The roots of two family trees are currently intertwining Off-Broadway, courtesy of Down the Garden Path, a new comedy-drama by Anne Meara that made its move to the Minetta Lane Theatre following successful runs at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse and Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre. Pundits looking for real-life parallels can point to the fact that the elderly couple at the center of the play made their mark as a comedy team in vaudeville - much the way Meara and her husband, Jerry Stiller, rose as a comedic duo through the ranks of comedy clubs and TV gigs. Observers can even go further, noting similarities between the grown children in the play, who all have varying degrees of success in their fields, and Stiller and Meara's own kids, who've both gone into show business (Ben is an established comic leading man in films, Amy works steadily in regional theatre, Off-Off-Broadway and the stand-up circuit). But those digging for fact in fiction will undoubtedly be most intrigued by the casting of Garden Paths, which features Amy Stiller and Jerry Stiller in three videotaped cameos, married couple Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson and their daughter, Roberta Wallach. Yet those looking for direct, or even indirect, autobiography from Down the Garden Paths will be sorely disappointed. The play is a flight of fancy, an examination of what might happen if one single, albeit crucial, event in the life of a family, had occurred in different ways, and how that would affect the entire history of that family unit. Of course, Meara, 71— a success for years in Stiller and Meara the marriage (47 years and counting), Stiller and Meara the comedy team, herself as an actress ("Archie Bunker's Place," Anna Christie), and, in later life, as a playwright, (After-Play)—has little in common with the Garden family, their surface success and festering resentments. Still, Meara, who lost her mother at age eleven and has coped with the vagaries of show business for half a century, can understand the phrase "there but for the grace of God" — though, after so many years with her husband, she might be prone to say it in Yiddish.
Playbill On-Line: Considering the good fortune you've had with your family and your career, it's surprising that you'd find so many negative implications in a family dynamic, both in After- Play, in which aging couples face the choices they've made in their marriages, and Down the Garden Paths, wherein every possible twist of fate seems worse than the one before it. What sparked the interest in these family feuds?
AM: The theme in Down the Garden Paths has interested me for a long time. Families interest me - I'm part of one; most of us come from one. And I'm curious about the choices made in life, how they affect things, and how those choices happen. So [in Garden Paths] I show this family in four different incarnations. How they'd get on with their lives based on the same single event happening - with different permutations. I also enjoy reading short stories, including Borges' "The Garden of Forking Pass," and new age books on physics and quantum physics. There's a very legitimate "Many Worlds" interpretation in physics. In David Deutchs' book, "The Fabric of Reality," he speaks of the Many Worlds and goes on from there into string theory. But I know nothing about math. I'm not sending a polemic to anyone. I wrote what interested me, which is what happens when you deal with the same people differently. Also, when I go to the theatre, I like to be surprised.
PBOL: People may be surprised that in the midst of all the onstage squabbling are two real-life, onstage families.
AM: Yes, I have the wonderful Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach as the parents, Sid and Stella, an old ex-comedy team. David Saint, our director, suggested Amy when we did a reading. I knew Roberta from The Model Apartment. So the casting does put another level there. On the other hand, as I said to Anne and Eli and John Shea, "If we were all Italian and had a restaurant, and our kids were working as waiters, nobody would say anything about it."
PBOL: Forgetting any specious connections between your real life and the play, are there thematic parallels at least between After-Play and Garden Paths?
AM: I don't think so, although I'm dealing with older couples in both. I can't explain how these things happen or occur. I'm not consciously trying to write anything thematic. You draw on yourself. You write mainly about what you know, plus your imagination. Nobody in my background drowned in a lake [the key event in Garden Paths]. I wrote about people I knew, who interested me. They've gone around the block, paid their dues and experienced pain. That fits about everyone on the planet.
PBOL: Well, as your husband documents in his autobiography, "Married to Laughter," you've paid your dues as a performer. And those who think you hit a home run your very first time at bat with After-Play probably don't know that you wrote your first play, called Victims, back in the 1980s, and though Mike Nichols was briefly very interested in it, it never got done. That must've felt like a setback at the time.
