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‘Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune,’ Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon Keep it Profound!

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Terrence McNally, Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon, Broadhurst Theatre

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’ written by Terrence McNally and directed by Arin Arbus starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, at the Broadhurst Theatre New York (Deen van Meer)

Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon directed by Arin Arbus spike Terrence McNally’s 1980s New York City “romance for the ages” Frankie & Johnny  in the Clair de Lune with organic authenticity and powerhouse performances. Both actors cleverly negotiate the difficulties of comedy by not playing for humor. Their characters are driven by overt and subterranean desires, and in that they are humorous. In not pushing for laughs, a grave danger in a play (the laughs change every night based upon a thousand audience variables) the actors come up with the most unexpected and surprising riffs. Considering that these moments are emotionally based, this shows their consummate technique and absolutely glorious listening/effecting. They are among the most talented and superlative of actors in portrayals that are precisely shepherded with adroit skill by Arbus to release their profound and moving sensibilities.

On a superficial level, we assume we know the play which was also made into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (1991); it’s been revived in New York City, most recently with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in 2002.

In this current time of sexting and posting fleshly photos on Social media “private” and then being hacked into and displayed, the play is downright quaint, even with the nudity. And yet these actors and the director transcend the quaintness, elevate the current thematic mores/trends/folkways, of romance and find the beauty of individuality which is what Terrence McNally strives for in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire De Lune.

What is it about this night, this couple? Distinction despite their “apparent” inconsequentiality in the era of Trumpism! With each other, their particularly shines. McNally brings this into intriguing relief, smartly realized by Arbus, Shannon and McDonald. Their humanity and what makes them who they are inherently is unique and poignant, as they confront the human condition of loneliness, doubt, self-torment and pain in relationships that have decayed like rotten fruit.

The play raises fascinating themes. One is that we underestimate our exceptionalism or convert it into a fear of the unknown in ourselves and a fear of our possibilities. In New York City (the setting of the play is NYC, 1980s) where over 8 million people live and work, the impulse is to maintain a familiar invisibility negotiating the sheer mass of people. Apart from this, many live their lives attempting to be like others in their social groups, even in their “intimate relationships” to the point where they don’t acknowledge soul differences nor respect them.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Terrence McNally, Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon, Broadhurst Theatre

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’ written by Terrence McNally and directed by Arin Arbus starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, at the Broadhurst Theatre New York (Deen van Meer)

McNally explores this exceptionalism in two seemingly ordinary lower middle class individuals (a waitress, a short-order cook) that no one would find interesting, especially when folks are striving to become rich in an age of “greed is good.” McNally spins the vitality of these two by examining their depth, prompted by Johnny’s compulsion to realize the opportunity before him with Frankie; this active movement on his part creates the dynamic of their growing involvement with each other and shifting perception about themselves.

After intense love making, Johnny stops himself from disengaging from Frankie. Instead, he does not ignore her and dismiss what has just happened, which Frankie would prefer. He goes deep. In attempting to communicate with her to make sense of who they can be together, he finally explains his “vision” to a radio host convincing him to play the most beautiful music to get Frankie to connect with him. Johnny tells him (in Frankie’s hearing) that he stopped himself from the “usual rosary,” i.e. thinking of “the million reasons” why he should not love Frankie, why they wouldn’t work out.

The irony is that Johnny pursues what is on another level. They’re physical manifestation of love was “perfect.” And that is an indication of possibilities, of recognizing what is profound within each of their souls. Johnny senses her uniqueness. And for that reason he will not follow the path he followed many times before – forgetfulness, dismissal, staying superficial. With the courage of his convictions, he persists in attempting to persuade her to do the same: to go deep.

Johnny’s action which creates the arc of development has little to do with a repeat performance of “sex” and all to do with seeing each other on a soul/spiritual level. From Johnnie’s perspective, if they can achieve that, their relationship will be able to build and grow. It’s what Johnny means about “connection,” that ethereal thing that can happen during making love, but not always. He and Frankie have experienced it and for some reason Frankie fears or is defensive about a continued intimacy with conversation. In attempting to have Frankie “connect” with him again, Johnny intuits that they need to hear the music of transcendence to take them out of the mundane. That he hopes will ease the way back for her to engage on that other level once more. Indeed, it is that level on which the finest, most truthful relationships are based.

To miss the depth of what is happening between the characters is not doing justice to McNally’s play or the performances and direction. This is the focus that remains alive and present in this wonderful revival. Johnny believes in that profound level of connection. Frankie fears, eschews and resists it. McDonald and Shannon make us care why these two behave in their “compulsions.” They make us care whether they can become the couple for “all time,” “Frankie and Johnny.”

