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

November 05, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

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."

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