At three points in the top-flight revival of Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo, now at Lincoln Center Theater, the activity on stage elicits a rasping collective gasp from the playgoers. It's the kind of response more likely to greet an accident than a scripted exchange. But the gasping patrons at Lincoln Center are witnessing a flash of perfidy on the part of Laurents' fictional characters, wonderfully played by members of a stellar cast.
Throughout his writing career, Laurents has evinced a talent for dramatizing deeds and exchanges that similarly rend the social contract, bringing all polite intercourse to a screeching halt--or, as someone remarks in Laurents' 1973 drama The Enclave, "One word too many and the house falls in like a soufflé." Original Story By, Laurents' new "memoir of Broadway and Hollywood," contains a goodly number of anecdotes that affect the reader in a way similar to those gasp-inducing scenes in The Time of the Cuckoo: There's choreographer Jerome Robbins making casuistic excuses for ratting out his friends before the House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee; there's ballerina Nora Kaye, who after pledging to marry the youthful Laurents promptly ties the knot with Isaac Stern and lets her discarded fiancé find out about the nuptials from a gossip column. Then there's the august Richard Rodgers, chugging vodka from a bottle concealed in the water tank of his office toilet and sadistically belittling his young collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, while writing Do I Hear a Waltz? There's Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn being chintzy; Alfred Hitchcock being creepy; Marion Davies (the mistress of William Randolph Hearst) being a lush; Leonard Bernstein being a pain in the ass; and on and on and on.
In the theater, Laurents' trademarked falling soufflés are highly dramatic, illustrating the unflattering view of humanity that gives his plays an original, peculiarly sour quality. But what's effective on stage (where characters are supposedly fictional) may, in a memoir, seem calculated to trap the writer's subjects with their trousers down. Indeed, in Original Story By, Laurents appears, at times, to be settling old scores, if not being downright vindictive. That quibble aside, Laurents' sketches of human perversity and treachery are, far and away, the most compelling aspect of a book that is chock-a-block with deliciously readable "dish."
Anyone familiar with Laurents' plays and film scripts will recognize the hobbyhorses of this memoir--the tyranny of mid-century redbaiters; anti-Semitism and discrimination against homosexuals; Hollywood's shallow values; and the headiness of liberation in the late '60s and '70s. Yet, like the author's best stage plays (A Clearing in the Woods and The Enclave, for instance), Original Story By is full of surprises. Instead of offering a predictably chronological series of recollections, Laurents weaves anecdotes from here and there into seven protracted rhapsodies. While the book has a feel of free association, Laurents actually organizes his chapters in complex thematic patterns that imbue the work with a quality that's both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.
Original Story By also delves into Laurents' greatest artistic successes, for while his non-musical plays haven't received the recognition they deserve, no one disputes he is a titan of musical theater. Appropriately, Laurents gives an intimate though thoroughly partisan perspective on the ups and downs of relations among interlocking talents--Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim, Harold Prince, and others--who have left a vital mark on American culture. Consequently, the book is not only diverting but important as well.
At the end of the memoir, Laurents lists the pals of his rollicking young adulthood in the '40s--Bernstein, Harold Lang, and Oliver Smith among them. "All dead, all gone; only I am left," he writes. At 82, Laurents may have outlasted his favorite contemporaries but, judging by his recent output and its quality, he's a vigorous survivor. "I'm the last but very much alive and flourishing," he writes. "I have begun a new play, of course, and I am still with the man I met that day the moon came out." That man is actor and real estate developer Tom Hatcher, Laurents' companion for more than 40 years, and the emerging moon is the author's lyrical image for good fortune.
In the end, Original Story By is a testament to a seemingly charmed destiny, and yet, despite the author's moonstruck history, the book has a melancholy subtext. There are, for instance, those unforgiving portraits of fair-weather friends and perfidious colleagues. And, at a subtextual level, the swagger and name-dropping cockiness of Laurents' accounts of amours and sexual encounters seem less like late-in-life recollections than the puffery of an uncertain kid--the Cornell freshman from Brooklyn he once was, perhaps--trying to convince skeptics (not to mention himself) that he's attractive, desired and, most of all, worthy of love. If anything can really make a reader gasp like the playgoers at The Time of the Cuckoo, it's the spectacle of an elder statesman of the theater who, despite having more blessings than he can count, is unable, as Sondheim once phrased it, to "move on."