Jean Collins Kerr, playwright and humorist, died on Sunday, January 5, at age 80. For more than 30 years, from the late 1940s into the 1980s, Mrs. Kerr and her husband, Walter, were a potent force in American theater. Together and apart, they worked with some of the greatest talents of the contemporary commercial stage.
An alumna of Marywood College in her native Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jean Kerr had a gift for light, sophisticated dialogue. Her husband, who died in 1996, was nine years her senior. He taught at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. before becoming drama critic at Commonweal, the New York Herald Tribune, and, finally, the New York Times.
The Kerrs commenced their joint assault on the New York theater by writing The Song of Bernadette, a 1946 drama that closed after its second performance. Thereafter, they worked together on Touch and Go, a successful 1949 revue which Mr. Kerr also directed, and Goldilocks, a short-lived 1958 musical (again directed by Mr. Kerr), with score by Leroy Anderson and musical staging by Agnes DeMille.
In 1954, Mrs. Kerr found her metier with King of Hearts, a breezy romantic satire that she wrote in collaboration with Eleanor Brooke. Directed by Mr. Kerr, King of Hearts lasted 274 performances -- a substantial run for a non-musical comedy in those days. Seven years later, Mary, Mary made Mrs. Kerr one of the most popular and successful playwrights of the century. A three-act, five character masterpiece, the play premiered in March 1961 in a production directed by Joseph Anthony and designed, with predictable élan, by Oliver Smith (sets) and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes).
Witty yet somehow earthy, Mary, Mary is, arguably, the most perfectly constructed light comedy of the English-speaking stage. It concerns a compulsively wise-cracking magazine editor, played initially by Barbara Bel Geddes, facing the awkward realization that she has joked her way out of marriage to her soul mate, played by Barry Nelson. The play ran 1,572 performances, moving from the Helen Hayes Theatre to the Morosco in December 1964 to make way for Mrs. Kerr's next effort, Poor Richard. Mary, Mary then toured extensively and was produced in London's West End with Maggie Smith in the lead. While still running on Broadway, it became a movie, produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy; Nelson reprised his stage role and the unlikely Debbie Reynolds played the title character.
In December 1960, with Mary, Mary in the 10th month of its triumphant New York run, Ira Levin unveiled Critic's Choice two blocks away at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Levin's play used the Kerrs' unusual personal/professional relationship as a jumping off point for comedy, with Henry Fonda as a New York critic facing a conflict of interest caused by his wife's playwriting debut. This theatrical in-joke, produced and directed by Otto Preminger, ran a respectable 189 performances -- but Mary, Mary outlasted it by three and a half years.
Mary, Mary was Mrs. Kerr's first collaboration with Roger L. Stevens, who produced all four of her subsequent plays. Poor Richard survived only 118 performances; featuring Alan Bates, Joanna Pettet, and Gene Hackman, the play was drastically revised in its pre-Broadway tryout, and Mrs. Kerr included both the original and final scripts in the published edition. In 1973, Mrs. Kerr's Finishing Touches reunited Barbara Bel Geddes and Barry Nelson as characters who may be described as middle-aged versions of the ones they created in Mary, Mary. Finishing Touches ran 164 performances.
Stevens and Robert Whitehead co-produced Mrs. Kerr's final play, Lunch Hour, in 1980, with Mike Nichols directing a cast headed by Gilda Radner and Sam Waterston. At 57, Mrs. Kerr wrote deftly about romantic characters a generation younger than herself, but her wit may have eluded audiences who expected the kind of humor Radner had offered on Saturday Night Live. Lunch Hour ran 262 performances but has not been produced frequently since.
In addition to writing plays, Mrs. Kerr contributed humorous pieces to major American magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal. Her essays, eventually collected in four volumes, made light of the tribulations that she and her husband experienced in the theater, in raising six children, and in running a commodious household in Larchmont, New York. Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957), the first and most famous of her books of humor, inspired a 1960 movie (with Doris Day as the wife of drama critic David Niven) and a television series (with Patricia Crowley and Mark Miller) that ran on NBC from 1965 to 1967.
Any examination of Mrs. Kerr's role in the American theater would be incomplete without acknowledgement that disgruntled playwrights and producers sometimes suggested that her sharp left elbow influenced Mr. Kerr's judgment about plays they viewed together. Back in the days when critics for the dailies rushed from theater to press room to file reviews for the next morning's edition, Mrs. Kerr defended herself against those charges: "[M]y husband sometimes consults me while he's writing a review. A hoarse shout will come over the partition [in the newspaper office], 'Hey, how do you spell desiccate?' But this is patently ridiculous. If I could spell desiccate I would long since have assumed my rightful place in the world of letters." She added that, "[i]n common with the wives of other critics, I am so anxious to indicate that I in no way influence or attempt to influence my husband's opinions that I rather overstate the case and perhaps give the impression that we never discuss the theatre at all. The fact is that we have many an intelligent discussion of the play coming home on the train, at which time I have a carbon copy of the review to read."
Less than a decade after Mary, Mary closed, the market for sophisticated comedy writing shifted abruptly from Broadway to television. But, even in the era of Frasier, no American is mining this vein of comedy with Jean Kerr's light touch or impeccable taste.
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