What I particularly appreciate is how McNally has reverse troped the characters of Frankie and Johnny in the backdrop of a culture which is uber jaded regarding “love” and “romance.” Arbus, Shannon and McDonald have mined the gold in McNally’s ironic twists and tweaks.

Here, the man wants intimacy, love and bonding. The woman just wants sex, a slam, bam, thanks, see ya. Frankie is beyond skeptical and doubtful about Johnny. She closes him out, doesn’t hear what he is saying, doesn’t “connect,” until after she slaps him.

Because of Frankie/Audra McDonald’s revelatory inner authenticity-her resistance to Johnny/Shannon’s importuning her to “go deep,” warning alarms go off. If one has studied or read the M.O. of abused women, they should “get” McDonald’s Frankie’s impulsive, defensive reactions and nervousness. She has been abused in a way that has damaged her psychically so that all bets for true intimacy are off. She can’t allow herself to take that risk again, regardless of the physical “something” between them. That can be dismissed as sex, nothing more which is precisely what Frankie seeks to do, but Johnny will not let her get away with it.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Terrence McNally, Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon, Broadhurst Theatre

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’ written by Terrence McNally and directed by Arin Arbus starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, at the Broadhurst Theatre New York (Deen van Meer)

McNally’s characterization of Frankie resonates even more strongly today. Current sexual predation numbers despite all the #MeToo publicity and positive directions have not decreased. Physical/sexual abuse transcends economic and social class backgrounds. Wives of billionaires are abused as are women of partners of lower socioeconomic classes.  Often women who have been abused cannot be intimate. They will have sex and may seek it out as a form of control. But the abuse must be worked through before intimacy becomes welcome.

Abuse from a former partner we discover is making Frankie resist Johnny which she reveals in Act II. Some have suggested the play can be done in one act. The intensity of the characterizations has eluded these critics; Frankie’s violence and then revelation about why she reacts as she does must come full bore in the modulations after the radio host plays a transcendent song that will “connect” them. And by the conclusion as we follow the journey of how they both work through their psychic damage, we see they are together and perhaps “perfectly” as Johnny suggests in Act I.

The development is crucial and needs the breadth that McNally gives it. At the end of Act I when Frankie appears to be persuaded by Johnny to become intimate in the way he wishes, she “controls” and pushes him to have sex which we discover at the beginning of Act II “fails.” Johnny’s “failure” is humorously rendered by the actors. However, this “failure” also reveals that “the connection” between them still isn’t trusted by Frankie. That doesn’t stop Johnny from persisting, and they both become adorable and familiar to each other in their gradual revelation of the truth of themselves.

McDonald’s portrayal of McNally’s Frankie is right-on: her fear of intimacy, her insistence to control sex, to control him is paramount. Her abusive reaction to him is also spot-on. Her breakthrough effected by both actors beautifully as Shannon stops the abuse and kisses the hand that slapped him is an important turning point. We know something happened to her in the past; Johnny senses it and is lovingly helping her work through it. His attempt to connect with her is scintillating. It is an irony that she converts the beauty of this moment back to sex and “wanting him.” In showing her “desire”, she is actually pushing him away. No wonder Johnny’s “manhood” fails him. He wants more than a little friction! Shannon is just terrific in effecting this with sensitivity and great feeling.

In Act II Johnny has another hurdle after she reveals she has been abused. He must convince her to move beyond the need to control using sex, and recognize that between them there is the opportunity for something transcendent and profound. In their uniqueness, such riches are available to them because of who they are together. This is rare, it isn’t possible for others and how fortunate/destined they are that they have “found” each other.

This sensitivity from a guy who seeks to make a connection on another level and eventually understands how to do this with a beautiful song to “get there,” is mind-blowing. One might say cynically, “Men are just not like this!” “The playwright is gay and writing his own fantasy male.” Or these characters are simply beyond the pale and this is a modern “fairy-tale!” Well, that is missing McNally’s searing point which Arbus and the actors have elicited in this production. This is possible. But what one must risk is failure, or being ego-less. Risking the pain of failure is frightening, especially if one has gone down that road before.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Terrence McNally, Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon, Broadhurst Theatre

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’ written by Terrence McNally and directed by Arin Arbus starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, at the Broadhurst Theatre New York (Deen van Meer)

Arbus, Shannon and McDonald apply their brilliant talents seamlessly. The actors convince us Frankie and Johnny are possible because of the actors’ stunning and detailed inner logic which simmers with backstory. If it is possible for them, it might be available for other “Frankie and Johnny’s” in a universe of lonelyhearts. Their relationship is a beacon and a warning not to be like married couples who married out of fear and never “connected,” or who were matched up by others because they were “perfect” for one another, only they weren’t.

