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Arthur! Arthur!

Charles Wright looks through a new anthology of non-musical plays by Arthur Laurents, a man who is most famous as a librettist. logo
Arthur Laurents, who will turn 86 on July 14, is the English-speaking theater's ultimate insider. He made his Broadway debut as a playwright in 1945 with Home of the Brave, a drama about anti-Semitism among American soldiers in World War II that subsequently became a successful film. As a stage director, he has won a Tony award and worked in New York and London with the likes of Tyne Daly, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, Winnie Holzman, Angela Lansbury, Phyllis Newman -- the list goes on and on. He's even godfather to Adam Guettel.

Laurents is similarly well connected in Hollywood. His screenplays have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Sydney Pollack, and Herb Ross. His movies -- Rope, The Snake Pit, Anastasia, Bonjour tristesse, The Turning Point and The Way We Were, and so on -- feature actors such as Anne Bancroft, Ingrid Bergman, Farley Granger, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Redford, Jean Seberg, and Barbra Streisand. The American Film Institute recently ranked The Way We Were as "the sixth greatest film love story of all time." But unless he produces something truly unexpected in the years left to him, Laurents is destined to be known to history first and foremost as the librettist of West Side Story and Gypsy; those high points in American musical theater, along with his Hollywood achievements, overshadow all of his other credits.

Still, over the past six decades, Laurents has been remarkably prolific in crafting non-musical plays about misfits and disaffected souls; beginning with Home of the Brave, these plays present a gallery of intransigents operating against the grain of an unsympathetic society. Notable among the figures in that gallery is Leona Samish, protagonist of Laurents's most commercially successful play, The Time of the Cuckoo. Leona is the lonely, damaged dreamer played by Shirley Booth on Broadway in 1952, by Elizabeth Allen in a 1965 musical adaptation titled Do I Hear a Waltz? (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), and by Debra Monk in the 2002 Lincoln Center revival. The character was renamed "Jane Hudson" when Katharine Hepburn portrayed her in the 1955 movie Summertime.

Selected Plays of Arthur Laurents (Back Stage Books, 464 pages, $19.95), with an admiring foreword by Terrence McNally and an introduction by Professor Gabriel Miller of Rutgers, bestows a much-deserved honor on the author, whose dramas -- with the exception of Home of the Brace --have not been widely anthologized. Laurents is a master of brisk, credible dialogue. His dramaturgical style has been consistent with the mainstream work of his Broadway contemporaries but, in whimsical comedies such as A Clearing in the Woods and Invitation to a March, Laurents has proved he's not unduly fettered by naturalism. He can write a line that's funny on the surface yet heartbreaking underneath, and when he succumbs to the temptations of melodrama, he does so without writing soap opera. In the course of a long career, Laurents has changed with the times: His recent script Attacks on the Heart, for instance, is a post-9/11 drama with succinct, hammer-blow scenes that may have been influenced by the work of much younger playwrights like Jon Robin Baitz and Richard Greenberg.

The contents of Selected Plays reflects a chronological imbalance. The first entry, Home of the Brave, is from Laurents's youth; the next, The Enclave, is from middle age; and the five plays that follow -- Jolson Sings Again, My Good Name, Closing Bell, 2 Lives, and Attacks on the Heart -- come from the past 12 years. Missing, with the exception of Home of the Brave, are his Broadway plays: The Bird Cage, The Time of the Cuckoo, A Clearing in the Woods, and Invitation to a March. This may be the result of legal encumbrances but Laurents' 2000 memoir Original Story By -- a book that manages simultaneously to entertain and to settle old scores -- suggests a more personal explanation.

In that memoir, Laurents discourses briefly on Nick and Nora, the ill-fated 1991 musical that he wrote with Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. and which he also directed. It was, says Laurents, "the biggest and most public flop of my career." The critics "lynched me, crucified me, and just to make sure, burned me at the stake." He adds that "The show and I were dead in the water before it opened, killed off during all those weeks of previews by gossip columnists unhindered by The New York Times's three rules of journalism: 'Verify, verify, verify.'" After the 71 previews and nine performances of Nick and Nora, Laurents -- 73 at the time -- repaired to his country home on Long Island and began writing stage plays with renewed vigor. Since then, he has produced play after play, a couple of them presented by Manhattan Theatre Club and several directed by David Saint at the George Street Playhouse. Selected Plays contains the fruits of that late career surge with the notable exception of a 1995 drama, The Radical Mystique.

What's astonishing about Original Story By is the revelation to what extent Laurents, the apparent insider, experiences the world from an outsider's perspective. In his recollections, Laurents depicts himself as a Flatbush kid, first at an Ivy League university and then in Manhattan; an easterner in Hollywood; a liberal in the conservative, red-baiting 1950s; a Jew in traditionally Christian places; a gay male in a society that purports to measure manliness in terms of heterosexuality. These Selected Plays suggest the degree to which Laurents the playwright is motivated by his perception of himself as living against the grain of his surroundings.

Arthur Laurents
Despite the political and social issues upon which they touch, Laurents's late works are intensely personal. For all their comedic energy, they're consumed with the pain of alienation, psychologically credible and complex. The Enclave, produced in New York in the early 1970s, concerns the response -- negative for the most part -- that a gay man encounters when he reveals his sexual preference to his oldest friends. Jolson Sings Again, set in the McCarthy era, is about a conscience-driven writer's reaction to longtime friends who "name names" to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. My Good Name, like Home of the Brave, concerns anti-Semitism -- although the issue in the new play is a woman's ambivalent feelings about her Jewish identity. Closing Bell (which hasn't yet been produced) is about an alcoholic. 2Lives portrays a mature, openly gay couple who have withstood denigration, both subtle and overt, at the hands of their ostensible friends for much of their adult lives. The recent Attacks on the Heart is a two-hander in which the romance of a man and a woman from radically different cultures is undermined by their conflicting social assumptions.

Of the scripts in Selected Plays, only Home of the Brave has been frequently performed. This statement raises the question: Why have Laurents's nonmusical works, especially the recent ones, received so little attention? It's natural to look for an explanation in the plays themselves, but they're so fresh, passionate, and well constructed that it's unreasonable to fault the playwright's craft or imagination. Perhaps Laurents has been typecast as the celebrated librettist and, consequently, ignored as a playwright.

While that's a distinct possibility, the problem really lies in the shrinking audience for serious theater and the concomitant shrinkage of the nonmusical theater itself. Comedies and dramas of this kind are no longer produced in venues as conspicuous as those where Laurents' musicals were and are produced, and never with the same fanfare. These plays are modest in scale; they demand a focus and seriousness from spectators that becomes less common every year. For the audience that remains, this new anthology is a welcome demonstration that Arthur Laurents's Selected Plays are choice.

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