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Coronavirus claims iconic LGBTQ playwright Terrence McNally

Succumbed to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 81

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Terrence McNally (Photo by ReadingReed43 via Wikimedia Commons)

The theatre community, already hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, has been dealt a painful blow with the news that Terrence McNally, the 4-time Tony winning playwright whose work portrayed a rich range of human emotional experience and broke barriers in its depiction of gay life, has succumbed to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 81.

McNally, who was a survivor of lung cancer and lived with chronic COPD, died on Tuesday at the Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida.

Born in St. Petersburg, Florida, McNally grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his New York-born parents instilled in him a love for theatre from an early age. After earning a BA at Columbia University in 1960, he developed a relationship with author John Steinbeck, who hired the young playwright to accompany his family on a worldwide cruise as a tutor to his teenage sons. Steinbeck would later enlist McNally to write the libretto for “Here’s Where I Belong,” a musical stage adaptation of the author’s classic novel, “East of Eden.”

During his early years in New York, McNally also developed a relationship with fellow playwright Edward Albee, whom he met when the two shared a cab; the pair were essentially a couple for four years, during the period in which Albee wrote “The American Dream” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” two of his most important works. It was a romance that would cast a shadow over McNally’s early career, when some critics dismissed him as “the boyfriend” after the premiere of his Broadway debut, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night.” The play, which was McNally’s first effort in three acts, flopped due to poor initial reviews – attributed by author Boze Hadleigh in his book, “Who’s Afraid of Terrence McNally,” to homophobia from conservative New York critics – even after subsequent critical reaction and audience response proved to be more favorable.

After the failure of his initial foray onto the Broadway stage, McNally rebounded with an acclaimed one-act, “Next,” which featured James Coco as a middle-aged man mistakenly drafted into the army and was directed by Elaine May, and was presented Off-Broadway in a double bill with May’s “Adaptation” in 1967. Several other one-acts followed, and the playwright gained a reputation for tackling edgy subject matter with sharp social commentary, biting dialogue, and farcical situations.  He also attracted early controversy for featuring onstage nudity (from actress Sally Kirkland) for the entire length of his kidnapping drama, “Sweet Eros.”

Success came his way in the seventies, when he racked up an Obie award for 1974’s “Bad Habits,” and a Broadway hit with “The Ritz,” a risqué farce set in a gay bathhouse where a straight middle-aged business man unwittingly goes into hiding to escape his wife’s murderous mafioso brother. Adapted from his own earlier play, “The Tubs,” it was subsequently turned into a 1976 film version (directed by “A Hard Day’s Night” filmmaker Richard Lester), starring original stage cast members Jack Weston, Jerry Stiller, F. Murray Abraham, and Rita Moreno (reprising her Tony-winning role as bathhouse chanteuse Googie Gomez), as well as featuring a blonde-dyed Treat Williams in an early appearance as an undercover cop.

After another series of career setbacks, McNally rebounded again in the eighties with more Off-Broadway acclaim for his play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham. The playwright has said that it was his first work after becoming sober, telling the New York Times in 2019, “There was certainly a change in my work. It’s hard to know who you are if you’re drunk all the time. It clouds your thinking. I started thinking more about my people — my characters.”

It was in the nineties, however, that McNally blossomed into a master playwright, with plays like “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which placed AIDS squarely in the backdrop of its story about two married couples spending a weekend on Fire Island, and “Master Class,” a tour-de-force one-woman show about Maria Callas which featured Zoe Caldwell in a widely acclaimed performance.

It was also during this period that McNally wrote “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” an expansive play about a group of gay friends who spend three successive holiday weekends over the course of a summer together at a lake house in upstate New York. Transferring to Broadway after a successful debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club – with which McNally had a long association, and where he developed several of his important works – in a production directed by Joe Mantello, it was a pastoral, introspective, Chekhovian drama that offered deeply-drawn, non-stereotypical portrayals of gay characters confronting the various issues in their lives and their relationships; it was also a snapshot of life at the height of the AIDS crisis, exploring the ways in which the spectre of the disease was an unavoidable part of day-to-day life that encroached upon every aspect of gay experience. McNally’s script, bolstered by the richly human performances of an ensemble cast that included Nathan Lane, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Anthony Heald, and Justin Kirk, countered the potential for moroseness with warmth and humor, and the play is now widely seen, alongside plays such as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey,” as one of the most important theatrical works of the AIDS era. A film version in 1997 reunited most of the original stage cast, though the notably straight Jason Alexander replaced Lane in the role of Buzz, the most outwardly flamboyant of the play’s eight gay characters.

It was in the nineties when McNally also established himself as an important figure in the musical genre, contributing the libretto for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Rink” (a short-lived musical drama starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli) before going on to collaborate again with the legendary score composers on “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” their musical version of the Manuel Puig novel about the unlikely friendship that develops between a political revolutionary and a gay window dresser as they share a cell in a Mexican prison. The musical (which also starred Rivera) was a smash hit and won McNally his first Tony (Best Book for a Musical) in 1993.

In 1998, he won another Tony in the same category for the libretto of “Ragtime,” a widely-acclaimed musical adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel exploring racism against the backdrop of the turn of the 20th Century with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens.

His other two Tonys were for “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class,” in 1995 and 1996, respectively.

In his later career, McNally courted controversy once again with “Corpus Christi,” a 1998 “passion play” that queered the biblical story of Jesus and the Apostles by reimagining them as gay men living in modern-day Texas. At the time, the production was met with protests (McNally himself received death threats), although reviewers found its content to be surprisingly uncontroversial, with Jason Zinoman of the New York Times calling it “earnest and reverent” and “more personal than political.”

Other notable dramatic works included “The Lisbon Traviata,” “It’s Only A Play,” “A Perfect Ganesh,” “The Stendahl Syndrome,” “Mothers and Sons,” and his last, 2018’s “Fire and Air.” He also wrote librettos for the musicals “The Full Monty,” “A Man of No Importance,” “Anastasia,” and “The Visit” (also with Kander and Ebb, and also starring Rivera), and for the operas “Dead Man Walking,” “Three Decembers,” and “Great Scott.”

He also wrote for television, including an Emmy-winning teleplay for the 1988 AIDS drama “Andre’s Mother.” For film, he wrote the screenplays for the film adaptations of his plays, “The Ritz,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune” (retitled as simply “Frankie and Johnny”).

Besides his Tony and Emmy wins, he also earned three Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and two Obies, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

In addition to his four competitive Tonys, he was awarded a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2019.

He was also the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Rockefeller Grant.

McNally is survived by his husband, Thomas Kirdahy, whom he wed in 2010 after a long relationship. Other survivors include a brother Peter McNally, and his wife Vicky McNally, along with their children and grandchildren; also listed among the survivors are Mother-in-Law Joan Kirdahy, sister/brother-in-laws Carol Kirdahy, Kevin Kirdahy, James Kirdahy, Kathleen Kirdahy Kay, and Neil Kirdahy.

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Photos

PHOTOS: DCGFFL 25th Anniversary Party

Gay flag football league marks milestone at Penn Social

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The D.C. Gay Flag Football league held a party celebrating their 25th season at Penn Social on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) held a 25th season anniversary party at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. Proceeds from the event benefited the LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL as well as the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Theater

Rupert Murdoch’s powers on full display in ‘Ink’

Media baron helped pave the way for Brexit, Prime Minister Thatcher

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Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Ink’
Through Sept. 24
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814
$46-$94
Roundhousetheatre.org

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s loathsome traits are many, but his skills to succeed are undeniably numerous. 

In the first scenes of John Graham’s West End and Broadway hit drama “Ink,” an exciting year-long detail from the life of a burgeoning media baron, Murdoch’s powers of persuasion are on full display.

It’s 1969 London. Over dinner with editor Larry Lamb, a young Murdoch shares his plan to buy the Sun and rebrand the dying broadsheet, replacing the Daily Mirror as Britain’s best-selling tabloid. What’s more, he wants to do it in just one year with Lamb at the helm. 

Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes seduced by the idea of running a paper, something that’s always eluded him throughout his career, and something Murdoch, the outsider Australian, understands. Murdoch taunts him, “Not you. Not Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born son of a blacksmith, not the guy who didn’t get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, who didn’t get a degree from anywhere. Not you.”

Still, Lamb, played convincingly by Cody Nickell in Round House Theatre’s stellar season-opener, a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, remains unsure. But Murdoch (a delightfully brash Andrew Rein) is undeterred, and seals the deal with a generous salary. 

Superbly staged by director Jason Loweth, “Ink” is riveting. Its exchanges between Lamb and Murdoch are a strikingly intimate glimpse into ambition involving an ostensibly average editor and a striving money man who doesn’t like people.  

Once on board, Lamb is trolling Fleet Street in search of his launch team, played marvelously by some mostly familiar actors. He makes his most important hire — news editor Brian McConnell (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) — in a steam bath. The remainder of the Sun’s new masthead falls handily into place: Joyce Hopkirk (Kate Eastwood Norris) the women’s page editor whose forward thinking is marred by her casual racism; Zion Jang plays Beverley Goodway, an awkwardly amusing young photographer; persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Michael Glenn) who learns to love ugly things; and an old school sports editor who proves surprisingly versatile, played by Ryan Rillette, Round House’s artistic director. 

At Lamb’s suggestion, the team brainstorms about what interests Sun readers. They decide on celebrities, pets, sports, free stuff, and —rather revolutionarily for the time —TV.  Murdoch is happy to let readers’ taste dictate content and the “Why” of the sacred “five Ws” of journalism is out the window. 

Murdoch is portrayed as a not wholly unlikable misanthrope. He dislikes his editors and pressman alike. He particularly hates unions. His advice to Lamb is not to get too chummy with his subordinates. Regarding the competition, Murdoch doesn’t just want to outperform them, he wants to grind them to dust. 

Loewith leads an inspired design team. Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s imposing, inky grey edifice made from modular walls is ideally suited for Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines, printed pages, and Rein’s outsized face as Murdoch. Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson ably supplies bar noises and the nonstop, pre-digital newspaper clatter of presses, linotypes, and typewriters.

From a convenient second tiered balcony, the Daily Mirror’s establishment power trio Hugh Cudlipp (Craig Wallace), Chris Lee Howard (Chris Geneback) and Sir Percy (Walter Riddle) overlook all that lies below, discussing new tactics and (mostly failed) strategies to remain on top.   

Increasingly comfortable in the role of ruthless, sleazy editor, Lamb is unstoppable.

Obsessed with overtaking the Daily Mirror’s circulation, he opts for some sketchy reportage surrounding the kidnapping and presumed murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick (Todd Scofield). The kidnappers mistook Muriel for Murdoch’s then-wife Anna (Sophia Early). Next, in a move beyond the pale, Lamb introduces “Page 3,” a feature spotlighting a topless female model. Awesta Zarif plays Stephanie, a smart young model. She asks Lamb if he would run a semi-nude pic of his similarly aged daughter? His reaction is uncomfortable but undaunted. 

For Murdoch’s purposes, history proves he chose well in Lamb. By year’s end, the Sun is Britain’s most widely read tabloid. Together they give the people what they didn’t know they wanted, proving the pro-Labour Daily Mirror’s hold on the working class is baseless and paving the way for things like Brexit and a Prime Minister Thatcher. 

“Ink” at Round House closes soon. See it if you can.

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