In 2013, two significant plays by Lanford Wilson opened in New York. The first is The Mound Builders at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street and the second, Talley’s Folly, produced by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theater.
Both plays were originally presented at the Circle Rep on Sheridan Square at Seventh Avenue in the Village. Wilson was the resident playwright at Circle Rep from l969 to l995, which he co-founded with Tanya Berizen and Rob Thirkield along with Marshall W. Mason, who directed most of his plays. After Talley’s Folly, starring Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins, moved from the Circle to Broadway, the two character play received the Pulitzer Prize. When discussing the work of Lanford Wilson, the standout plays usually mentioned are Hot L Baltimore, which starred the ethereal luminous Trish Hawkins, the brilliant Jonathan Hogan, and the fantastic Jane Cronin, Balm in Gilead, and Fifth of July. The latter had a successful run on Broadway starring Christopher Reeves.
I first met Lanford at the Caffe Cino in l965; I premiered my play, The Bed, in the same year there. Lanford was already a star playwright in the off-off Broadway firmament and had developed an audience for his one-act plays which are regarded today as small masterpieces that combined super-realism with a lyrical poetic language that was at once intense and riveting. His Cino plays include So Long at the Fair, Home Free!, and The Madness of Lady Bright, all performed in l964. The following year, his Cino productions included Ludlow Fair, This is the Rill Speaking, and Sex is Between Two People.
Fierce, brooding, and sometimes brutally honest, like any volatile artist, Lanford attracted many admirers in addition to his share of detractors. There was a wildness combined with a competitive spirit at the Cino that could easily spill into nastiness at a moment’s notice. Lanford liked to drink hard and live fast and at the same time he would continue to take notes while writing his plays at a feverish pitch. Many of the off-off writers admired his audacity and ambition.
The last time I saw Lanford was a few years ago at the Po Restaurant at 31 Cornelia Street; this was the exact spot where the Cino thrived for 10 years until its closing in March, l967, after Joe Cino killed himself. At the Po, In the Life, the PBS gay series, invited myself, Robert Patrick, William M. Hoffman, and Lanford to revisit the Cino site which was later aired on Channel 13. During the filming, Lanford would have to take breaks to smoke on the sidewalk, and when he returned, he would counteract the effects of the smoking by using an oxygen inhaler. It was a known fact that Lanford smoked continuously and liked to imbibe at watering holes such as The Lions Head on Christopher Street.
A legend in the Village for so many years, Lanford died in 2011 at the age of 73. A memorial celebration for his life and work was held at the Lyceum Theater on May 16, 2011 and some of the speakers included Edward Albee, Danny Cannavale, Jeff Daniels, William Hurt, Craig Lucas, and Judith Ivey. David Crespy, author of The Off-Off Broadway Explosion and Professor of Theater at the University of Missouri, recently told me that the University now houses the Lanford Wilson Archives which are stored in hundreds of cardboard boxes.
Born in Lebanon, Missouri, Lanford arrived in the Village in l962 where he instituted his prolific writing career which flourished up until his death. Currently, there are the revivals of Talley’s Folly starring Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson which received excellent reviews. The Mound builders offers two fine performances by actors Will Rogers and Zachary Booth. Michael Feingold’s review in the Village Voice stated, “Demands to be seen!”