WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Terrence McNally slowly shakes his head, clasps his hands together, and admits — with a trace of apology — that he’s ready to take a breather.
It’s not because the playwright is 71 years-old, has writer’s block, or needs to take a break because he’s been battling lung cancer for nearly a decade.
“This has been an unusually busy year,” said McNally, one of America’s greatest living writers. “I want to spend some time traveling or sitting under a tree reading a book.”
The four-time Tony Award winner has earned the respite, having crisscrossed the country over the last 12 months helping a variety of theater companies produce his plays.
“I’m getting up to here with actors, rehearsals, previews, pressure, critics,” he told Reuters backstage at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, putting his hand up to his eyes.
“I think it’s natural. In the space of less than a year I did a new play in La Jolla called ‘Unusual Acts of Devotion.’ We tried out a new musical, ‘Catch Me If You Can.’
“We did a new play, ‘Golden Age.’ And then three revivals, ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’ on Broadway,’ and ‘Master Class’ and ‘Lisbon Traviata’ here at the Kennedy Center.
“That’s a lot. And it’s not even a full calendar year yet.”
McNally mentions each of his plays like they’re his children, and in many ways they are. He admits to getting miffed when critics take aim at his efforts.
“I take it personally because my work is very personal.” he said. “Some people write one play and are acclaimed by every critic. I have not had that kind of experience. I don’t feel like the critics have championed me. I’m not sure why.
“My first play (“Things that Go Bump in the Night” in 1964) was universally despised by everyone. Got one good review. There are certain writers that the critics have always liked. I’ve had to work hard to keep my place.”
Taking the sting out an occasional bad review are his long list of awards and honors. Among them, McNally’s “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and “Master Class” won back-to-back Tony’s for Best Play in 1995-96, and the Kennedy Center this spring is showing three of his opera-themed works.
“If my plays weren’t being produced anywhere I would be dismayed,” he said. “But I am the first living playwright that the Kennedy Center has chosen to do three of his plays. That’s quite an honor.”
And McNally’s plays are staged around the world at a time when Broadway ticket prices have gone through the roof.
Unfortunately, “it’s the way it is,” the playwright said.
“Production costs have risen so disproportionate to the cost of living index in the United States,” he said. “If one is 80 percent, the other is 800 percent.
“‘My Fair Lady’ came out about 50 years ago and that cost, I think, $75,000 to produce. In its day, ‘My Fair Lady’ and two (stage) turntables, millions of very elaborate costumes by Cecil Beaton, who was the ultimate in stage luxury and extravagance.
“Now, you can’t produce a play off-Broadway for $75,000.
“The cost of real estate in Manhattan is so high. The public doesn’t realize the high cost of theater rentals. We need to find a way to reduce that.
“But that’s like asking your apartment landlord to give you a discount. It ain’t going to happen.”
Though McNally doesn’t need the long hours, the anxiety, or the financial incentive to work any longer, he chuckles at the thought of retirement.
“One of my role models is Giuseppe Verdi, who wrote his last opera, Falstaff, when I think he was 88,” he said. “And some people think it was his masterpiece.
“Falstaff and Otello are considered two of his towering achievements and both were written in the 80s. I’m 71. When you’re self-employed, you don’t think about retirement like, maybe, someone who has a job they don’t particularly like.”
McNally said he feels fine despite having cancer surgery on each of his lungs nine years ago. He said it was an advantage that his surgeon was a theatergoer.
“She’d seen a lot of my plays and I’m sure that helped,” he said with a smile. “I’m doing good. I have a CAT scan every six months, had it last week and it was fine.
“I certainly plan on hangin’ in there for a while.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte