Shared from the 3/25/2020 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


T. McNally, playwright

He had a long association with the Philadelphia Theatre Company.


Terrence McNally was the author of Tony Award winning plays "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Master Class" and the musicals "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." His works ranged from farces and social-issue plays to operas. Some of his plays were premiered in Philadelphia. AP

Terrence McNally, 81, a prolific and much-honored playwright who rose to the forefront of American theater with a humane and lyrical style in works such as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, died Tuesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. The cause was complications from the coronavirus, said his press agent, Matt Polk, adding that Mr. Mc-Nally had chronic inflammatory lung disease.

With his supple and approachable plays, Mr. McNally emerged as a pivotal American dramatist, particularly as art and politics collided during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.

His body of work comprised dozens of plays, nearly a dozen musicals, and several operas. His modes ranged from anxious farces and social critiques in the 1960s and 1970s, when the gay-bathhouse romp The Ritz (1975) was his biggest hit, to the warmhearted Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), which illustrated the lives of eight gay men vacationing at a lake house. His Corpus Christi, which depicted a Jesus-like figure and his disciples as gay, ignited a firestorm in 1998.

After decades of qualified successes and setbacks, Mr. McNally had a run of Tony triumphs in the 1990s that made him a commercial force. He won the award for best book of a musical with Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1998), adapted respectively from novels by Manuel Puig and E.L. Doctorow. He won the Tony for best play with both Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class (1995), a comic drama about the imperious opera star Maria Callas giving lessons on art and life.

Master Class perhaps was the high point in his long and fruitful association with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where some of his plays were produced before going on to wider fame.

“I can’t overstate what he meant to Philadelphia Theatre Company, and how he and his work and the people who were part of his plays taught the audience at PTC what contemporary play-writing could do,” said PTC producing artistic director Paige Price.

“And the fact that so many of his plays moved on to massive audiences is a testament to what I think he was able to do with an artistic home.”

Throughout the month-long run of Master Class in Philadelphia in 1995, “people would stop me in the street to report how Zoe Caldwell’s Maria Callas had stirred them, had awakened some part of their being they’d almost forgotten they had,” Inquirer theater critic Clifford A. Ridley wrote as the play moved on to other cities.

In addition to Master Class, works by Mr. McNally produced by PTC over the years were Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Lips Together Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Some Men; Mothers and Sons; Unusual Acts of Devotion, and Golden Age.

PTC hasn’t officially announced it, but the company is planning a 25th anniversary production of Master Class next season that was programmed with Mr. McNally’s blessing, Price said.

Mr. McNally was able to frame issues of social relevance, but the commentary and point of view came through characters who seemed like real people, “so it was anything but agitprop,” said Price. “You were able to empathize and more fully understand how a person could feel. And it had heart, which I think separated it from the earlier angry-man theater.”

Mr. McNally, who had surgeries for lung cancer, received a lifetime achievement Tony in 2019, accepting the honor with breathing tubes strikingly visible over his tuxedo. “Not a moment too soon,” he joked.

In a career spanning six decades, Mr. McNally became known for writing bespoke, bravura roles for big stage personalities. “I’ll write you a play,” he often promised scene-stealing actors he admired, among them Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Christine Baranski, and James Coco.

His sweeping output included the working-class romance Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987) and The Full Monty (2000), a crowd-pleasing musical (the score was by David Yazbek) based on the hit film about unemployed British steelworkers who become male strippers. Mr. McNally’s serio-comedy A Perfect Ganesh (1993), about two Connecticut matriarchs who travel to India to seek emotional and spiritual renewal, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The work that dominated and defined his contribution to theater was the Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion!

“Everyone talked about the full frontal male nudity of that play,” said Raymond-Jean Frontain, author of The Theater of Terrence McNally: Something About Grace (2019). “But the final scene in which the men join hands and wade out into the lake and disappear at the back of the stage — they wade into the waters of the unknown, and they will escort each other to the other side, to whatever there is after death. That’s what you see in McNally play after McNally play: Grace is an entirely human phenomenon.

“You don’t need a transcendent entity to save individuals. We do it for each other.”

Mr. McNally, who became one of the country’s most produced and honored playwrights, spent the first half of his life struggling with alcohol and with the fact that others, even some of his lovers, did not accept that he was open with his sexuality while they were not.

One of his early romantic partners, the playwright Edward Albee, whose 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was heralded as a masterpiece, played down his sexuality to avoid being labeled a “gay” playwright.

“I became invisible when press was around or at an opening night,” Mr. McNally later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I knew it was wrong. It’s so much work to live that way.”

Mr. McNally found a durable voice mid-career with a string of widely produced comic dramas. Most prominent among them was Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune — “the first play I wrote after I got sober,” he told the New York Times. The two-character study was staged on Broadway in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, and was revived in 2019 with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.

Mr. McNally’s subject matter darkened as the AIDS crisis intensified. Watching closeted friends die alone in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he once said, “made me more militant than ever about being out.”

His mournful, accusatory drama Andre’s Mother (1988), about a woman who refuses to accept her dead son’s homosexuality, grew from its eight-minute original form to an hour-long 1990 American Playhouse film starring Richard Thomas.

As his work increasingly became a cornerstone of New York theater and the nation’s regional circuit, Mr. McNally reach extended further with his books for high-profile projects in the era of megamusicals.

His first major musical credit came with the 1984 John Kander-Fred Ebb show The Rink, starring Rivera and Liza Minnelli as a battling mother and daughter. He was reunited with Kander, Ebb, and Rivera for the dusky, glamorous epic Kiss of the Spider Woman, which opened on Broadway in 1993 and told the story of two Latin American political prisoners — one gay, one straight.

Moving into the operatic scale, Mr. McNally adapted Rag time with lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty Brian Stokes Mitchell co-starred with a young McDonald in a tale of archetypal American culture clashes.

Mr. McNally’s hard-won mo mentum came to a halt at the end of 1998, with a painful fra cas over Corpus Christi, titled for his Texas hometown.

The Manhattan Theatre Club which premiered most of his best-known work, canceled the production after receiving bomb threats but reinstated it under pressure. When it opened, the script was not well received. “The excitement stops right after the metal detectors,” began the Times review by Ben Brantley. “The play that brought an outraged chorus of protest even before it went into rehears al is about as threatening, and stimulating, as a glass of choco late milk.”

In 2000, Mr. McNally’s long time partner, the playwright and AIDS research activist Gary Bonasorte, died of AIDS-related lymphoma at 45. In 2010, Mr McNally married lawyer and producer Tom Kirdahy. In addi tion to his husband, survivors include a brother.

Inquirer staff writer Peter Dobrin contributed to this article.

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