Playwright Leonard Melfi to Be Remembered at May 5 NYC Memorial

News   Playwright Leonard Melfi to Be Remembered at May 5 NYC Memorial Friend and colleagues of the late playwright Leonard Melfi will remember the man and his work at a public memorial 2 PM May 5 at La MaMa Annex, Second Floor, at 66 E. Fourth Street in Manhattan's East Village.
Leonard Melfi.
Leonard Melfi. (Photo by Photo by James D. Gossage)

Friend and colleagues of the late playwright Leonard Melfi will remember the man and his work at a public memorial 2 PM May 5 at La MaMa Annex, Second Floor, at 66 E. Fourth Street in Manhattan's East Village.

Playwrights Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson, whose careers rose during Melfi's time, will speak, and excerpts of his works will be read.

Melfi was buried in a potter's field two months after he died in October 2001, after attempts to locate his next of kin apparently failed, The New York Times reported March 7.

The 66-year-old Melfi's death Oct. 28, 2001, came to light only recently. Since February, his family had not been able to locate his body, although hospital and morgue officials were searching through records. The family learned in March that Melfi was buried in a cemetery on Hart Island that is reserved for the unidentified or the poor.

The Times reported that the family plans to have the body exhumed and buried in a family plot in Binghamton, NY. The unclaimed body moved from Mt. Sinai Hospital to Bellevue Hospital Center's city mortuary and then to Hart Island.

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The Off-Broadway playwright Leonard Melfi, who was among rising writers Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally and others in the 1960s and '70s, died Oct. 28, 2001, apparently of congestive heart failure, The New York Times reported.

Melfi died at Mt. Sinai Hospital after being taken there by ambulance. The story of his missing body first showed up in a March 6 Times story by Mel Gussow.

Melfi wrote many plays seen in Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway venues, and penned one-third of a trio of plays that appeared on Broadway in late 1978 under the title, Morning, Noon and Night. Israel Horovitz wrote Morning, Terrence McNally Noon and Mr. Melfi Night. Charlotte Rae, Robert Klein and John Heffeman starred.

His Taxi Tales played Broadway's Century Theatre, and he contributed to the bawdy Broadway revue, Oh! Calcutta! His most-known work may be Birdbath, which Gussow called "a late-night dialogue between a homeless waif and a prodigal poet." A television version of the 1965 work featured Patty Duke.

Cafe LaMaMa staged 21 of his works over the years, and seven of his plays were presented by Theater for a New City. A company called The Leonard Melfi Repertory Theatre was established in his hometown, Binghamton, NY. The troupe was founded by Angelo Zuccolo and premiered seven new works, according to Melfi's 1988 Showbill biography.

The 1978-79 Off-Broadway season saw a staging of Melfi's comic Porno Stars at Home, about skin-flick actors at a birthday party away from work. His other plays included Fantasies at the Frick, Ferryboat, Encounters, Later Encounters, Lunchtime, Rusty & Rico, The Shirt, Club Hellfire and Halloween, among others.

A sequel to Morning, Noon and Night reunited Horovitz, McNally and Melfi on the same bill. The new work, titled Faith, Hope and Charity, with Melfi penning Charity, played Off-Broadway's South Street Theatre in late 1988 with Marilyn Sokol, Claiborne Cary, Angela Nevard, John Rothman and Rodney Scott Hudson taking roles. Max Daniels produced, Edward Berkeley directed. All three plays were set in Central Park.

Melfi was often drawn to characters and situations outside of the mainstream. His play, Niagara Falls, "had the bizarre plot of a serial killer preying on eight newly-marrieds who had each been abandoned by their spouses while honeymooning in Niagara Falls," former Off-Off Broadway producer Patricia Brayen told Playbill On-Line. Brayen and colleagues staged a revival of the 1967 LaMama play Off-Off Broadway in 1984. The original starred John Beck and Brayen's small 1984 staging featured David Beecroft.

Melfi was by no means an unapproachable celebrity playwright, Brayen suggested. "As I had heard Melfi lived in the same Upper West Side neighborhood where we were putting on the play, I — with all the boldness of youth — simply looked him up in the phone book, invited him to the production, and he accepted," she said. "It was a great moment for our theatre group to have a living playwright at our show, and I have never forgotten Leonard Melfi's graciousness."

— By Kenneth Jones