Perhaps one of the strongest themes of this production is found by looking at how Frankie and Johnny evolve together “magically” to achieve a level that many couples don’t achieve. The play begs the question, why are Frankie and Johnny so stellar and original? Why can’t their evolution be the norm, not the exception?

The reasons are multitudinous. But one of the reasons is that our culture and society warps men and women with platitudes and tropes and gender annihilation in some quarters. “Men don’t cry.” “Don’t be gay, be a manly man.” “Women are best being quiet and looking pretty.” Women who are feminists are feminazis. Women must look only a few ways to be feminine and beautiful.

The fact that the nullifying stereotypes behind such commentary still exist today is appalling; and now there is a Trumpist backlash that embraces such thought. On social media and beyond, there is an actual collective of Incels. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sexual predation and abuse are as old as time, and paternalism and misogyny. It is tragic that there is a necessity for a #MeToo movement because of the misogyny and paternalism inherent in our folkways and mores.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune flies in the face of all this noise. It reminds us of the humanity of individuals, not of the stereotypes of genders. This production encourages us to look into the souls of individuals and make those priceless connections which rebel against that which would attempt to defile the bounty of our humanity by slopping it on the trash heap of stereotypes and labels. Bravo, to McNally’s original vision and Arbus,’ Shannon’s and McDonald’s adherence to it, allowing the themes of the play to soar along with the incredible portrayals of these wonderful characters.

Kudos to all the artistic creatives: Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design) Emily Rebholz (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design) J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig & Makeup Design) Claire Warden (Intimacy & Fight Director).

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune runs with one intermission at the Broadhurst Theatre (44th Street between 7th and 8th) in a limited engagement until 25th August. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

Why We Need a ‘Concert for America’

James Wesley, Terri Burke, (ACLU Texas), Seth Rudetsky, Concert for America, Great Hall at Cooper UNion

(L to R): James Wesley, Terri Burke (ACLU of Texas), Seth Rudetsky ‘Concert For America,’ Great Hall at Cooper Union (Monica Simoes)

Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley of Sirius XM prompted by a friend had a great idea for June 30. Have a benefit concert with celebrity entertainers. Not only did US citizens need to march, they also needed to be uplifted. So once again, Rudetsky and Wesley brought together, this time in just an amazing week or so, marvelous artists and speakers to perform a concert of songs, comedy and commentary to give us hope during these trying times. They hosted the Concert for America at Cooper Union’s Great Hall on June 30 right after the marches across the nation were concluding.

Tina Fey, Concert for America, Seth Rudetsky, James Wesley

Tina Fey, ‘Concert for America,’ hosted by Sirius XM’s Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, June 30 to be rebroadcast July 8, 9 pm ET (Monica Simoes)

The Concert for America which took place on June 30 will be rebroadcast on Sunday, July 8 at 9:00 pm ET on two sites. www.ConcertsforAmerica.com and  Facebook.com/ConcertForAmerica.   On the sites you may also donate to organizations helping out on our southern border: Al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas and Florence Project. The donations will be split up evenly to the four groups. Here’s why your donation will make a difference.

James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Concert for America,

(L to R): James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky Sirius XM’s hosts for ‘Concert for America’ being rebroadcast on July 8, Sunday 9 pm ET, http://www.ConcertsforAmerica.com (Carole Di Tosti)

Though the ACLU has been fighting on behalf of immigrants for months and years, the situation has declined. The Zero Tolerance Policy piloted without fanfare was instituted but the chaos it created impacted thousands to cries of outrage. Though the administration “rescinded” the policy, the fallout and abuse is continuing. To give a bit of background  this is what happened in the past months.

Idina Menzel, Concert for America, Cooper Union

Idina Menzel came from one show and rushed back to her other show to take a stand and uplift the audience, Concert for America, Great Hall, Cooper Union (Monica Simoes)

Unbeknownst to all but a few officials and law enforcement at the Southern Border, immigrant children were being taken from their parents as they attempted to gain asylum. Egregiously, babies were ripped from mothers who feared they might never see their young ones again. But those who saw and had a conscience and image of a better United States under the constitution, leaked information. Whistleblowers, distressed at what they witnessed as human rights violations contacted senators like Jeff Merkely (D. Oregon).

