Exiting the subway at Christopher Street, turning south on Seventh Avenue, my eyes always turn to the brick building on my left, with the word “Garage” inlaid near the peak of its low-rise roof. The site of restaurants for the past two decades, currently plastered with a “For Lease” sign, this building always triggers the same series of thoughts, in more or less the same order: What a shame. Circle Rep. Balm in Gilead. Lanford Wilson.
I most recently walked by this location seven days ago. As I thought about Lanford, I was prompted to Google how long it has been since the playwright had passed away. As I write, it is five years ago to the day. I barely knew Lanford personally (I spoke with him a few times in the early 90s, and interviewed him in 2008), but I knew many of his plays, and I find myself missing him and his work.
In New York, there have been two revivals of Wilson plays in recent years, both in 2013: The Mound Builders at Signature Theatre and Talley’s Folly at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. But prior to those runs, you have to jump back a decade to find significant Manhattan productions of Wilson’s work, when he was a Signature playwright with a season devoted to his plays. There has not been a Wilson play on Broadway since 1993, when Redwood Curtain played a short run.
I find myself wondering whether Wilson – Pulitzer Prize recipient, Obie Award-winner, three-time Tony nominee – has fallen out of favor. It happens to some authors, perhaps more than anyone realizes: after several Broadway failures, Edward Albee faded somewhat in the 1980s, only to roar back as one of the nation’s most admired playwrights in the mid-1990s; late in life, Arthur Miller was perhaps more acclaimed in London than on New York stages, but he has rebounded in critical and popular opinion.
Looking at the list of upcoming Lanford Wilson productions on the website of Dramatists Play Service, which licenses his work, one finds two “pages” of his plays, a seemingly healthy list. But it’s worth noting that of the nearly four dozen planned productions, only two are by professional companies, both of those being Talley’s Folley, probably Wilson’s most popular play, due in part to being a two-character, single-set play. Of the non-professional productions, the most-produced play is The Rimers of Eldritch, which requires a company of 17, ideal for high schools seeking large-cast plays.
I have many distinct memories of seeing Lanford’s plays, though oddly enough, I first became aware of his work because his first significant success, The Hot L Baltimore, which ran for more than 1,000 performances, was turned into a short-lived sitcom in 1975. Lanford had nothing to do with the show and didn’t much care for it, but as I once told him, it prompted me to find a copy of the script of the play, so it had a small lingering impact on at least one impressionable youth; surely I was not alone. A few years later, I saw Christopher Reeve (succeeding William Hurt; preceding Richard Thomas), Swoosie Kurtz and Jeff Daniels on Broadway in Fifth of July. I was introduced to Talley’s Folly in a production at the Philadelphia Drama Guild, with an actor named Jerry Zaks as half of the cast. I was mesmerized by the landmark Steppenwolf-Circle Rep revival of Balm in Gilead, directed by John Malkovich and featuring Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney and Giancarlo Esposito, among many others. I did publicity for a production of Serenading Louie at Hartford Stage during my time there.
It is worth noting that Lanford was also one of the four founders of Circle Rep. While it’s hard to perpetually recall the broader legacy of a defunct theatre company and those who created it, it’s worth noting that among the plays produced by Circle Rep during its 20 year lifespan, above and beyond Wilson’s own, were Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels and William M. Hoffman’s As Is.
Five years after his passing, some 20 years after his period of greatest success and productivity ended, what will be the legacy of Lanford Wilson? Will he live on only at high schools, colleges and community theatres – while that is certainly perpetual life? Is he already seen as a writer of his day, like Maxwell Anderson or even William Inge, remembered more in history books than in professional production? Or will it take just a single, significant production to prompt artistic directors and literary managers to reread his many works and begin mining his trove of plays once again?
I hope it’s the last scenario, because for all of Lanford’s plays that I’ve seen, there are plenty more that I only know from the page. But whether set among the denizens of the grungy New York of the late 60s and early 70s, or on the Talley family property in Wilson’s native Missouri, his plays evince a compassion for the foibles, flaws and eccentricities of humanity that I like to think transcend their era, and put me in mind at times of Horton Foote, not in subject or tone, but in spirit.
There’s no plaque on that building at 99 Seventh Avenue South to mark the work that began life there and ultimately the production those plays means more than a small metal plate attached to the brick of yet another restaurant. Nonetheless, I’m going to reroute my walk to work today to pass the building once again as a small tribute to Lanford Wilson, and hope that his work will be returned to professional stages very soon, not to supplant the essential new work to which he was himself devoted, but to sustain the voice of a quintessentially American author, but to remind theatregoers of the lives of the Talley family (beyond just Matt and Sally) and the residents of The Hot L Baltimore.