When The Connection was produced by the Living Theatre in 1959, Mr. Gelber was a mere 26. The avant garde piece depicted a disparate community of junkies waiting in a rundown apartment for their dealer, Cowboy, to bring them a fix. Meanwhile, a group of film students prowled the aisles of the auditorium, shooting the action, telling themselves, "This is what this is like." In a corner of the stage, a jazz combo led by saxophonist Jackie McLean provided propulsive musical accompaniment and the right quasi-poetic, beatnik atmosphere. Other actors played the director and playwright of the piece, adding yet another level of reality.
Edward Albee, speaking at the Obie Awards ceremony on May 19, remembered the electric effect the production had on him. "I was about to go to Berlin to see the premiere of my play The Zoo Story, but before I did, I saw a play that was one of the most exciting things I ever saw, or any of us ever saw. That was The Connection."
The play divided audiences and critics. Some longtime observers of the theatre were shocked and appalled. But a few critics—specifically Kenneth Tynan, who was then working at the New Yorker, and Jerry Talmer of The Village Voice—championed the piece, which went on to play 722 performances—the longest run to date for an Off-Broadway play that was not a revival. The play won a 1960 Obie Award and a Vernon Rice Award. In 1961, Shirley Clarke made it into a film, with Mr. Gelber providing a screen play.
At the time, Mr. Gelber was mentioned in the same breath of Albee and Arthur Kopit as representing the future of American playwriting. But his post-Connection career did not keep pace with those authors. His next play, a diffuse, rambling drama called The Apple—also produced by the Living Theatre and featuring a young James Earl Jones—was greeted as a significant disappointment. It was followed by the similarly unsuccessful Square in the Eye (1966), a multi-media work; The Cuban Thing (1969), which starred Raul Julia, Maria Tucci and Rip Torn, and ran on Broadway for a single performance; and Sleep (1972). Mr. Gelber directed many of his latter efforts.
For many years, he ran the playwriting department at Brooklyn College. His successor in that post, Mac Wellman, described him as "a man in a funny hat who never talked about himself or his work, but would talk endlessly and thoughtfully about each of his students."
Jack Gelber was born on April 12, 1932, in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois. He moved to New York City in the mid-50s. While living in Manhattan, he made friends with jazz musicians and theatre artists.
He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.