Tina Fey, Concert for America

Tina Fey, ‘Concert for America’ (Monica Simoes) rebroadcast on Sunday, July 8, 2018, 9:00 pm ET at http://www.ConcertsforAmerica.com

Finally, after repeated attempts to gain entrance to facilities and being turned away, lawmakers visited and observed. Then they spoke out fervently and stirred the hearts of Americans and people around the world against the injustices and cruelty to children in detention centers. When reporters were invited into the Walmart that had been converted to house children,  Jacab Soboroff’s and other reporters’ news broadcasts shocked US citizens. What they revealed exemplified a country misaligned with democratic constitutional values and human rights principles. These were practices more reminiscent of fascist politics and shameful moments in our history.  What they witnessed, reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during WWII, chronicled abusive treatment directed at innocent children. Was this representative of our hope to evolve our nation toward a more perfect union?

Patrick Wilson, James Wesley, Chita Rivera, Olga Merediz, Concert for America

Patrick Wilson, James Wesley, Chita Rivera, Olga Merediz and the cast of ‘Concert for America,’ (Monica Simoes)

Counter-narratives long on rants about thousands and thousands of invaders (MS 13) and short on facts, with illogical contradictions and misinformation abounded on alt-right conservative media and entertainment media like Fox News. One commentator posited that the President should not listen to child actors crying, citing as a source the New Yorker.

Audra McDonald, Concert for America, Cooper Union Great Hall

Audra McDonald backstage at ‘Concert for America,’ rebroadcast on Sunday, July 8, 9:00 pm ET, http://www.ConcertsforAmerica.com (Carole Di Tosti)

With easy fact checking the source was a New Yorker article from 2011; the “actor” was a grown woman from the islands who had been coached. This was not even close to June 2018, babies who are not even verbal yet, or toddlers. Those kept in dog kennels who were older? Perhaps they could be coached, but they were too traumatized by the chaos and confusion to make logical sense or be coherent. The lies coming out of the commentators on Fox were nothing short of irresponsible, though white supremacists may have found them entertaining and useful to add to their rhetoric that our country is in dire straights from MS-13 gangs pouring over the border, a patent lie.

Jeremy Jordan, Concert for America, Cooper Union

Backstage with Jeremy Jordan at ‘Concert for America,’ Cooper Union, rebroadcast on July 9, Sunday 9 pm ET at http://www.ConcertsforAmerica.com (Carole Di Tosti)

Because of the outcry the president rescinded the order and stopped separating children from parents, mothers from babies, we are told. Nevertheless, the situation needed to be monitored because secret night flights of children separated from families went to cities across the nation. Separated children were installed in shelters in cities, without the knowledge of mayors who were being stonewalled by the federal government. Thankfully, whistleblowers from shelters started to contact mayors and officials about the location of the children.

Conert for America, Lisa Mordente, Chita Rivera

(L to R): Lisa Mordente and Chita Rivera, ‘Concert for America’ (Monica Simoes) rebroadcast July 8, Sunday 9 pm ET at http://www.ConertsforAmerica.com

The family separation, egregious on its face, was made all the more horrible because no records were kept. There were no lists of where children were being sent. No digital monitoring occurred. (This lack of organization and no record keeping will occur when the WH meets with Russian President Putin.) Such inattention to detail gives rise to a complete lack of transparency and Faustian bargains. In the case of the children at the southern border, it creates  opportunities for grave abuse.

Mandy Gonzalez, Concert for America

Mandy Gonzalez in ‘Concert for America’ at Cooper Union, rebroadcast on http://www.ConcertsforAmerica.com, Sunday, July 8, 9 pm ET (Carole Di Tosti)

The ACLU which has been fighting the family separation policy for months, long before the “zero tolerance policy” was instituted, won in court against the Trump administration’s chaos, disorganization and mismanagement at the border. And a judge ordered the Trump administration to speed up the reunification process of children with families. Is the administration abiding by the judge’s orders?  It is being reported that families are being given an ultimatum. They may either be separated from their children as they seek asylum, or go back to their origin countries with their children and in some instances risk murder or kidnapping. It is a choice between Scylla or Charybdis.

Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis, British Museum

Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis, courtesy of the British Museum, see site.

US citizens have been polled and a majority do not support this unpatriotic, unconstitutional approach toward immigration. The very need for immigration is something which Secretary of State William H. Seward under President Lincoln uplifted as necessary to our nation’s prosperity. However, there are supporters of the policies of the administration.

Olga Merediz, Concert for America, Cooper Union

Olga Merediz in ‘Concert for America,’ (Carole Di Tosti)

Cui bono? Who benefits? Reports have gone out that the non profit prisons at the southern border interning children and families are making billions of dollars on this immigrant crisis. As long as the rhetoric holds that MS-13 gangs are flooding the country (a lie) and we “must protect our borders, a national security issue,” migrant children and families who are truly seeking asylum here will be helping CEO’s and investors make billions of dollars. For corporations the crisis is “a very good thing.”

