Sunday, May 23, 2010

George S. Kaufman

In 1936 Kaufman was working with Moss Hart on a new play which would open in December - the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy You Can't Take It With You. At the same time he was dealing with troubling personal matters - made public - as it was revealed in the papers in August that his affairs with Mary Astor had been revealed in her divorced case. Graphic descriptions of his sexual abilities (which I won't go into here - pick up a copy of Hollywood Babylon, why not, I often do at my in-laws because it's right near the toilet) were allegedly set down in her diary those this diary was never admitted as evidence and reported destroyed.

He was even subpoenaed, and there was a warrant for his arrest for not making an appearance at trial. He claimed he was in a "nervous state" and wished to be left alone. He was also quoted as being distressed to be referred to as a "middle-aged" playwright. That was a joke.

These descriptions stand in contrast to the public depiction of Kaufman, a large, awkward, misanthropic, "East Coast" type, with an apparent distaste for the human touch. Moss Hart's Act One: An Autobiography creates an engrossing picture of this larger-than-life personality.

In 1981 John Lithgow performed a one-man show called Kaufman at Large, detailing the date August 21, when the playwright was dealing with the emotional fallout from the Astor affair, and hanging on the phone with Hart, penciling one the most produced and celebrated comedies in American history.

The critics were not kind to Lithgow's efforts, but then in twenty-nine year retrospect, neither is he. I had the privilege and the quirky thrill this weekend of driving John Lithgow around a little bit while he was in town performing his new one-man piece, Stories By Heart on behalf of Great Lakes Theater Festival. I had the opportunity to catch the half that includes Uncle Fred Flits By by P.G. Wodehouse. The surrounding narrative involves how deeply ingrained the telling of stories runs in his family, and how by recounting the same stories his father read to him as a child, he was able to bring a "spark" back to his father during his final eighteen months of life.

If you are already familiar with his work, you have already been impressed with the patrician quirkiness of his performances. He's very tall, 6'4" and uses his limbs to great advantage, bringing to mind some of the great modern British interpreters of uptight ridiculousness - think John Cleese's Basil Fawlty, or Hugh Laurie's own take on Wodehouse.

My conversation with Lithgow last night was like one five-minute exchange broken up over the course of several hours. Escorting him from the show to a dinner around the corner I was taking in a conversation between him and Charles Fee, artistic director GLTF, about his other work in solo performance, and that was when I first learned of the Kaufman piece. Later in the evening I went to his table to ask if he needed anything and he said, "You're an actor!" as though someone had told him that I was - because I know I hadn't. On the drive from the Armory to his hotel, I asked about the Kaufman piece and he lamented its failure, and that in spite of bringing in Mike Nichols to work on it. He admitted he had been miscast - how could a man as goyish as himself portray one of the most famously acidic, New Yawk satirists?

I told him about my two solo productions and he repeated his earlier observation about how challenging that is, and how lonely it can be. But I reflected back to him how important the show he is currently doing is, how personal, and how that personal connection is so apparent, it's so honest.

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