By Robert Heide
The title of Marshall W. Mason’s remarkable new book entitled The Transcendent Years—The Circle Repertory Company & The 1960s for which he was the artistic director for eighteen years is his homage to Harold Clurman’s Group Theater book The Fervent Years. Marshall Mason won a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement and has been, in his career, nominated for many more. He won an Obie Award from the Village Voice for Sustained Achievement in 1983 and five Obies for Outstanding Direction. He directed 42 productions off Broadway and 12 plays on Broadway, his Broadway debut Jules Feiffer’s Knock Knock in 1976. He was born in a small town in Texas in 1940, and early on became inspired by the direction of Elia Kazan, first with the movie Pinky (1949) starring Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters, and later by A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando and East of Eden with James Dean. He later learned that Kazan also directed theater on Broadway, notably the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and that is when he decided he would become a director of theater.
He applied to Northwestern University and received a full scholarship (including tuition and board) and set about his studies with the renowned drama teacher Alvina Krause. Famous alumni from Northwestern include Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, Jennifer Jones and Cloris Leachman, all Academy Award winners. Once, after Mason directed a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Professor Krause pointedly told her students, “I suppose you all noticed the superlative direction,” noting that it was the ‘subtext’ that the director focused on which made the play a success. In a parallel world, at a different time, I too attended Northwestern and also studied with the great teacher who herself had worked in Russia with Stanislavsky. After arriving in New York’s Greenwich Village, and also working with Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Harold Clurman, I wrote Hector, a play about Alvina Krause, which was successfully produced at the Cherry Lane Theater. David Crespy, Professor of Playwriting, Acting, and Dramatic Literature at the University of Missouri and editor of Lanford Wilson—Early Stories, Sketches, and Poems, published by the U. of Missouri Press in 2017, states about his fiction that Wilson had “the rare ability to show, not tell—demonstrating a dramatist’s restraint allowing the reader to supply the subtext” rightly concluding that “Mason and Wilson were made for each other.” Marshall Mason met Lanford Wilson at the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street and they began a professional collaboration and friendship that lasted until Lanford’s death at age 74 in 2011. Mason points out in his exceptional 708-page book that his collaboration with Lanford Wilson as writer and director lasted 40 years and is the longest in theater history.
Broadway will be celebrating Lanford Wilson this Spring with a revival of Burn This, directed by Michael Maye and starring Adam Driver—previews begin March 15 and it will run for 17 weeks. The play was originally produced on Broadway in 1987 with John Malkovich. For tickets go to: burnthisplay.com.
Lanford Wilson, who was born in Missouri in 1937 and whom Mason calls “a playwright’s playwright”, was one of the top dramatists from his beginnings in the l960s off off Broadway to off Broadway and Broadway in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I became friends with Lanford in 1965 after his play This is the Rill Speaking, was produced at the Cino following the premiere of my play there, The Bed. Lanford’s play The Madness of Lady Bright, was one of the Caffe Cino’s greatest hits running a total of 250 performances. Also in 1965, Wilson’s play Balm in Gilead, which had a cast of 28 actors, was a big success across town at La Mama. In his book, David Crespy states that the “Circle Repertory Company was a direct descendant of the Caffe Cino.” Joe Cino, who ran the unique café/theater committed suicide in 1967 and the place closed in 1968.
In 1969 Marshall Mason, with Lanford Wilson, reuniting with two actors, both classmates from Northwestern University, Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield (heir to the Ben Gay pharmaceutical company) co-founded the Circle Repertory Theater, eventually incorporating as a non-profit off Broadway theater in 1970 when they moved to their permanent home at the Sheridan Square Playhouse at 99 Seventh Avenue South formerly, at one time, the famed Village Nut Club. The company’s first ‘breakthrough’ hit (in 1973) was Wilson’s Hot L. Baltimore which ran for years, income from which combined with support from Thirkield’s Ben Gay fortune quickly turned the company into an off Broadway institution, nurturing many playwrights over the years including Romulus Linney, Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard, David Starkweather, David Mamet and William M. Hoffman whose play As Is about the AIDS crisis, after being developed at the Circle Rep Lab, went to Broadway directed by Marshall Mason. Hoffman was also an editor at Hill and Wang and published, in addition to Lanford Wilson’s first play collection, my play At War With the Mongols in his anthology New American Plays. Real plays about real people and “excellence in acting” was the Circle Rep criterion. Actors who have worked there have included William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, Conchata Ferrell, Trish Hawkins, Linda Eskenas, Robert Frink, John Malkovitch, Judd Hirsh and Christopher Reeve among many others.
Wilson’s later plays with director Mason included Fifth of July in 1978 followed by Talley’s Folly in 1979. After running at the Circle Repertory, both plays transferred to Broadway in 1980, Talley’s Folly winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. Other Broadway plays by Wilson which were also first developed at the Circle Rep include Angel’s Fall, The Mound Builder and Burn This. Over the years I passed many hours with Lanford, talking and drinking on Sheridan Square at places like the Lion’s Head and Marie’s Crisis. I ran into Marshall frequently because he lived down the block from me at 165 Christopher Street. Though he has recently moved to Jersey City, he spends winters in Mexico, in Mazatlan by the ocean. Once, at the Po Restaurant, now the Drunken Munkey, and the former home of the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street, I met Lanford and Marshall, along with Robert Patrick (Kennedy’s Children), Claris Nelson, William Hoffman, Doric Wilson and John Gilman to film a segment for a TV special about the Cino which was broadcast on the gay television program In The Life. With talking heads Magie Dominic and Helen Hanft we can all be seen reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ long ago at the Cino. It was the last time I saw Lanford Wilson. The Circle Rep came to an end in 1996 and its era is marked at the location on Sheridan Square with a bronze plaque. Order your copy of Marshall Mason’s wonderful book The Transcendent Years at: https://www.goodreads.com/
Robert Heide is the author of Robert Heide 25 Plays, which is available at the Whitney Museum book store, the Drama Book Store, Three Lives, other select stores and on Amazon.com.