Originally published June 4, 2009 at 9:11 a.m., updated June 5, 2009 at 10:01 a.m.
La Jolla Playhouse stages celebrated playwright Terrence McNally's latest drama Unusual Acts of Devotion. In the play, McNally charts damaged souls and damaged cities, loves lost and recovered, and the joys of simple but enduring acts of devotion.
Unusual Acts of Devotion opens on June 2nd and runs through the 28th at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theater.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In San Diego, with our Mediterranean style balconies and courtyards and open air malls, we don't know much about rooftop living. But in crowded east coast cities, like New York, on hot summer nights, getting out of the apartment and up on the roof for a party is a nice way to spend an evening. Playwright Terrence McNally uses this setting to explore the loves and fears of five New Yorkers and show us how a casual get-together can lead to moments that change our lives. His latest play is called "Unusual Acts of Devotion" and it's now running at the La Jolla Playhouse. And joining me to talk about this production are three famous people. It's a pleasure to welcome Tony Award winning playwright and author of "Unusual Acts of Devotion," Terrence McNally.
TERRENCE MCNALLY (Playwright): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And Doris Roberts is here. She is five-time Emmy Award winning actress known for her role as Marie Barone in "Everybody Loves Raymond." She is Mrs. Darnell in "Unusual Acts of Devotion." Welcome, and thanks for being here.
DORIS ROBERTS (Actress): Nice to be here. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And my third guest is actor Richard Thomas, also an Emmy Award winner who played John Boy on "The Waltons." He plays Chick Hogan in "Unusual Acts of Devotion." Richard, welcome.
RICHARD THOMAS (Actor): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: So, Terrence, you said that the rooftop location of this play is very important to you as you were writing. And, as I said, you know, San Diegans are not that familiar with what that can mean. Can you talk about why the rooftop was important to you?
MCNALLY: Well, where I live now, I look down on several rooftops and I've been struck over the years with the ingenuity of people entertaining, eating, dining, dancing, having fun out there. And this is a play about people who aren't lucky enough to score invitations to the Hamptons or Fire Island and I just thought it would be a wonderful city – a wonderful setting because the city is this vast backdrop. Greenwich Village is mainly low-rise buildings, six stories is pretty tall for the Village, and around it now are a lot of highrises looking down on them. So, in a way these people's lives are being observed by the newcomers as the Village is changing. And I wanted to reflect the kind of drama we project on the people, watching them and imagining what they might be talking about.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting because there are a lot of plays and theatrical situations that have developed out of this fascination with communal living.
CAVANAUGH: You think of "Rear Window," observing how people…
CAVANAUGH: …are. And what did you want to explore in looking at other people in this urban setting?
MCNALLY: How people come together or not in a huge city where it's very easy to feel anonymous, lost and rather bereft, and have they formed a community. They pay low rent there. They've been long-time tenants. And the community they've forged over the years and the stress of the relationships and the wonderful love they show one another and the sometimes unwitting cruelty they show one another.
CAVANAUGH: Would you say this, at heart, is a play about lonely people?
MCNALLY: Yes, very much I would, lonely people seeking to be less lonely, reaching out, trying.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, it's a very much character driven play, as you say, about lonely people reaching out. How do you approach writing your characters? Are there certain things you strive for?
MCNALLY: Honesty. I'm interested in the – intimacy is very important to me in the way I write. And sometimes I have people talk about things that might make an audience uncomfortable, their emotional needs and hungers, their sexuality, and I think that's been a theme in my work ever since "Frankie and Johnny In The Clair de Lune," which is easily thirty, thirty-five years ago now that I wrote that one. And that seems to be a theme. I'm really interested in the enormous plot between people in day-to-day interactions as opposed to the kind of play that ends act one with you've won the Lotto and now what am I going to do with my new fortunes? But I think there's a lot of drama in 'Let's have Chinese food tonight; no, I want Italian.' Why does one person want Chinese and one want Italian? And that's the kind of playwriting that I'm interested in. And to do that kind of playwriting, you need actors like Doris Roberts and Richard Thomas, who make moment-to-moment reality as fascinating as I think it truly is.
CAVANAUGH: Doris Roberts, you play Mrs. Darnell. She's sort of a kind of mysterious character in this play, isn't she?