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Concert for America

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald in ‘Concert for America’ (Carole Di Tosti)

The Concert for America organized by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley and starring Tina Fey, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Patrick Wilson, Chita Rivera, Andrea Martin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jeremy Jordan Keala Settle and more was a wonderful encouragement to remind us of the best of our country’s values and ideals. Marvelous performers sang songs of determination and strength and overcoming. We felt inspired that we are to uplift those legitimately seeking asylum and help them. Importantly,  commentators from the Texas ACLU, al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas and Florence Project gave eye witness accounts that the abuses that are happening are NOT FAKE, ENTERTAINING NEWS.  It is a miserable, indecent and immoral situation.

Jeremy Jordan, Concert for America, Great Hall Cooper Union

Jeremy Jordan knocking ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ out of the park, ‘Concert for America’ (Carole Di Tosti)

This amazing Concert for America will be rebroadcast live on Sunday, July 8, 2018 at 9:00 pm ET on two sites: www.ConcertsforAmerica.com  and on Facebook at  Facebook.com/ConcertForAmerica.

On both sites you can see this benefit to help four organizations on our Southern Border (Al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas and Florence Project). And you can go to the Facebook and ConcertsforAmerica sites to donate as well.

 

Tribeca Film Festival Review 2018: ‘Every Act of Life,’ Looking Into the Brilliant Terrence McNally

Terrence McNally, Jeff Kaufman, Every Act of Life, World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A, Tribeca FF 2018

(L to R): Director Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A, Moderator Frank Rich, unpictured (Carole Di Tosti),

Terrence McNally is a theatrical force of nature, though with his incredible humility in an age of self-promotion, he would be the last to admit it. With a career spanning six decades and major, ground-breaking successes on Broadway and Off, in film and television, and multiple theater awards every decade, the man is a dynamo, beloved by actors whose careers he has vaulted, actors whom he collaborates with in a symbiotic relationship again and again. At 80, he is still working, attending productions (I saw him in the audience of the musical production of the most Tony nominated musical SpongeBob SquarePants this summer.) and launching off into new projects, even as I write this.

The World Premiere Every Act of Life directed and written by Jeff Kaufman was given a special screening at Tribeca Film Festival 2018, with luminaries, actors and McNally himself attending for the Q and A afterward. In this formidable documentary about a formidable American playwright, Kaufman presents McNally’s career and personal life. From start to finish Every Act of Life is an intriguing and well-thought-out chronicle cobbled together with interviews, archived photos, video clips, well-researched facts, details, memorabilia and well-placed commentary by actors, directors, producers and McNally himself. The documentary is especially revealing in its presentation of how one individual’s love and passion for the theater, opera, music and art has impacted our culture and brought us together in a forward momentum of shared communication and understanding.

Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, 2018 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Tyne Daly (‘Mothers and Sons’ and ‘Master Class’), Nathan Lane (‘Love! Valor! Compassion!’ ‘The Lisbon Traviata,’ ‘ It’s Only a Play’)2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Beginning with his early plays and traveling right up to his most recent work, Kaufman lays out the seminal moments and turning points that have slowly fostered the personality and character of this mild-mannered and charmingly authentic persona that McNally is today. Early influences on his life McNally credits to his English teacher in Corpus Christi who encouraged him to write and attend schools outside of the area. But his love of musicals and Broadway, were initially inspired by his parents, transplanted New Yorkers, who brought him all the way from Texas to New York to see a few smash musicals with towering figures like Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I and Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

Terrence McNally, Tribeca FF 2018, World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A, Every Act of Life

Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

The excitement and enchantment of live theater musicals were imprinted on his memory. And this love abides with him to this day as he continues to collaborate on  musicals writing the book for numerous hits like The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), The Visit (2001),  Catch Me If You Can (2011), Anastasia (2017). He has also sharpened his wits and taken up collaborating on opera, for example in 2015, the production of Great Scott  (music by Jake Heggie), premiered at Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas. He is a veritable tornado when it comes to writing new plays and collaborating with composers on musicals and operas.

