On Tuesday, August 27, we'll celebrate the birthday of a major American writer. Eugene O'Neill? Arthur Miller? Ernest Hemingway? William Faulkner? No -- Ira Levin, who turns 73 years young.
I'll be the first to admit that Levin's name might not have immediately come to your mind when I said, "major American writer." But I don't think it'll take too much convincing from me to make you agree.
First, we'll deal with the theater, since that's the subject in which we're the most interested. As I mentioned a week ago, since Levin's Deathtrap closed in 1982 after 1,793 performances, no straight-play has run longer. In case you've never seen the play, it tells of playwright Sidney Bruhl, who once wrote a classic Broadway thriller but has penned nothing but flops in recent years. When it turns out that one of his playwriting students has written a terrific new thriller, Bruhl thinks of killing him so that he can steal the play. (At least, that's what we think the play is about; Levin had many tricks up his sleeve.)
Deathtrap was a thriller and, as we'll see, Levin's good at those -- but his first Broadway smash was a comedy. Back in 1955, his adaptation of Mac Hyman's No Time for Sergeants would run 796 performances, just shy of two years. At that point, only 22 non-musicals had ever run longer. How many people have had two Broadway hits in two completely different genres? Not many.
Granted, a later Levin comedy, Critic's Choice (1961), didn't run that long -- 189 performances -- and hadn't returned its investment by the time of its closing. But it eventually did pay back thanks to a movie sale, the money earned by the resulting Bob Hope-Lucille Ball picture, and tons of stock and amateur productions. Levin fully admitted, in the frontespiece of the play, that he got the idea from a line in Herald-Tribune critic Walter Kerr's book, How Not to Write a Play: "I sometimes have visions of a gag conference in which that slick character known as Manny bounces in, eyes ablaze, and bubbles over with, 'Listen. This guy's a dramatic critic, see? So his wife writes a play. He's GOT to review the play. Take it from there."
Levin did -- and invented a critic named Parker Ballantine who railed against would-be playwrights. "Here's their sample dialogue," he snarled. "'Good afternoon, Snodgrass residence. This is the maid. Mr. Snodgrass? He's in his office and can't be disturbed. Mrs. Snodgrass? She's at the hairdresser's, prettying herself for the big party tonight. Junior Snodgrass? Oh, he's in jail on a narcotics rap.'"
After Levin set his plot in motion -- Parker did indeed have to choose whether or not he'd review his wife's play -- how did he begin his second act? With the phone ringing and Essie the maid coming in to answer it: "Good afternoon, Ballantine residence. This is the maid. Yes, Mr. Ballantine's here, but he's got himself locked up in his office and don't want to be disturbed. Mrs. Ballantine? She's up at the theater on 44th Street. They're having one last rehearsal before the big opening tonight." And so it goes, until the caller abruptly hangs up, leaving Essie to say, "Crazy phone calls in this apartment." Levin's stage direction: "She picks up her satchel and goes out the front door, and that's the last we see of Essie until the curtain calls." Wonderful!
The three Levin plays that everyone's heard of are partly balanced by some disasters. There was Drat! the Cat! which ran eight performances in 1965 -- but it should have run at least 800. There are times when I think it might have had it had stayed with its original title, Cat and Mouse. The Cat was a young turn-of-the-century debutante who became a burglar just for kicks, while the Mouse was the dumb turn-of-the-century policeman who loves her and doesn't realize she's the criminal he's been chasing. Seems to me that the moment the title was changed to Drat! the Cat!, it got into that stylized, Keystone Kops mode that winked too much, taking its cue from the word "Drat!" And though that much of that stylization was director Joe Layton's idea, Levin once told me, "I can't be too mad at what Joe Layton did to the show because he was the only one interested in directing it. If he hadn't decided to do it, it would have never been produced at all."
Most astonishing is that Levin not only wrote the book but also the lyrics for the show, and they're damn good. It took Drat! The Cat 32 years to get an album, but it's a terrific one. Even if you never hear it, though, you already know one song from it: "He Touched Me," the Barbra Streisand hit (though it was "She Touched Me" in the show). So Levin's got one pop standard to go along with that thriller and two comedies that everyone's heard of. How many have accomplished that?
Granted, Levin has had numerous flops besides Drat! the Cat! Veronica's Room ran 75 performances in 1973, which was many more than his other four flops combined: Break a Leg ran for one performance in 1979, General Seeger ran for two in 1962, Interlock ran for four in 1958, and Dr. Cook's Garden ran for eight in 1967. That last one was carefully detailed in William Goldman's landmark tome The Season. As Levin told Goldman after Dr. Cook's abrupt closing, "I'm doing a book now and, after that, another book, and then another book."
That didn't turn out to be such a bad decision, for those books turned out to be This Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil. All were well received, but the second one was almost a play, for that's how Levin conceived it. As he told me last year, "I originally envisioned it set in a basement. I had a guy making an artificial woman. After a while, I thought it was a little too creepy to watch and I didn't like the guy very much, either. So then I started writing it from the wife's point of view and turned it into a novel." A smash-hit novel, may I add.
In the process, Levin created an American idiom. People critical of docile married women still snippily say, "She's a Stepford Wife." Says Levin, "It's pretty gratifying to know that's become part of the language. Believe it or not, someone in England is now trying to make a musical out of the book." So The Stepford Wives may return to its stage roots after all, but it won't be the first time that the property has inspired another writer; others have written The Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Stepford Children. And, as we all know, imitation is the highest form of flattery.
But "She's a Stepford Wife" wasn't Levin's first idiom to enter the language. Right after Drat! the Cat! in 1965, he wrote his first smash-hit novel, Rosemary's Baby. I've often heard people say, "He's Rosemary's Baby" to indicate someone horrible. So the tally is now one thriller and two comedies everyone's heard of, one pop standard, two smash novels, and two idioms. Yet Rosemary's Baby was even more: The story of a woman betrayed by her actor husband, who allows her to be impregnated by the devil so that he can get a good part, inspired many similar works. As Levin said in his program bio for Deathtrap, "He has been credited (or blamed) for having sparked the current revival of occultism."
"I do believe that's true," he told me, "and I do feel a little guilty about it now. I think that the success of Rosemary's Baby led to The Exorcist, which led to The Omen and so forth -- and all these pictures have really fed into the revival of the religious right. People grew up seeing those movies, and to say that kids got scared or brainwashed by them may be exaggerating, but I do feel that what I started may not have been beneficial to society."
Maybe not, but I'm still glad we have Ira Levin -- and I haven't even mentioned A Kiss Before Dying or Sliver. As for that claim "I'm doing a book now and, after that, another book, and then another book," Levin did return to the theater with Deathtrap. And he told me that he's now working on a new play called Killing the Lawyers. Maybe it will expand his pantheon of one thriller and two comedies everybody's heard of, one pop standard, two smash novels, two idioms, and his secure place as a major American writer.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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