Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Watching the endless thank yous at the Tonys, I noted in passing, as everything seems to, that when Tommy Tune sang against pictures of theater people who had died this year, at the end a theater itself went up into the darkness, the Brooks Atkinson. I took that to mean that the theater had been demolished, to make way for even more unwatchable musicals with unsingable lyrics, and unwitty plays in larger, more Disneyfied quarters. Brooks Atkinson, for those of you young and wise enough never to have been fixated on Broadway, was a long ago theater critic, commemorated with a building, which they now mostly name for those who run them or own them. I am sadly used to friends departing for unknown shores, but this is the first time I ever lost a building. Even 255 W. 84th Street where I lived as a very little girl, that had a plaque on its side saying 'On this site Edgar Allen Poe wrote the Raven,' which electrified me at 8 and charged me with the thought I had to do something important with words, still stands, although the street sign has been upped to Edgar Allen Poe Way, which puts him on a level with Mervyn LeRoy, who has his own semi-street near the Tavern on the Green, a very touristy restaurant he started, which is not as good as The Raven.
The Brooks Atkinson was the theater where my play, 'The Best Laid Plans' opened the same week as my daughter. Her birth announcement was in The New York Times, 'Mother's Play's Opening Upstaged by Baby's," read the headline, and tout New York phoned me in the hospital because it seemed like I was going to be a hit, so i was inundated with friends none of whom called again once the reviews came in. They wished long life to my baby and instant death to my play. There's a backstory which is probably funnier than the play: Hilly Elkins was the producer with Don, my husband, co-producing, and my baby in my belly, the reason we rushed everything as we had to literally beat the stork. The stork does bring babies, doesn't he? And how come it's a male?
The comedy, (it really was) is about a young woman in love from a distance with a difficult playwright, like a straight Tennessee Williams, if you can imagine, so she goes to his psychiatrist, a very talkative man who failed in show business, and learns all about him, then moves into the apartment next door and pretends to be a drug-addicted, suicidal young woman so he will fall in love with her, which he does. It was really funny, no kidding. But then, out of town in Philadelphia, Hilly got hysterical, the leading lady was fired, the whole things started collapsing, and the law of the theater, "if it can go wrong it will," went into effect. Hilly wanted me to have the heroine do drugs on stage, and I refused. 'Bitch," he said, "you'll change it," "Hilly," said Don, "I remind you you're talking to a woman with a baby in her belly." The invectives continued to fly out of Hilly's mouth, increasingly offensive. Finally Don said "One more word and I'll have to kill you." Hilly said "You and what army?" So BOOM, he was down.
And Don was trying to kill him. The director(Paul Bogart, later to be fired in Boston) came over and took off Don's glasses so he wouldn't be hurt by Hilly's flailing. Nobody in the room made a move to stop Don from killing him, including Mel Brooks who was a friend and had been called down to assuage Hilly's panic, as everybody there despised Hilly. It was a darkly comedic moment. The only thing darker was everybody getting fired, my being in the hospital having Madeleine, unable to protect the play, and Hilly's bringing in Arthur Storch, a moron, to direct, so the play went down the tubes, although mine stayed healthy.
My obstetrician wanted to go to the opening, so he let me go to the party-- in those days we stayed in the hospital for a while-- I got to the theater in time for the last laugh which wasn't there, so I knew it was a disaster. Mel and Annie drove me back to the hospital. Annie was Anne Bancroft, my favorite friend at the time, still radiantly funny in my eyes from 'Two for the Seesaw' so I had told her at the start of writing it, that I was going to write a play for her, and did, anxious for her to keep doing comedy, especially mine.
She called me after reading it and liking it, but said "I can't do it. I'm doing 'The Devils.' I asked "Why?" She said, "I've never played a hunchbacked nun before."
"Besides," she said. "Who knew you would write it in two weeks?"
So in the car going back to the hospital, as I bled metaphorically, spiritually and really, Mel said "Look: You had two things happen this week: if one of them had to be less than perfect, if your daughter had been born with six toes and two noses, ... that would have been okay: what mattered was the show." So I guess, in a way he saved me, though he hadn't been much help to the play.
I got a telegram from the president of Bryn Mawr saying 'Congratulations and love to the only friend I have who had a baby and a play the same week,' Love, Kathy, (which I didn't know anyone called her, so that sort of lifted my spirit.)
Don and I hid out for several weeks, I ducking behind lampposts when I saw someone I knew, the excoriation in the papers had been so, well, excoriating. We finally moved to California, with his saying "We must never try Broadway again unless we have a million dollars." Now of course a million dollars isn't that much security, the play which cost a hundred and fifty thousand to produce, would cost ten million today, and my theater has been demolished, along with most of my girlish dreams. Also if I were to revive it today the playwright in the play would have to pretend to be gay so he could get something produced and lisp endless thank-yous at the Tonys.
Ah, but I did love the the-a-ter. Katharine Hepburn came back to college once when I was an undergraduate, and those of us who were enamored got to have tea with her. "I suppose I should tell you how Bryn Mawr helped me in the Thee- ahh- terr,"she arched. "But I cahhnnnn't."
Neither cahnnn I.