ROBERTS: Yes, she is.
CAVANAUGH: And tell us about her.
ROBERTS: Well, I think all of them are mysterious in some way. There's secrets all the way down the line. We keep thinking of this – What I'm hearing now is the drama of it. It also is terribly funny.
ROBERTS: It's so – As life is, isn't it?
CAVANAUGH: Is that what attracted you to the role?
ROBERTS: What attracted me was Terrence McNally. This is…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
ROBERTS: This is my third play with Terrence.
ROBERTS: I did "Bad Habits" many years ago and then I did "It's Only A Play" about seven years…
MCNALLY: I don't know.
ROBERTS: …something like that. Ten years ago.
MCNALLY: Before you did "Raymond," certainly.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about this character. What is she like?
ROBERTS: That's what's interesting. You don't know about her too much. And the mystery of her, I think, is what's fascinating.
CAVANAUGH: What do you know about her? What kind of back story did you give Mrs. Darnell?
ROBERTS: That she loved her husband very much, that she never had children, and when he died, which was a few years back, she's become this sour, bitter, lonely—and yet does nothing about trying to make it better—character. And she has, really, no purpose in life.
CAVANAUGH: Now as you described that, that doesn't sound too funny.
ROBERTS: But she is funny. But she is because she's…
MCNALLY: It's a riot.
ROBERTS: …she's irascible. She's really a pain in the neck, it's clear, and I've cleared that up. I'm the one that raised it, too. But she's very – For me, she's very poignant and she's very touching.
MCNALLY: Doris makes her so lovable and still is irascible and a pain in the neck but the audience adores this character, which is Doris's genius and I don't know how she does it but you – your empathy is with this character and you're very moved by her when she does come out of her shell towards the end of the play and is rather – is greeted with some indifference by the younger people and you see her go back in, and it's a very touching moment in the play.
CAVANAUGH: Richard Thomas, you play Chick. Now he…
THOMAS: I do.
CAVANAUGH: …he's a lonely man.
THOMAS: Yes, he is.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about him.
THOMAS: Well, he's a Grayline Tour guide in New York City with – And one reason he's lonely is you couldn't get a date with that uniform, there's no question about it. He's been carrying a torch and mourning the death of his lover for years, and has sort of stayed lonely. He had a combination of, you know, thinks it's his decision just to stay alone but also has had a hard time connecting with people. But he's a wonderful character because for all of his loneliness, he's very social and he loves people and he likes to – he can be very wicked and mean one moment and, you know, gives Mrs. Darnell a hard time. But he also has a desire to connect, always wants to make connections with people, which is interesting for a lonely person. It's a kind of a terrific double thing to play because he wants to come to the party. He's the kind of guy you'd want to have him at your party.
THOMAS: But he's lonely, you know. And he's in love with his very best friend in the world who's Josie Hogan, played by – wonderfully by Harriet Harris, and they've had an affair in the past. He's a gay man. But they had an affair and were going to get married and have children and that didn't work out and – but they're still soul – they're soulmates. So you see this push and pull between people who are sort of meant to be together but can't be together at the same time. It's very, very touching. Bittersweet. Terrence, it's bittersweet.
MCNALLY: The occasion…
THOMAS: It's a Hallmark.
MCNALLY: The occasion of the play is the fifth wedding anniversary of a young couple in the building, Leo and Nadine, who've been married five years. He's a jazz clarinetist at a club and she's a painter. That's the occasion for the party, which it's – there is actually a lot of humor in the play but it is a sad play. Bittersweet, I think, is the word.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that if they want to speak with my famous guests, they can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. And my guests are Terrence McNally and Doris Roberts and Richard Thomas. And I did want to ask both Richard and Doris, I've read that there are a lot of soliloquies in this play and, Richard, I know you've done a lot of classical theatre, a lot of Shakespeare, how do you approach that kind of stage stealing moment that it can be but integrating it into the rest of the play?