Chita Rivera, LPTW, The Visit, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, Terrence McNally, Every Act of Life

Chita Rivera appeared in McNally’s ‘The Rink,’ (1984) ‘The Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ (1992, 93, 94) ‘The Visit,’ (2004). Tribeca FF 2018, World Premiere Screening and Q & A, ‘Every Act of Life.’Chita Rivera appears in Kaufman’s film about McNally. Here Chita Rivera appears at a 2018 LPTW event (Carole Di Tosti)

Following his English teacher’s advice, McNally attended Columbia University and was further shepherded by professors like Lionel Trilling for literature and Andrew Chiappe who steered him in the basics by having McNally and others read every work by Shakespeare in the order of their composition. After Columbia, McNally through a serendipitous introduction via The Actor’s Studio, cruised with John Steinbeck and family around the world as he tutored Steinbeck’s two young sons. This was another incredible experience which was to shape McNally’s writing career and broaden his horizons as well as establish his relationship with Steinbeck who inspired his writing. From these adventures he later fashioned the first act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Additionally, Steinbeck asked him to write a libretto for a musical adaptation of his novel East of Eden. One doesn’t know what one can do until a great American novelist like John Steinbeck asks you to do it.

F. Murray Abraham, Every Act of Life, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A

F. Murray Abraham, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere and Special Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Back in New York City, McNally used his connections at the Actor’s Studio to begin to workshop his nascent one-act plays. And it was in New York that he met the brilliant playwright Edward Albee who was just coming into his own. After a four-year tempestuous relationship during which Albee wrote The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they parted ways and McNally’s career began to take off gradually in theater, television and in film as he wrote screenplays for versions of his works first performed on Broadway and Off Broadway.

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Terrence Mcnally, Edward Albee, Every Act of Life

(L to R): Terrence McNally, Edward Albee, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Various tidbits appear in Kaufman’s documentary that fascinate. Some of the impressions are telling. He became addicted to alcohol and at a time when no one could admit to being gay, McNally confronted the oppressions of the culture and created some of the most insightful, poignant and endearing works related to the LGBT community and relatives confronting the AIDS epidemic. These include the TV miniseries Andre’s Mother for which he won an Emmy and later his Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly based upon the miniseries. Additionally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, as well as an inside look at gay relationships for which he won his second Tony Award, Love! Valor! Compassion! also feature topics about confronting gender prejudice.

Joe Mantello, Every Act of Life, Terrence McNally, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Terrence McNally

Joe Mantello, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Always concerned about the deep side of the human condition and striving above it, McNally first landed on the map when he was recognized for his portrayal of female-male relationships among the working classes (Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune) which was adapted into a screenplay starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. McNally’s versatility and humanity encompasses play topics that run the continuum. What is most important to him is human connections and the realization that we are together in this “thing” referred to as life. The beauty of our ability to connect, express love, overcome personal issues and adversity, with an assist from art and theater makes all the difference in discovering our purpose and fulfillment.

McNally’s dogged fight for LGBTQ rights at a time when it was most unfashionable and nearly anathema is an incredible achievement, considering the forces and money behind the attempt to liquify LGBTQ rights in the noxious march toward inhumanity and darkness led by the political conservative right-wing. Kaufman highlights the struggle. He also reveals how McNally overcame his addiction to alcohol and on that subject includes an amazing anecdote. Angela Lansbury’s love and honesty prompted her to speak directly to McNally to the effect that he must stop destroying himself. Indeed, she feared this most talented playwright, librettist and screenwriter would die an early death. Her influence and other factors eventually sent him down the road to wellness, where others were not as willfully fortunate.

What I appreciate in the film is McNally’s candor in discussing his “flops.” Of course, one might say that there are no flops in a playwright’s repertoire, only stepping stones which help them achieve their hard won success.

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, 'Ever Act of Life,' Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham

2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, ‘Every Act of Life,’ (L to R): Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham (Carole Di Tosti)

Kaufman highlights McNally’s award-winning work (the musicals- The Kiss of the Spider Woman-1992 and Ragtime-1997 and his plays, Love! Valor! Compassion!-1994, Master Class-1995 and Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams-2005). The most incredible feature of this segment of the documentary is the commentary by living legends and McNally friends and collaborators, Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, John Glover, Tyne Daly, John Kander, F. Murray Abraham, Joe Mantello, Angela Lansbury, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and many more. Indeed, the film is a who’s who of McNally’s posse, as well as a chronicle of his prodigious work ethic and love of theater, opera, ballet and music. His talents and breadth of knowledge about the Arts are absolutely staggering. And Kaufman gives us a historical perspective that is continually fresh and exciting.

