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Why he’s happy that Mothers and Sons rocketed to Broadway
It all happened so quickly. Last June, Terrence McNally's drama Mothers and Sons had its world premiere at Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, where it ran for just 14 performances. Nine months later, it's already on Broadway.
Nowhere in this journey was the lengthy development cycle that's become standard in this country. Instead of being workshopped for years, Mothers and Sons practically leapt from the cradle to the stage.
And McNally couldn't be happier about it. "We rehearsed in Bucks County two weeks, we had one day of tech, and we opened," he says. "No previews or anything. And that was a preferable experience, to me, to anything I've had in the last twenty years of a reading, a workshop, working developmentally with dramaturgs and directors."
Granted, McNally still had close friends read the play, which is a spiritual sequel to his 1988 short Andre's Mother. In the new piece, Andre has been dead for years when his mother Katharine pays a fraught visit to his former lover Cal, not to mention Cal's husband Will and their young son.
Still, the playwright mostly learned what worked by listening to the crowds in Pennsylvania.
"I got more out of doing the play for 14 performances to a paying audience than I've ever gotten from a staged reading in a room where everybody is either a friend or a colleague," he says. "This is just people who got out of their cars in the parking lot at the Bucks County Playhouse and went to see the play."
He continues, "I'm not advocating for rushing into production, but do we always need to do all of this [development]? Yeah, it's a lot of pressure, and maybe the actors weren't line-perfect on opening night, but I could really see what I had."
For one thing, McNally learned that Cal and Will needed more to say, since the original version of the play focused heavily on Katharine (a role written specifically for Tyne Daly, who also stars in the Broadway run at the Golden Theatre.)
As he was editing, McNally was glad he had several months to produce new scenes. "It's so great to have that luxury to work on a play, then take some time off and calmly do your rewrite," he says. "As opposed to staying up all night, and you go running in, 'I fixed it! I fixed it!' Then everyone reads it, and we all say, 'Gee, you know what? It was better the way it was.' I think it's very hard to do great writing staying up all night."
Asked how he tackles writing and rewriting, McNally says he doesn't sketch out a plan of attack before he sits down. "I sort of improvise when I write," he explains. "I've never officially studied playwriting. When I was in college, I'm so glad I took a course in the sonata form. I think that's always somehow stayed with me that you can state a theme and develop it, but you have to recapitulate it. You have to contrast---largos and allegros---but above all, there's a theme you keep developing."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photos by Joan Marcus