SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Terrence McNally

Special Features   SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Terrence McNally
Sharing a drink with Tony-winning Master Class playwright Terrence McNally at the upstairs bar of Manhattan's famed theatre-district restaurant.

Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally Photo by Peter James Zielinski


As a young man, struggling to become a successful playwright, Terrence McNally set up Sardi's as a reward.

"I told myself I couldn't go there until I had a play on Broadway," he said. He didn't have to wait long. Things That Go Bump in the Night opened at the Royale Theatre on April 26, 1965. The opening night party was, yes, at Sardi's. The Theatre District eatery was still the center of theatrical dining culture back then, and the first choice for premiere soirees. McNally walked in to an ovation. He thought it was for his 26-year-old self. Then he noticed Eileen Heckart, the star of his play, standing right behind him. "The applause was for her," he recalled, smiling at the memory.

Though it has been nearly a half-century since that party, Sardi's still holds a special place in McNally's heart. He rented out the entire restaurant for his 70th birthday celebration in 2009. He was trying to think of a setting that would top other landmark birthday parties he'd been to. "I thought, nobody's done that," he said. He and 200 of his closest friends had a swell night. "I remember Barbara Cook, Zoe Caldwell and Doris Roberts and me closing the place," he said. "I've know Doris probably longer than anyone else in New York. She was in Bad Habits." That play, one of McNally's early critical successes, opened Off-Broadway in 1974.

Tyne Daly in Master Class.
photo by Joan Marcus

Caldwell, of course, was the original star of Master Class. The 1995 play, which just opened in revival at the Friedman Theatre, marks the playwright's 20th Broadway opening, if you count the adaptations and uncredited contributions. The 19th, the musical Catch Me If You Can, opened earlier this spring. And yet the occasions have not become old hat for him. "How could they?" he asked. "It's tremendously exciting. Broadway is the best real estate in the theatre. There's something about seeing a play under a proscenium. Plays look better on a Broadway stage. When an actor makes a gesture, the gesture seem larger. Everything seems bigger. When an actor makes a gesture Off-Broadway, there's a danger he's going to hit one of the lights." Even in his 70s, McNally's quiet, childlike enthusiasm for the stage has not diminished. Still, he's accustomed enough to the routine to feel comfortable scheduling our interview in the second floor bar of Sardi's during the hour before Master Class's opening-night performance. I said I supposed the theatre would be full of people who wanted to say hello to him, meaning to express sympathy for that coming social trial. "I hope so," he answered.

The new Master Class stars Tyne Daly as opera diva Maria Callas. The production previously ran at the Kennedy Center in spring 2010 as part of a festival celebrating McNally's work. Casting her was the playwright's idea. "I thought, Who's a stage actress from the boards up? And that's Tyne. She didn't want to do it. She thought she was too down to Earth, but I convinced her." He contacted the actress himself. "I like to do that," he said. "It doesn't make my agent happy. They want things to go through them. And certainly Hollywood agents don't want their clients to take stage work, because there's not enough money for them in the deal."

Rosie Perez in the 2007 revival of McNally's The Ritz.
photo by Joan Marcus

McNally has reached a point in his career where he enjoys as many Broadway revivals of his works as he does productions of new plays and musicals. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was done for the first time on Broadway in 2002. (Like many of his best know plays from the 1980s and early 1990s, it had its premiere Off-Broadway.) The Ritz, his 1975 farce set in a gay bath house, was reborn in 2007, and Ragtime, the 1998 musical for which he wrote the libretto, returned to Broadway in 2009. He finds his role at rehearsals for these production somewhat puzzling. "I'm used to all the notes from the director being for me," he said. "But now they're for the actors." For a while there, it looked like Lips Together, Teeth Apart would be among the McNally plays to be revived on Broadway. It was scheduled to open at the American Airlines Theatre in spring 2010, directed by Joe Mantello and starring Megan Mullally. But then Mullally mysteriously bolted from the production. "I did not see that coming," said McNally. "We were in a cab together, me and Joe and her. She said, 'See you tomorrow at rehearsal.' Of course that didn't happen. I think we're all still a bit numb from that experience." 

McNally has seen Master Class, one of his most-produced plays, many times. He's seen it in French. He's seen it in Greek. "I don't always know where we are in the script," he admitted of those productions. Are the laughs always in the same places? "No. But the laughs aren't always in the same places for this production, from night to night."

Terrence McNally
photo by Peter James Zielinski

Despite his copious success, McNally continues to work. He's writing a one-person show for opera singer Deborah Voigt (not an opera, and Voigt will sing no arias in it) and has been commissioned to write his first play for the Pearl Theatre Company. The work will debut in New York City Center's Stage II, where the Pearl is in residence. The basement of City Center has a personal resonance for McNally. Many of his dramas, including Frankie and Johnny, were first staged there.

A new play in the works means no curling up with a good book for McNally. "When I'm writing, I don't read fiction," he said. "Maybe a biography, but no fiction." When he's not bent over a hot computer, however, he likes fiction fine. And certain books he more than likes. "I read 'The Great Gatsby' once a year. And John O'Hara's first book, 'Appointment in Samarra.' I was asked once to turn 'The Great Gatsby' into a musical. But how do you do that? The magic of that book is mysterious. I saw the opera. It didn't work. The films haven't been good."

Following the opening of Master Class, he planned to travel to Ireland with his longtime partner (and spouse, as of spring 2010) Tom Kirdahy. They will stay at the home of actress Angela Lansbury, which is perched on a cliff over the sea. "I've been to Dublin several times, but never anywhere else in Ireland." Really? Never? I mean, his name is McNally. "My parents weren't interested in that sort of thing," he replied. "I don't know my genealogy. I don't know where I'm from." View highlights from Master Class:


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