Terrence McNally, 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, Jeff Kaufman

Terrence McNally, ‘Every Act of Life,’ 2018 Tribeca FF World Premiere Screening and Q & A, (photo courtesy of the film)

I loved this film. I am familiar with McNally’s work having seen a number of his musicals and comedies on Broadway and Off. I split my sides enjoying them. However, Kaufman digs deep into the revelation of the anointed genius of this most wonderful of playwrights who connects the heavens to humanity with his words, impressions and inspirations, and joins us  together in what can be compared to a holy act of communion in the theater. The film is a must see, and you will especially enjoy hearing how McNally and friends worked together to create some of the finest, most enduring works of  American theater which in the future will surely be identified as classics.

Every Act of Life, Tribeca FF 2018, Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham

‘Every Act of Life,’ Q and A, Tribeca FF 2018 with (L to R) Jeff Kaufman, Terrence McNally, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Joe Mantello, F. Murray Abraham, moderated by Frank Rich who is not pictured (Carole Di Tosti)

Epilogue

After the World Premiere Screening there was a Q and A moderated by Frank Rich, who was a longtime critic of theater at The New York Times. McNally made an incredible admission during the Q and A. Even though he has a prodigious body of work trailing in his wake, he never really considered himself a playwright or a successful one at that, until a few years ago. I was gobsmacked. Such is the talent and evolving genius of this artist.

That Frank Rich was moderating individuals he has sometimes dunned in his previous job as New York Times Theater critic was a bit of an irony. He long held sway as THE Times CRITIC until 2011. Often he was acerbic and unwieldy in his self-aggrandizement and pretensions to be THE VOICE of theater, backed by the “heft” of The Times.  After I accomplished some gentle research for this review, I discovered a note in Wikipedia on Kiss of the Spider Woman (musical) that bears sounding since the main subject of this film is American Theater and Terrence McNally as one of the fountains where we might go for a revitalizing drink..

It seems that in 1990 Kiss of the Spider Woman was being workshopped at “New Musicals” at the Performing Arts Center SUNY at Purchase. New Musicals‘ goal was to create, develop and provide a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years. When New York critics heard that the play was being workshopped in its initial production, they wanted to see it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be persuaded not to review it despite the fact that producers, etc., were testing the waters to see what needed ironing out. Frank Rich and other critics filed “mostly negative reviews” of this initial workshopping of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sadly, New Musicals, whose mission was honorable and vital for American theater and especially New York Theater, blew out and folded after the fiasco with Kiss. Don’t get me started on the state of American Theater and why it is that way.

Thankfully, two years later a producer developed Kiss of the Spider Woman. It went on in Toronto and The West End where it won An Evening Standard. It finally came back to the US where it received 7 Tony Awards and 3 Drama Desks and ran 904 performances, despite Rich’s reviews. Ultimately, the American public became the arbiter of the production.

American Theater has lost ground for many reasons and indeed, the gatekeepers, critics and money people have, for all intents and purposes, shot it to hell and drained its lifeblood. With the rise of Social Media, for good or ill, digital platforms and word of mouth continue to lift up productions so that their lasting value might be revealed to give them staying power. But it is enough? Rich went on to feather his own nest. Kiss of the Spider Woman found its audience. New Musicals is no more. And so it goes.  In light of these events Every Act of Life is an important documentary about the history of American theater, and a master creator who has thrived in spite of changing times.

 

 

 

 

LPTW Annual Awards With Tamara Tunie, Audra McDonald, Tyne Daly, Zoe Caldwell

L to R: Tyne Daley, Tamara Tunie, Zoe Caldwell at the LPTW Awards Ceremony and Big Mingle. (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

L to R: Tyne Daly, Tamara Tunie, Zoe Caldwell at the LPTW Awards Ceremony and Big Mingle. (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

The old adage replicated in the song, New York, New York, is “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” The city can be a tough, competitive town for theater folks who are not a part of the Yale Mafia or children of celebrities. That is why a not-for-profit organization like The League of Professional Theatre Women can provide a much needed support network for aspiring actors, directors, producers, costume designers and other women professionals in the industry. Annually the LPTW, gives awards to outstanding women whose dynamic efforts have proved to be an inspiration to league members. This year the LPTW Awards Ceremony and Big Mingle reception was held on March 10th at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Signature Theater. The ceremony, hosted by Tamara Tunie, (Law and Order’s Medical Examiner, Linda Warner), gave me the opportunity to learn about these accomplished, amazing artists and celebrate afterward with league members.

Award recipients included Meiyin Wang:  (The Josephine Abady Award) presented by Susan Feldman (founding Artistic Director of St. Ann’s Warehouse).  Katherine Kovner received The LPTW Lucille Lortel Award  presented by Leigh Silverman. Gregory Boyd presented The Ruth Morley Design Award to Judith Dolan.   Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider presented The Lee Reynolds Award to Joanna Sherman who shared her uplifting work in conflict areas of Afghanistan, Haiti, Myanmar and Lebanon and how theater is being used to inspire women and bring them toward restoration after cultural upheaval.  Another interesting recipient of a special award presented by Mary Miko was Sondra Gorney. Sondra Gorney is 96 years young, looks wonderful, had a career in the performing arts and is a dedicated, active member of the LPTW.