THOMAS: It's a very interesting thing. I was going to say we were talking about the bitter and the sweet and the characters, and one of the great things about doing a play of Terrence's is, you know you're going to have to go to a very dark, difficult place but you also know you're going to get a lot of laughs, so it's a – you get -- You know, you get the goodies as well as having to really go to a very – you know, there's no shade. You can run but you can't hide in his plays because at a certain point everybody has to be completely exposed and completely raw. But the soliloquy, well, the interesting about this play is that it is a absolutely contemporary play but it has elements of – dramatic elements that are hundreds of years old. It has soliloquies. It has a sort of a figure, which might even be a figure out of passion plays, a sort of symbolic figure who is also a real person. It has just different – a ghost. It has – There are things in the play that go way back to the roots of drama in a very contemporary play but they're seamlessly interwoven so that you never really feel like at any given moment you're stepping outside the reality of the play. One of the beautiful things, because Mrs. Darnell has been on that roof longer than anybody and has heard everything and seen everything and, because she's always up there, even though you're speaking to yourself, Mrs. Darnell is there to hear, so it does – It's a wonderful way of making the soliloquy, you know, of integrating it into the reality and the naturalism of the play.
THOMAS: But everybody does get a beautiful speech.
ROBERTS: But it's also people who like to talk.
CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yes.
THOMAS: Oh, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and does Mrs. Darnell like to talk or does she like to keep to herself?
ROBERTS: She likes to tell everybody off.
THOMAS: You never know when it's going to come but it will.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds like it would be a certain release at a certain level…
ROBERTS: Oh, it…
CAVANAUGH: …just to let that go.
ROBERTS: It is for her because she's alone in that apartment for many, many hours and when she does get near them, she lets them have it. But I wish Terrence would talk about the music in the play.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, I wanted to get to that because I know it's such an important point in this play. It's filled with music.
CAVANAUGH: Why did you do that?
MCNALLY: I love music. It informs my life in so many ways, and it is a party but then I think it reveals who people are. It puts us in moods. The first music you hear in the play is a Neapolitan son cor negrotto about a broken heart, and it just seems to capture the spirit of a warm summer night and loneliness and the pain. And there's Miles Davis in it, Edith Piaff has a very prominent role in this play. And music has been in all my plays. I think it's because I usually have – now I'm up to iPod. I've gone from 78s to iPods. But I have music on a lot. I write to music. I'll say – I'll feel to myself instinctively, this play should be written with a lot of Miles Davis playing. And I wrote this play pretty much with Miles Davis playing nonstop. I'm not really listening to it but it's there, it's creating an ambiance for me.
CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, does each of the characters have a different relationship to music? Do they have a song or an atmosphere that's musical?
MCNALLY: Well, as I said, one is a jazz clarinetist.
CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.
MCNALLY: Ms. Darnell is probably not a musical character but though she did see Edith Piaff when she first came to America and sang in the Village. The play takes place in Greenwich Village and it's very much about that part of Manhattan and how it's changing, though probably changed less than, say, the upper west side. And she has a speech about first hearing Edith Piaff right after the war at the old Versailles and Edith Piaff is very important to her. Chick has – He's like me.
MCNALLY: He goes from opera to Broadway to Arlo Guthrie. You know, he likes…
THOMAS: Has a very strong opinion.
MCNALLY: Yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that we, as human beings, have a different relationship to music than other art forms? Is – is…?
MCNALLY: That's an interesting question because music is something you can, you know, go to a concert just to listen, can be music you want to socialize or dance to. Some people use music to relax. I don't find music particularly relaxing.
MCNALLY: But I think it – it forms our society. I mean, we do live in a world now where everywhere you go – the supermarket I've noticed, there's always music playing. Elevators all have a soundtrack.
CAVANAUGH: Right. We all have our own theme song.
MCNALLY: Airplanes, yeah, so…
CAVANAUGH: One of our listeners would like to join the conversation. Eve is in Clairemont and, Eve, good morning. Welcome to These Days.
EVE (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. I don't know where to begin because you're just mentioned music, and how can you be lonely if you've listened to Brazilian music?
EVE: You'll never be lonely. No, I want to – I want to say that everybody's talking about – you're all so – it's wonderful to get on this program. You're all talking about loneliness as if it's such a negative. Can't there be a positive to being lonely?
EVE: Can't you relish your loneliness?
