A Homecoming

November 07, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

When Mart Crowley was a student at Washington's Catholic University of America, he liked to hang around Olney Theatre in the summers. "It was my idea of the most glamorous place, especially getting blind drunk on the porch with the stars, you know, and listening to all the big-time show-biz stories," he says with a hearty laugh.

More than three decades have passed since the 58-year-old playwright graduated from Catholic University with a degree in theater. In the interim, his hair has thinned to balding and what's left has turned gray. And though he no longer gets blind drunk, he still has the same droll wit that friends from his college days remember so well. Most importantly, he's written five produced plays, beginning with the landmark, frankly homosexual drama, "The Boys in the Band," which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Right now, however, Crowley is savoring the joy of being back at Olney, where he's become the one telling glamorous show-biz stories -- stories about Natalie Wood, whose secretary he was in the mid-1960s; about fellow Mississippian Tennessee Williams, whom he met when he was a production assistant on "The Fugitive Kind" ("He was just what you'd expect -- raw nerves, just a walking anxiety attack"); and about his years as a Hollywood film and television writer.

What he's most eager to talk about, however, is his newest play, "For Reasons That Remain Unclear," which will receive its world premiere beginning Tuesday when it inaugurates Olney's first winter season.

But even though Crowley can barely contain himself, he admits with a sly twinkle in his eye that he's reluctant to give away too much about the play -- his first in nine years. "If I tell you that it's about a Catholic priest and a man who is half his age, and they meet in a hotel room . . . and I wrote this play, well, take it from there," he says, trying not to sound overly coy.

Olney landed this prestigious premiere through a series of happy coincidences. Earlier this year, Crowley got a phone call from actor Laurence Luckinbill, who had been a fellow drama student at Catholic University, as well as one of the original cast members of "The Boys in Band." Over dinner in Los Angeles, Luckinbill asked when Crowley was going to write another play.

As Crowley puts it, "the ink wasn't dry" on the script, but he immediately gave a copy to Luckinbill, who read it and suggested taking it to Olney, where he was about to perform a one-man show about Lyndon Johnson.

Because "Reasons" deals with highly controversial issues within the church, Crowley wasn't overly optimistic about its chances at Olney -- a theater that was run for years by members of the Catholic University theater faculty.

His doubts were not unfounded since the play had already been turned down by San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Crowley quotes the rejection letter he received in which the Old Globe's artistic director referred to the theater's affiliation with the University of San Diego -- a Catholic university. "He said, 'It might be fun to tweak them with this play, but I'm afraid I'd be out of work,' " the playwright says.

So Crowley was pleasantly surprised when Olney accepted the script. "Let's face it, the board here are mostly alumni [of Catholic University]," he explains, "and the fact that they would accept the play, I said, 'I'm stunned that you guys -- you guys! -- would want to do this play,' and [Olney Theatre board chairman William H. Graham] said, 'I find it a very moral play.' And I was very, very gratified by that reaction."

The role of the priest was originally offered to Luckinbill, whose schedule forced him to to turn it down. Instead, it is being played by Ken Ruta, who starred as writer C. S. Lewis in Olney's August production of "Shadowlands."

His co-star is Philip Anglim, who created the title role in the Broadway production of "The Elephant Man."

The production is being directed by John Going, who also attended Catholic University with Crowley and who directed the New York premiere of Crowley's third play, "A Breeze From the Gulf," two decades ago. Not only have the two stayed in touch, but when Olney approached Going about directing "Reasons," he had already read the script -- the playwright had sent it to him a few months before.

"I was very intrigued by it. Mart is really a wonderful writer. I thought it was very well written," Going says of his initial reaction to the play, which has gone through four subsequent drafts. "The conclusion that the two characters come to with each other is really quite wonderful, very moving to me."

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