Dates have been announced for Terrence McNally's new drama, Corpus Christi, which has been the target of protest and counter-protest for its subject matter. Manhattan Theatre Club has announced that the play will begin previews Sept. 22 and open Oct. 13 at the New York City Center.
The play, which depicts a gay Christ-like figure, was withdrawn by MTC in May 1998 after threats of violence, then reinstated after an outcry from the theatre community, and a promise of special protection from the New York Police Department.
Terrence McNally's long-long-awaited drama -- a retelling of "the greatest story ever told -- was postponed for two consecutive seasons because it wasn't ready, then cancelled and reinstated for this season because of right-wing death threats.
In addition to winning the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play (Love! Valour! Compassion!), McNally won the 1998 Best Book of a Musical Tony Award for his libretto to Ragtime. He's also currently revising the libretto to Rodgers & Hart's Pal Joey for the Toronto-based Livent Inc.
MTC restored Corpus Christi to the schedule at a late-afternoon press conference May 28 at City Center, the company's base. The announcement capped a wild week in which MTC responded to death threats by withdrawing Corpus Christi from its schedule. The company subsequently drew fire from an angry theatre community, which accused MTC of censorship and cowardice. "In the face of these accusations, we took steps to further evaluate what has always been the only issue for us: safety and security," said Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director. "Within the last 24 hours, we have been in contact with New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir and his Intelligence Division which have been overwhelmingly supportive in stepping in to aid our endeavors and to give us the reasonable assurances we need to produce this play responsibly and safely."
Earlier in the day May 28 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office issued a statement, reading "Although the mayor doesn't agree with the tone of the play, threats of violence in New York City will not be tolerated."
Grove also read from a statement by playwright Athol Fugard, who said "I have boundless admiration for Lynne Meadow's courage and would be absolutely delighted to bring back my play The Captain's Tiger to the Manhattan Theatre Club." Fugard had responded to the removal of Corpus Christi by withdrawing on May 26 his own play, which had been slated for the company's upcoming season.
A grave Meadows said the theatre had been outraged by accusations from the theatre community that MTC had stooped to censorship. "In our 25-year history, we have never censored a play or turned down a play because of content." She then played a grainy tape of one of the death threats the theatre had received. The scratchy, hoarse voice on the tape said, in part, "This message is for Jew, guilty, homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theatre and burn the place to the ground. Death to Jews worldwide." The man said he spoke for something called the National Security Organization.
Grove would not elaborate on the sort of security measures that might be set up at the Off-Broadway theatre's 55th Street performing space, saying "We cannot nor will not later announce any specific security measures." He added that security was indeed in place during the press conference as well.
Corpus Christi had been slated for a fall production at MTC when a story on the play appeared in the New York Post. The article quoted an unnamed source who had attended a reading of the work and claimed the play featured a gay Jesus-like figure. McNally and MTC were subsequently attacked by The Catholic League, a right-wing religious group, which demanded McNally revise the play. Upon receiving no reply, the league began a campaign to halt government funding of MTC.
After weeks of silence, the theatre suddenly withdrew the play May 22, citing "security" reasons, later revealed to be threats of violence against the theatre and McNally. Far from solving the company's problems, however, the move infuriated the playwriting community. The most dramatic result was South African playwright Athol Fugard's decree that he would withdraw his new play The Captain's Tiger from MTC's 1998-99 roster. Other playwrights also voiced their indignation, among them Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, Marsha Norman, Lanford Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and Larry Kramer. Many signed a petition calling for MTC to restore the play. Since then, other theatres across the country have expressed interest in producing the play.
A Playbill On-Line reader present at an MTC-hosted reading of the play wrote to say, "I just want to drop a line about how disturbed I am by the cancellation of Corpus Christi at the MTC. It is one of Terrence's most beautifully written plays and I find it a shame that those who wish to censor artistic expression will make it impossible for the theatrical community to see this work. I think the overall spirit of this work and my own personal feelings about the piece can be spoken for in this quote from the play: `Maybe other people have told His story better. Other actors. This is our way. If we have offended, so be it. He belongs to us as well as you.' "
The words "Corpus Christi" are Latin for "Body of Christ."
McNally was not present at the May 28 press conference. Meadow said she had spoken with the playwright the night before and that he was "delighted" with the theatre's decision. Neither Grove nor Meadow would comment on the content of the play, saying it was still in progress.
