NEW YORK CITY in the early '60s: One of the most experimental periods of the American stage was just beginning, and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, there was theatre in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air. In trying to find themselves, two young unknowns -- struggling playwright Lanford Wilson and would-be director Marshall W. Mason -- ran into each other one sleepless night in Greenwich Village. Wilson invited Mason to read his latest play, a massive work with 56 characters and a radical technique of simultaneous multiple scenes with overlapping dialogue. Mason compared it to Maxim Gorky's classic, The Lower Depths. Wilson's Balm In Gilead, directed by Mason, opened to critical acclaim at the Café LaMama several months later.
That night in October 1964 started the longest running playwright/director collaboration in the history of American theatre. Their work together has won Obie, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards, and one Pulitzer Prize (for Wilson's 1980 play Talley's Folly, which Mason directed).
The two reunited recently at Arizona State University, where Mason joined the ASU Theatre Department faculty in 1994. They're collaborating on a new work tentatively entitled Los Alamos. Along with the expected professionalism of learned masters, the pair effused the enthusiasm of two kids who'd just walked into a show for the first time. Their shared love for the sheer magic of theatre hasn't mellowed even after 35 years; and their instincts about the stage remain uncanny.
"Lanford came up to me during Los Alamos just the other day," Mason says. "We were watching a run through of the first act, and at the end I had a couple of notes to give to the actors and he had a couple of notes, too. I was in the middle of saying to one of the actors, 'You're not hitting the right word there. It should be: the FORK in the river.' Lanford smiled at me and showed me his yellow pad, which had 'Fork' written on it. And that's often the way it is -- we're seeing the same thing."
Wilson adds, "I think we began to trust each other very early. We taught each other. I wouldn't say he taught me," he says impishly, "but we taught each other. I like that even better."
They first met at Café Cino, which was not just off Broadway, but off-off Broadway -- one of the tiny coffeehouses in the heady '60s offering decidedly avant-garde works.
"I had directed four plays there before Lanford arrived," Mason remembers. "I think I saw four of his productions before he and I were introduced. Our first meeting started off in a funny, rocky kind of way. I'd seen Lanford's first production of Home Free, which was a remarkable play and I just absolutely loved it...but it was a play about incest between a brother and a sister. The incest was the climax of the play, when we've gone through this whole fantasy relationship between this boy and girl. It made a tremendously big climactic cathartic shock at the end of the play, and I really loved it. When I went back to see it in the revival two or three months later, he had rewritten the play and put the incest in the first couple of lines, so you knew right away that they were brother and sister.
"So I was introduced to Lanford after this performance. He said, 'Don't you think I've done a terrific job of rewriting?' And I said, 'No, I think you've ruined it.' So the first thing I said to him was very critical. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. So no, we did not get off on the best of all possible beginnings. But it was clear that we had very strong opinions and we were very unafraid of expressing them."
After working together for several years, Wilson and Mason, with other friends, founded The Circle Repertory Company in 1969 to provide a forum for the contemporary style of theatre each wanted to create. Their first major success was The Hot L Baltimore, a story of hookers and elderly residents in an aging building. The production opened in 1973 and ran for more than 1,100 performances. The list of Circle Rep alumni is a lengthy who's who of acting talent, including William Hurt, Kathy Bates, Judd Hirsch, John Malkovich, Jeff Daniels and Swoosie Kurtz. Writing for actors he knew and working with a director he trusted allowed Wilson to get deep inside his characters with subtle shades of subtext.
"From the time we started working together," Wilson says, "Marshall and I realized that we were really trying to accomplish the same kind of theatre. We've learned to shut up and listen when we differ, and to work around and talk, rather than jumping to, 'No, goddamn it!' After Balm, Marshall was reading the plays scene by scene. If it took a year to write, he knew it. And after we started Circle Rep, if I was writing for specific actors, sometimes the actors knew it, too. So some actors knew their character a year ahead. And that helped a lot. They knew who they were and just fell right into it."
Other Wilson-Mason plays introduced at Circle Rep include The Mound Builders, Serenading Louie, Angel's Fall and the trio of fictional histories of the Talley family, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly and Talley and Son. Many of these made their way onto Broadway.
The collaboration is not without its compromises, as Wilson explains: "Marshall doesn't influence much in the first draft, because he's learned that if he criticizes anything, I stop dead. I once said I was going to write a play about two married couples who are both having trouble, and he said, 'Oh, that's been done.' I didn't write the play for another year and half. So now he just says, 'Oh, I can't wait to see how this turns out. This is just lovely. Keep going, keep going, more, more.' "
Wilson laughs, "And when I finally finish it, he says, 'Well, I can't wait to finally read this sucker because I've not understood a word you're talking about.' And then he'll say, 'Well, if you want to promote Catholicism, you've certainly got a good tract here.' And we go through five rewrites trying to get rid of that little bauble."