AM: You get very sad for a while. And at the end of the 1980s I started therapy, very nuts and bolts stuff. Not just for the play but because I had terrible stage fright. A paralysis. I was doing Bosoms and Neglect by my dear friend, John Guare. And they also cast me in Eastern Standard at Manhattan Theater Club. I begged Richard Greenberg to replace me. It was not a pleasant experience being onstage at that point; it was bringing up fears I had never dealt with. Eventually, I learned to respect fear, and now I can access certain areas of my life that turned out to be fruitful. PBOL: But what about Victims?
AM: I didn't scrap it. Years later we had a lovely reading at the Bay Street Theatre. But I'm not keen to have a production of it. I don't agree with it philosophically anymore.
PBOL: And you somehow found the impetus to write another play?
AM: When you write, you can only hope. You have to write whatever idea you have and then communicate it. There'll only be a small narrowcasting of people who can relate to it. Or else you're writing for network television. Now that ain't easy; you have too many masters you have to answer to. With a play you have the luxury and the imperative to write your own idea, in the hopes that people agree and are moved by it.
PBOL: And what about your bout with stage fright?
AM: I never had fear or paralysis on film, only on stage. I went back onstage after Manhattan Theater Club's After-Play. We'd lost Rue McClanahan, who had another commitment and couldn't stay with the show. They asked me would I do it. I said, "Oh sure,” because all my ego had gone into being the writer. Later I acted in the play with Jerry. I'm a better actress now because I don't care about it that much. I care when I'm doing it, but don't have a need to break the bank at Monte Carlo. I enjoy the process. I don't have the need to "go over" or make it. I'm hoping one day I can have that same release with writing. You just have to keep going. I do remember getting one piece of criticism: I was in an Off-Broadway play before I was married called Montserrat. It was about people getting shot in front of a firing squad. We all had an aria to say and went offstage and got shot. The critic listed everyone in the cast in her review. These were actors that I, in my youth and grandiosity, was judgmental about. She saved me for the last sentence: "And as for Anne Meara, she simply has no talent. That's all. Period." And what's funny is about six-to-eight years later, Jerry and I had been named and honored as "new young entertainers" playing in the Village. And this same critic interviewed us.
AM: I never reminded her. We were trying to get known. She was supportive in the interview, and I probably stunk in the play she reviewed. I wasn't gonna go into a whole geshrai about how hurtful that was. It didn't matter anymore. But I can remember the exact quote to this day. Not the raves, though. When you're raised by nuns, that rarely happens.
PBOL: Nice of you to spare that writer an embarrassing moment. Do you recall any moments you wish you'd been spared?
AM: I was shooting "Kate McShane," a series on TV. Charlie Haid [of "Hill Street Blues" fame] used to be off camera and mugging, doing silly things that were meaningless. One time I laughed so hard, I just had to go and change my pantyhose. I lost it. Lost it. At least it wasn't onstage.
PBOL: Or in front of the nuns. Still, you seem to have hit a comfortable zone after all these years in show business.
AM: Well, I met Jerry when we were both auditioning, and eventually he wanted to go into comedy. The first break was with The Compass improv group, with Nancy Ponder and Alan Arkin. We started to do playwriting in a sense, which I guess helped me later on. When that group broke up, as groups do, Jerry and I worked on a comedy act. My mother loved movies, and I loved movies like she loved movies. So I wanted to do that. I'd send away for movie magazines — the old thing of everybody wanting to be a star or whatever. My reasons were shallow at the time, but I had some very good teachers. I started to respect older actors when I was young and then contemporary actors later on. Then I learned respect for comedy. When I was first doing theatre, I thought of it as just a means to become Sarah Bernhardt or someone like that. But acting with young people has been a great learning experience. Like doing "The Daytrippers" with Liev Schreiber, Parker Posey, Hope Davis. I don't go through a lot of technique stuff at all. People form their own way, their own methodology. I've learned to trust in the moment - and that word, "trust," is so hard. To be open to the other actor. It can take a lifetime.
— By David Lefkowitz