In other 1998-99 MTC season news, the musical Captains Courageous, which had been on tap for 1997-98 until a decision was made to hold off and replace it with A.R. Gurney's Labor Day, will follow Corpus Christi on the MTC mainstage.
Captains Courageous begins previews Jan. 12, 1999 and opens Feb. 16, 1999. Treat Williams, best known for his film work in Hair and Prince of the City, will star. Williams appeared Off Broadway in Oleanna in 1993, replacing William H. Macy, and on Broadway in Love Letters, opposite Kate Nelligan.
Mandy Patinkin took part in a reading of the musical in October 1996, and then told reporters at the 1997 Tony Awards he was interested in starring, but he hasn't been with the project for months. (This summer he's be doing his "Mamaloshen" revue of Jewish/Yiddish songs at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on NY's Lower East Side.)
Captains Courageous, has music by Frederick Freyer and book & lyrics by Patrick Cook. Lynne Meadow directs.
Continuing in the tradition of bringing literary classics to musical theatre (Jekyll & Hyde, Jane Eyre), this new musical is based on Rudyard Kipling's adventure novel of a young boy on the high seas. It's the story of Harvey Cheyne, spoiled son of a wealthy industrialist, who falls overboard and is rescued by working-class Portuguese sailors. The musical, which also uses the John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly & Dale van Every film as its source, was presented previously at Goodspeed Opera House's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
Opening the MTC second stage, Oct. 27, will be The Memory of Water, which had its American premiere this winter at Steppenwolf Theatre's mainstage. John Tillinger will direct this quiet comedy by British actress Shelagh Stephenson, about three sisters, reunited by their mother's death, who discover a bond deeper than kinship. Previews begin Oct. 13.
Water is Stephenson's first stage play, though she's penned several award-winning radio plays. The piece enjoyed an extended run at London's Hampstead Theatre last year.
As for Athol Fugard's Captain's Tiger, it will have played at NJ's McCarter (May) and CA's La Jolla Playhouse (July) by the time it reaches MTC's second stage, previewing Dec. 15 and opening Jan. 5, 1999. It tells the autobiographical story of a young writer haunted by a cherished photograph of his mother as a young woman. Fugard, author of Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys, The Blood Knot and Valley Song, writes and directs.
Fugard directs and stars in the play (as he did in Valley Song), which premiered in Pretoria, South Africa in late August 1997. Following the opening night, Fugard jotted a note to McCarter's artistic director Emily Mann, who was also in attendance: "...a thrilling launch last night. Individual response after the show leaves me in no doubt we have on our hands a play that works."
Following Fugard's colorful Captain will be Chay Yew's Red -- not to be confused with Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1994 film of the same name. Red tells of "a best-selling American writer returning to her native Communist China to research her new book." The trip takes her to the Beijing Opera during the so-called "Cultural Revolution."
Previewing Feb. 23, 1999, Red opens Mar. 9, 1999.
Yew's first play, As If He Hears, was commissioned by Theatreworks in Singapore, where it was initially banned by their government. His A Language of Their Own was given a limited run at L.A.'s Celebration Theatre in 1994 and opened at New York's Public Theatre in 1995. Yew's gay drama Porcelain recently played in Boston.
Yew is presently a resident artist and director of The Mark Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop and Resident Director of the East West Players, where his trilogy, Whitelands (comprised of Porcelain, A Language of Their Own and Half Lives), was presented in repertory in 1996.
Also mentioned on the MTC season schedule (but not part of the company's recent press announcement of the season) is a revival of Arthur Kopit's 1962 farce, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You In The Closet And I'm Feeling So Sad, tells of a scheming lady (Madame Rosepettle) and her "socially challenged son." The MTC brochure notes that the play features "giant Venus flytraps, talking fish and a voracious babysitter named Rosalie."
According to the BackStage Theatre Guide, ODPDMHYITCAIFSS was written when Kopit was still an undergraduate at Harvard University. Other Kopit works include The Questioning of Nick (1957), Indians (1968), Wings (1978) and The Day The Whores Came Out To Play Tennis (1965).
Manhattan Theatre Club subscribers have two options: an 8-show "Super Series" or a 5-play option of all four plays on the mainstage plus one of the Stage II works. The theatre currently boasts more than 20,000 subscribers.
For subscriptions ($215-$314) and information on Manhattan Theatre Club shows call (212) 399-3030 or check out their website at http://www.mtc-nyc.org