of recognition for McNally's work is due to the playwright's career reaching "that point where it all comes together."

Tonight when the curtain rises on "Master Class" at Broadway's Golden Theatre, McNally, who celebrated his 57th birthday Friday, will be sitting calmly in the audience. He wasn't always at ease at openings of his plays. He used to get physically ill.

"I'm pretty calm now, but I've been doing this since I was 23 years old. So you get used to it after a while," he said a few weeks ago. "I'm really a part of the team through opening night. Then I get nervous."

Balding and dressed in a style that could be called professorial casual -- khaki slacks and jacket, knit shirt, suede running shoes -- he perched in an empty box at Kennedy Center's Opera House to talk about his work.

McNally insists, "I have a big terror of repeating myself." The diversity of his plays proves his terror is unfounded. Yet, even such seemingly dissimilar works as "Master Class" (about legendary soprano Maria Callas) and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (about two cellmates in a Latin American prison) have some characteristics in common.

For starters, as in much of McNally's work, music plays a prominent role in both shows. And, both focus on mythical-scale women.

The woman at the center of "Master Class" is, of course, Callas, whose master classes at Juilliard in the early 1970s supplied the framework for the play. In "Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- based on Manuel Puig's novel, which was in turn the basis for the 1985 movie -- the title refers to one of the roles played by a fictitious movie-musical star, Aurora, idolized by an imprisoned homosexual window dresser.

Appropriately, the diva roles of Callas and Aurora are being played by a pair of theatrical divas -- Zoe Caldwell as Callas, and Chita Rivera, reprising her Tony Award-winning role for "Spider Woman's" national tour.

'Line of redemption'

Caldwell has said she finds "a strong line of redemption" in McNally's work, and the playwright acknowledges that this is a common theme. In "Master Class," it takes the form of the redemptive nature of art and culture. The play could easily be described as McNally's testament to the necessity of art.

In "Kiss of the Spider Woman," the theme is reflected in one man's ability to redeem another. The plot concerns the conflict between the cellmates -- one, a meek, gay department store window dresser, and the other, a straight Marxist revolutionary. Eventually a relationship develops between them, expanding the horizons of both men. The result for the window dresser, McNally explains, is that "Someone who thinks he's totally insignificant realizes he does matter."

McNally became involved in "Spider Woman" at the suggestion of lyricist Fred Ebb, who, together with composer John Kander, had previously collaborated with the playwright on the 1984 musical "The Rink."

McNally recalls that Ebb telephoned him from director Harold Prince's office. "They said, 'Would you be interested in a musical of 'Kiss of . . .' I said, God, I hope he finishes the sentence, '. . . the Spider Woman,' and he did, and I said, 'Absolutely.' I didn't hesitate."

The playwright's enthusiasm did not spring from affection for the William Hurt-Raul Julia movie, however. "I'd seen the movie and not particularly liked it," he says bluntly. Hurt's performance as // the window dresser was the source of his dissatisfaction. "He's a wonderful actor, but I hated him in it," he continues.

Instead, the story's "timeless human situation" is what attracted him. "It never seems like a gay tract to me, this piece, though it's easy to read it as that. But what happens between those men is so human that I think that's why it touches a lot of people," he says. "It's about people who think they have nothing in common ending up with enormous respect for each other. I think it's a show about human dignity."

Ebb says he thought of McNally "because everything I've ever seen by him I have thought was beautifully constructed and wonderfully well-written, and I felt that since the essential nature of this piece was dark that it would be wonderful to get someone who could make the jail scenes packed with humor and what I would refer to as the McNally touch: He can be sad and witty in the same scene and intuitive and unfailingly intelligent."

Callas fan

As to the origins of "Master Class," McNally is as devoted a fan of Callas as the window dresser is of Aurora. A decade ago, the playwright wrote his most unabashed tribute to Callas -- "The Lisbon Traviata," a play named for one her pirated recordings.

Though McNally attended some of the opera singer's Juilliard master classes, they didn't directly inspire "Master Class. "I didn't find her a scintillating personality," he admits.

A master class given by another opera singer, Leontyne Price -- which he attended when he was teaching playwriting at Juilliard last year -- turned out to be his inspiration. "I went to it, and I remember thinking, this is very theatrical," he recalls.

"Master Class," however, is about much more than just teaching opera.

"Opera is a metaphor. To me, opera is theater anyway, but it's a metaphor. It is my feelings about art -- how important it is, how difficult it is," he explains. "I do think the arts matter desperately."

McNally's love of opera, and of Callas in particular, is long-standing. He first heard "La Divina" sing on a Mexican radio broadcast when he was growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas. "Her voice spoke to me very directly," he says. "It touches something in my nervous system."

Radio, in general, is something McNally feels greatly influenced his choice of a career. "I grew up in a town that had radio until very late. We didn't have television, and I think maybe another reason I might be a playwright is I got very used to imagining things and couldn't wait to see my dreams realized on stage," he says.

Tutored Steinbeck's children

With the exception of writing the college variety show his senior year at Columbia University, McNally had to wait a few years before that dream came to fruition. After graduation, he worked as a stage manager at the famed Actors Studio and traveled around the world as the private tutor of John Steinbeck's children.

Then in 1965, McNally's first original play, a black comedy called "And Things That Go Bump in the Night," debuted on Broadway. It got some of the worst reviews of his career. The young playwright had previously been involved in a relationship with Edward Albee, and he recalls that the wife of one critic arrived curious to see what the "boyfriend" had written. The show closed after 16 performances, and for a while McNally gave up playwriting.

A Guggenheim Fellowship got him back on track, however, and now he's one of the country's most productive playwrights. One reason he's learned to be calm at openings is because he's usually working on the next play by then. In this case, he's already finished the successor to "Master Class," and though he refuses to say anything about it -- even its title -- he does reveal that it will be next season's opening production at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the theater he has regarded as his artistic home for a decade.

He also recently completed the screenplay of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" This will be shot next summer for Fine Line, with the original Broadway cast. In addition, he's working on a screenplay for Merchant-Ivory of "A Perfect Ganesh," his play about a pair of Connecticut matrons vacationing in India. And, he's written the book for a new musical that's been reported elsewhere as "Ragtime."

Opera in future?

Considering his life-long interest in opera -- as manifest not only in "Master Class" and "The Lisbon Traviata" but also in his longtime role as a panelist on the "Texaco Opera Quiz" -- McNally would seem a logical choice as an opera librettist. And indeed, he acknowledges that the day before this interview he met with "a very famous composer about a very exciting project."

McNally says his life -- "personally and professionally" -- is at a good point. He's been in a committed relationship for several years now. And though his personal life is another topic he's reluctant to discuss, he speaks glowingly of the positive effect unconditional love has had on him.

"My life has all come together," he says. "I didn't have that unconditional love, and I didn't have that relationship 10 years ago."

One of the points emphasized in "Master Class" is the sacrifices artists make. Does its author feel he's made sacrifices for his art? "No, because I'm happy with what I'm doing," he says. "I mean, yes, I could have earned more money if I'd gone to California, but sacrifice means you gave up something you wanted. I wanted what I'm having -- a career in the theater."

'Kiss of the Spider Woman'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: Nov. 8-19. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12; matinees 2 p.m. Nov. 9, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19

Tickets: $35-$57.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

'A Perfect Ganesh'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Nov. 19. Through Nov. 19

Tickets: $12 and $14

Call: (410) 243-5237

'Master Class'

Where: Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York

When: Opens tonight

Tickets: $32.50-$45

Call: (212) 239-6200

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