THOMAS: I think there's a – Maybe. I mean, I tend to make the distinction between solitude, which is something that can be delicious and wonderful and is essential, I think, for people at some level, and loneliness, which is a sense of something missing. And because the play is so much about community and how people interact with each other, it's the natural desire and need for people to communicate and reach out and to be intimate. There's so much intima – as Terrance said earlier, there's so much – the play's so much about intimacy and community. But I think sol – each of these characters has moments of solitude that are wonderful but that's different from the feeling of loneliness and need.
CAVANAUGH: We're talking about the play "Unusual Acts of Devotion," and my guests are Terrence McNally, the playwright, Doris Roberts and Richard Thomas, two actors in the play. I would like to talk just a little bit about your—both Doris and Thomas's – Richard's very, very deep backgrounds in acting. And, Doris, I read that, for your own back story as Doris Roberts that you started in the theatre playing a potato?
ROBERTS: No, it was – it was the first thing that I ever did. I was in kindergarten and I had one line in a little play and it was, 'I am Patrick Potato and this is my cousin, Mrs. Tomato.' And I heard laughter and that was the bug that bit me and I wanted to be an actor, you know.
CAVANAUGH: I didn't know you could have lines if you were a potato.
ROBERTS: In kindergarten, you can have almost anything.
CAVANAUGH: You know, as you look back, what is your continuing great joy as an actress? What does this bring to you, this profession?
ROBERTS: I love what I do. I'm blessed. I don't know that I would want to do anything else, and I've been doing it a long time and hope and intend to go on for a longer time.
CAVANAUGH: And one of your causes, I know, has been about age discrimination in Hollywood and in society in general. And it seems, from what Terrence says, especially about the ending for Mrs. Darnell in this play that you try to reveal yourself but then you're sort of ignored, that this, in a way, mirrors a personal cause of yours.
ROBERTS: Absolutely. I don't know why we think that – I mean, we're living longer because of medicine and we're taking better care of ourselves, why I would not want to go to a doctor who's over fifty than someone who's twenty-two. What about wisdom? What about experience? I mean, as long as the brain is working and you're lucky to be physically in good shape, life is great. I mean, someone said that the networks don't want anyone over the age of fifty anymore because that's the big market. Madison Avenue dictates what we see and hear. I went – When I spoke to the Senate on ages – when I spoke, my opening line was, gentlemen, if you were in my business, you'd be out of a job.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, because…
ROBERTS: And that shocked them.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. And I also wanted to get – Do you have any – You've played so many mothers in your career. Do you have any insights on motherhood?
ROBERTS: I'm still learning. No, but my son was very happy that I was on "Everybody Loves Raymond" because, he said, you get rid of all of that with Raymond and you leave me alone.
CAVANAUGH: No advice for him.
ROBERTS: Humor, my dear, humor. About everything.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Richard Thomas, I also want to ask you, you've had such a long career. You've been a part of so many people's families from "The Waltons," and how did you originally become an actor?
THOMAS: I was kind of a zygote because I started very…
THOMAS: I think I was interested in being on the stage from the time I was a baby because I was raised backstage. My parents were ballet dancers. I was raised in the ballet. That was the world, even though I was a professional actor from the age of like seven, I was – the world that I – sort of the homelife was the ballet world. And I just – I grew up backstage. I wanted to do it. I asked to do it during a summer stock season when I was six and my dad was dancing in it, and had an opportunity to play two small roles. Came back to New York and I went into second grade and my first grade teacher happened to be a children's agent.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.
THOMAS: So there was a…
CAVANAUGH: It was destiny.
THOMAS: And there was an -- You know, an audition for a part in "Sunrise at Campobello," which was a play about the Roosevelt family, and I got that part. And that was it, and I just – that was in 1958.
CAVANAUGH: And I was reading about your background and I – It struck me. I wanted to ask you, so many people know you from television and "The Waltons…
CAVANAUGH: …and yet you have been praised as one of America's great classical actors onstage. And I'm wondering how you deal with that split public identity.
THOMAS: Well, that's, you know, that's about perception. That's about other people's perception based on what they see. You know, it's unrealistic to expect that everybody who would turn on the television and see you in a series would be going to the theatre and seeing you in New York or at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. I mean, you know, you just – there are different audiences and you just have to let people know what they know and be content with the ones that don't know. It's perfectly fine as long as you get to do what you're enjoying, that's the important thing. This is the fourth play of Terrence's I've done over the years.