Wilson continues, "I worked on what I think is my best play, Sympathetic Magic, for 15 years. The last thing you can allow yourself to think of is if an audience or critic is going to like this. You write for a circle of friends that includes Shakespeare and Chekhov, Ibsen and Dickens and Conrad....and Marshall."
"You develop trust," Mason says. "When we first started working together, I was afraid to let Lanford speak to any of the actors or anything like that. He's learned a lot more about the actor's process. I've learned a lot more about the writer's process. All my work had been with classic plays, and I didn't know anything about new plays before I met Lanford. So I began to think about structure and cutting, where things needed to be amplified, so I was able to serve as a better dramaturge. We basically taught each other through working together. So today it's a lot more relaxed. We've been through great successes together, and we've also been through some very disappointing results, not so much artistically as commercially."
Looking back on their best memories of working together, they agree it was when they saw Hot L Baltimore with new eyes.
Mason remembers, "We had done Hot L with our little company of actors, and they were all absolutely totally unknown people, our little off-off Broadway company. He'd written the play specifically for these actors and looking back on it now, this was the ideal we'd started out with. Chekhov wrote for his Moscow Art Theatre, and we had done that. We knew we had done well, we had a good success with it, we'd won the New York Drama Critics Circle award.
"Before we moved it off-Broadway, where it ran for almost four years, we had an offer to do it in L.A. We went and did it out there with a huge budget. We could get any actors we wanted, so we got people who were sort of semi-stars at the time and they were all real honest-to-God professional actors. And we thought considering how well this went with our little amateurs, we can really do something out here. So we did a very good production of it out in L.A., on a huge set that cost thousands of dollars. We were in a rarefied atmosphere. So we got the production up and it got good reviews and all that, and then we came back to New York and we thought, 'Well, let's just sneak in, not let any of the actors know we're back, we'll just sneak in and watch the show.'
We snuck in and sat down and the most amazing thing happened. Instead of it being like a play, it was like a miracle. The level of reality that we created on that stage with those actors was something you just don't see very often. We'd been away from it for several months, and seeing it fresh, in a sense as if through an audience's eyes, we no longer felt like this was something we had done. It was terribly, terribly moving, how extraordinary it was. It sounds ridiculous to talk about enjoying your own work to that extent, but it was a revelation. I had no idea, because you're so close to it, you have no idea if it's really any good or anything. But stepping back from it and seeing how good it was, I was really, really surprised."
Wilson adds another fond memory of working with Mason. "We did The Mound Builders. It was really gorgeous, and the actors were really good. When we started the second week, we did a whole run through of the play with just Marshall and me in the audience. And we were sitting there towards the end of the first act. Marshall called the scene, 'The Fish in the Moon.' Actor John Hogan was laying down, his head in Trish Hawkins' lap, and he's real sleepy after the whole day on a fishing trip. And without the audience there, the actors were so incredibly relaxed and they were doing it with no pressure at all and doing it so incredibly brilliantly. And in this beautiful bright blue late-night light, actors on both sides of the stage had cigarettes. A flat layer of smoke developed all the way across the stage and it just glowed. I was sitting down front and Marshall was in the back row. I went up to him and said, 'Have you ever seen anything so brilliant and gorgeous in your life?' He said, 'Never once in my life, no.' And John Hogan said, 'Guys, could you try to not talk? We're trying to act down here.' I thought they had broken it, but they went right back into it and it was like that to the end of the act. That's the best moment I've had in a theatre." Then he laughs, "And there was no audience."
AT THE FIRST performance of Los Alamos, Wilson and Mason conferred during intermission, both smoking nervously and talking in their own shorthand outside the stage door. The following day, Wilson said, "It was strange working on this one because Marshall knew the actors and I'd never met any of them. Marshall faxed me pictures and did a videotape of auditions. It ended up I picked the same cast he had picked. We knew what we wanted, it was just a matter of getting them to do it. And also, realizing that it was students and we've been working with professionals for so long, we didn't know exactly what we could demand of them and what they were capable of doing. But I think they came through pretty damn well."
The two will work together again this fall when Mason directs Wilson's Book of Days, first for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and then with the Hartford Stage Company. Last year Mason directed Arizona Theatre Company's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, in Phoenix and Tucson.
Asked about the pressures of success, Wilson avers, "The reason we started the company was so that we could work without thinking about that. Whatever people said was whatever they said. You know, the success is always just a hoot. You do your work and toss it out there and see what people say, because you never really know. People are saying that Book of Days, which just won the Critics' Award, might just be my best play. And I have absolutely no opinion of it at all."