Peerless Wit of Mark O'Donnell Is Remembered at Broadway Gathering; Doug Hughes, Jack O'Brien, Margo Lion Speak

By Robert Simonson
13 Nov 2012

Doug Hughes
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

O'Donnell was at Harvard at the same time director Doug Hughes attended. Hughes remembered the writer's fearsome reputation as the campus' subtlest wit. Yet, when he approached him to collaborate on a project, "I was met by encouragement and enthusiasm," recalled Hughes.

Hughes later directed an early O'Donnell play, Fables for Friends, at Playwrights Horizons in 1980. Andre Bishop was artistic director of the theatre at that time. Bishop recalled, in a letter that was read aloud, that O'Donnell liked to sing and whistle, and "considered these activities suitable pastimes." At times, when spending time in the writer's apartment, O'Donnell would sometimes say, "Let's sing."

Halfway through the memorial, a short absurdist play by O'Donnell, called There Shall Be No Bottom — "a bad play by worse actors" — was performed by Christopher Even Welch, Jay O. Sanders, Mia Barron and David Greenspan.

Later, Welch recalled how O'Donnell got around New York City on a bicycle. He described this activity as akin to being a "low-flying pedestrian." "After that, I was hooked," said Welch. "Now I ride a bicycle everywhere. Welch then read a tribute by Bill Irwin, with whom O'Donnell penned an adaptation of Moliere's Scapin that was an Off-Broadway hit in 1997. "The dependably funny lines in the script are Mark's," wrote Irwin, mentioning one zinger that never fails to get a laugh whenever the play is done. Hearing his master is in love, a servant congratulates him, saying "I hear it's not so bad at first." "Some directors have toyed with putting a comma before 'at first,'" wrote Irwin. "It doesn't quite work. Trust the line and lose the comma, and it's always funny."

Producer Margo Lion told how, when searching for a librettist for Hairspray who could understand John Waters' voice but not imitate it, New Yorker critic John Lahr recommended O'Donnell. At some point in the process, Lion decided to bring in veteran bookwriter Thomas Meehan to collaborate on the book. She called O'Donnell to tell him, expecting a bad reaction, and she got it. But then, "One minute later, he called me back. He said, 'I don't know how I could have spoken to you like that. You have given me the chance of a lifetime, and I am so grateful. I'll be happy to meet with Tom anytime.'"

Both directors Jack O'Brien and Doug Hughes recalled O'Donnell as someone who remained sunny no matter how good or how bad rehearsals were going, a man who never feared the point in rehearsal when notes were given.

A number of video tributes were shown, including ones by John Waters, who remembered that O'Donnell "made my characters funnier and more charming that they were, and was the only person connected to Hairspray who didn't seem to spend the money he made on it"; and Jon Stewart, who, as a young comic, took a sketch class with O'Donnell. "He was a nice guy," said Stewart. "He was a smart guy. He was a funny guy. There aren't many like him anymore."

O'Donnell wrote short comic poems about life in New York City which he called "Manhattan Zen"; "The fourteenth floor is dishonest, but lucky," ran one. He also drew hundreds of cartoons, some of which were published in the New Yorker. (His brother said Mark suggested a published compilation could be titled "If Only He Could Draw.") Images of a couple dozen of these were shown before the memorial got underway. In one, some fish climbing out of the sea onto land are met by another returning, who says, "I going back. Have you seen the prices?" A final cartoon, shown at the end, depicted a series of headstones. Carved on each one was at the kind of ecstatic blurb one sees on Broadway marquees.

Mark was always "paddling on his own underground river," said Hughes, who gave the closing remarks. "Mark O'Donnell may have thought himself a stranger on this earth, but his stay here was an incredibly productive one. Joy, happiness, laughter — Mark produced those in ample amount."