THOMAS: Like Doris, you know, you – if you're – One of the joys in being an actor in the theatre, and I imagine if you're working with directors or writers in film and television as well, is to be able to become conversant with and comfortable with the voice of the playwright and be able to work, to identify, to find a playwright whose work just goes right into your heart and that you feel strongly about. It's a real privilege and it's also creatively very exciting, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Richard, you have been with "Unusual Acts of Devotion" since the premiere.
CAVANAUGH: And, Doris, is this your first time doing Mrs. Darnell?
ROBERTS: Yes, it is.
CAVANAUGH: Do you change anything about the play when a new actor comes on board?
MCNALLY: I change it to make the play better, not – With actors like this you don't have to change for them because they hear the way I write and, you know, Richard and I go way back. I was a student when I saw him in his Broadway debut. We first worked together, I guess, on "Andre's Mother," which won a – and Doris was my date for the Emmy, remember? And I said, there's no way we're going to win this. But, you know, we're Public Television but they said show up and we're sitting way in the back and they said, the winner is: Best Drama, "Andre's Mother." I fainted. Doris said, get up there, get up there. And Doris is probably the person I've known longer than anyone in New York City. The first job I had in New York was the stage manager at Actors Studio and I watched her doing scenes…
MCNALLY: …in – worked with her then and so this is so wonderful for me to come back to these people who are my family and really – They get me. You know, I don't have to explain why the line is there, and that's what you look for is, it's sharing a sense of humor, a sensibility, and not every actor is suited to particular playwrights and these are two McNally actors and I know it and I'm blessed. And to have them come together in this play is just a wonderful experience for me.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering what does the title refer to, "Unusual Acts of Devotion?"
MCNALLY: The things we do for one another that we sometimes don't even know we've done. And sometimes they're well intended, they backfire. Life is filled with little things we do for one another and then this is stepping back and looking – looking at exactly what they were for these people.
CAVANAUGH: And as you were describing this, this play is – was inspired so much by New York City…
CAVANAUGH: …and the changing parts of New York City. I'm wondering, what is universal in the play that, you know, for people who don't know how Greenwich Village has changed or don't know how Manhattan has changed since 9/11, where is that common ground?
MCNALLY: I think the common ground is the need I think people have to connect with other people. I think it's not natural to want to be – I think Mrs. Darnell is stifling her instincts as a human being when she is a curmudgeon or sits alone in her apartment, or the play opens, she wants the roof to herself. She said, "I'm first one up here. It's mine tonight." People get very proprietary about the roof. But that's not her – that's what she's stifling in herself. And during the course of the play, we see her being given permission to step out of that and then it's rejected, I think, that's my interpretation of the play, and she – we see her go back in. And I would say that's what the universal feeling is in the play: love, acceptance, understanding, and things like that. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, Terrence McNally, in doing my research, a lot of reference to great American living writer who is still producing plays, greatest American living playwright who is still producing plays. What's next?
MCNALLY: Well, right after this, we start rehearsing – They don’t. They have to stay here…
MCNALLY: …and do this one. I've written the adaptation of "Catch Me If You Can," the Spielberg movie about Frank Abagnale, the imposter, and we've made a musical of it.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, another musical.
MCNALLY: We're debuting in Seattle.
MCNALLY: And then next winter, the Kennedy Center is doing a festival of my work and of the three plays that'll be running concurrently, one will be a world premiere of a new play called "Golden Age," a play I've been thinking about writing for – I told Richard about it when he did "Andre's Mother." I'm writing this great part for you. I think he's a little old for it now.
THOMAS: Old now.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.
THOMAS: I've had some good ones in between. It's fine.
CAVANAUGH: That's not fair.
MCNALLY: Yes, he's had some – I said, this is not "Golden Age," but this is the point…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, goodness. I want to thank you all so much for coming in here and talking to me. I really appreciate it. Terrence McNally, thank you.
MCNALLY: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: It was such fun to meet you, Doris Roberts. Thank you.
ROBERTS: How nice. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Richard Thomas, thank you so much.
THOMAS: Thank you. Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone, "Unusual Acts of Devotion" runs through June 28th at the La Jolla Playhouse, the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre. Let me say that one more time. "Unusual Acts of Devotion" runs through June 28th at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre. Thank you for listening to These Days on KPBS.