L to R: Zoe Caldwell, Lifetime Achievement Award Winner (4 times Tony Winner) and Audra McDowell, (5 time Tony Award Winner) at the LPTW Awards Ceremony and Big Mingle. (Photo by Carole Di Tosti).

L to R: Zoe Caldwell, Lifetime Achievement Award Winner (4 times Tony Winner), and Audra McDonald, (5 time Tony Award Winner), at the LPTW Awards Ceremony and Big Mingle. (Photo by Carole Di Tosti).

Tyne Daly, (six Emmy Awards and one Tony award) a member of LPTW who is currently on Broadway in Mothers and Sons came out to join in the festivities with her colleagues. She was happy to give recognition to one of the finest theater actors to have graced Broadway and Off Broadway stages over the last decades: the inimitable and indomitable four time Tony Award winner, Zoe Caldwell.

Audra McDonald, friend and mentee of Zoe Caldwell presented her with the LPTW Lifetime Achievement Award. To say the award is deserving is a vast understatement. Zoe Caldwell who is from Australia is still acting; her career began when she was nine years old, which is an incredible testament to the beauty, industry and artistry her spirit embodies.

Before giving Zoe Caldwell the award, the exceptional Audra McDonald (five time Tony Award winner) who will be seen on Broadway in Lady Day (about Billie Holliday’s struggle through a performance in the last year of her life) spoke with great affection about her mentor. Audra McDonald who has named her daughter after Zoe. shared a heartfelt story about when they were in a production together in the 1990s. Audra McDonald had lost confidence when a celebrity had come backstage to visit Zoe Caldwell and treated Audra McDonald rudely. Audra McDonald was deferential and humble which fed the arrogance and superciliousness of the celebrity. After the individual left, Caldwell told McDonald something to the effect that though the woman may not have appreciated who Audra McDonald was, Audra should not give up her power to her. She, Audra McDonald, must be herself and act with her own natural confidence.

Years later, Audra McDonald, award winner, superlative Broadway star, has revealed what Zoe Caldwell knew her to be all along. Zoe Caldwell’s “lesson” in giving up power to those who would steal it if we allow them to is a lesson for all women and certainly for all time.

LPTW AUCTION CO-CHAIRS, Pat Addiss and Mari Lyn Henry, did a yeoman’s job arranging, organizing and setting up the LPTW online auction.

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Pat Addiss (here receiving the TRU Spirit of Theater Award: http://worksbywomen.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/pat-addiss-receives-tru-spirit-of-theater-award/) is very active with the LPTW. She is the producer of such award-winning shows as Vonya & Sonia & Masha & Spike; Buyer & Cellar and A Christmas Story, The Musical, returning in Nov. 2014.  She also produced the film Sex, Death and Bowling (dist. 2014).

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Mari Lyn Henry is the Dean of Students, Tom Todoroff Conservatory. You will find information about her at the website: http://howtobeaworkingactor.com/

The online auction is designed to raise money for theLPTW foundation. The Celebrity Chair of the auction was Tyne Daly who worked with the co-chairs. There were 100 items auctioned which included a beautiful Ruth Morely one-of-a-kind costume sketch, Broadway Tickets, Backstage Tours & Meet the Stars, Off and Off Off Broadway Tickets, Restaurant Deals, Consultations and Coaching Sessions and Getaway Packages to name a few. Auction donors included private individuals, organizations and associations.

Award winners and presenters. LPRW Awards Celebration & Big Mingle. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Award winners and presenters. LPRW Awards Celebration & Big Mingle. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The LPTW remains an extremely active educational and networking association during the years. Events that are upcoming for the LPTW include the LPTW Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award which will be given to Patricia Ariza, Colombia, South America. The award is given to an exceptional woman theatre artist working outside the U.S.

There are “Networking Mondays Quarterly,” Julia’s Reading Room from September through June: a program that provides opportunities to League playwrights, librettists, directors, actors, and producers to for works in progress to be read. There are special programs, panels and lectures that are educational opportunities offered to members and the community which highlight women theater professionals past and present. The LPTW also publishes a magazine, “Women in Theatre Magazine and of course, has an online site. The association is constantly striving for its members and is the place where women in theatre need to be to share, network and dip into the fountain to replenish themselves

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