Jack Richardson, Playwriting Force of 1960s Off-Broadway, Dies at 77

By Robert Simonson
July 5, 2012

Jack Richardson, who had a sudden, but fleeting, impact on the New York theatre scene with two Off-Broadway plays, died July 1. He was 77.



Jack Richardson's name was, for a few years, mentioned in the same breath as that of Edward Albee as one of the deadly serious and romantically brooding writing talents that made the Off-Broadway scene of the Kennedy years an exciting place. Some of the tyros championed by critics and artists then, such as Albee, fulfilled their early promise. Others, like Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad…), experienced their ups and downs, but managed to fashion a prolonged career in the theatre. Still others, like Jack Gelber (The Connection), never recaptured the spark of the initial effort that caught the world's attention, and slowly faded from view.

Mr. Richardson fell into the latter category. Like Gelber, he followed up his Off-Broadway successes with Broadway misfires—Lorenzo in 1963, which, though directed by Arthur Penn and starring Alfred Drake, lasted four performances; and Xmas in Las Vegas in 1965, which fared just as poorly. By the end of the decade, he had all but given up the theatre.

Jack Richardson was born in New York City on Feb. 18, 1935, and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. After a brief time in summer stock and a few courses in acting at the American Theatre Wing, he enlisted in the Army and served in Korea, Frankfurt and Paris from 1951-1954. Following his discharge, he went to Columbia University. He left the institution with a degree in philosophy, a growing drinking problem and, according to his future wife, writer and novelist Anne Roiphe (then Anne Roth), a fake English accent. “If I am not as famous as Keats by the age of 26,” Richardson told Roth, “I will kill myself.” He attended the University of Munich on an Adenauer Fellowship in Germanic Studies. He and Roth married in 1957, and soon after had a child.

He came close to achieving his goal of besting Keats (who died at 25). When he was 24, his first play, The Prodigal, debuted at the Downtown Theatre on Feb. 11, 1960. It was a resounding success. His Orestes was a youth with an existential cast, rebelling against 1950s social conformism and only reluctantly pursued society's demand that he revenge his father's death. "The supple style is his own," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, "serious, yet ironically humorous when the occasion requires a change of mood; articulate about moral issues; resolute in the statement of the conflict between Orestes and Agamemnon; mature in characterization."

The Prodigal won a 1960 Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award.

The follow-up, Gallows Humor, was presented by the Theatre 1961 of Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder—the same producers who backed Albee. It consisted of two one-act plays—the first dwelling on the final hours of the condemned, the second on the frustrated life of the executioner—which commented on capital punishment.

Unlike The Prodigal, Mr. Richardson employed comedy in his second playwriting effort, though his concerns remained serious. Howard Taubman of the Times said, "Although Gallows Humor is not deep, its style is fresh and incisive. There is no reason to doubt his status as an important new talent in the theatre."

Starring Julie Bovasso and Vincent Gardenia, it ran 40 performances at the Gramercy Arts Theatre.

Mr. Richardson was soon a regular at Elaine's, a restaurant he helped owner Elaine Kaufman establish as a literary hangout. He survived this period, as his soon-to-be-ex-wife put it, on “Scotch and bourbon and cigarettes and German philosophy and French paperbacks.”

Broadway gambled on the prodigy. The gamble failed, twice, and Mr. Richardson retreated. He and his wife divorced.

By 1968, when As Happy As Kings was produced at the New Theatre Workshop, the critics had ceased to pay attention.

Subsequently, Mr. Richardson devoted his time to other forms. He wrote two novels—including "Memoir of a Gambler," about his obsession with gambling— essays and dramatic criticism. His nonfiction was published in Esquire and The New York Times. For a time, he was a dramatic critic at Commentary. In a 1976 interview, he said he was disinclined to attempt Broadway again. "The frustrations are just too much," he said.

He is survived by his second wife, film editor Susan E. Morse; his daughter from his first marriage, Emily Carter, a writer who is married to punk rock guitarist, Johnnie Sage Ammentorp; and his son, Dwight.