ARTHUR KOPIT: A Life on Broadway

THE SCENE is the Russian Tea Room, where three top dealmakers for the International Creative Management talent agency have convened for lunch. Agent No. 1 is explaining to her cohorts that one of her playwrights has been asked by a mysterious billionaire to turn a four-page scenario the man has written into a stage play. The billionaire has vowed to keep the play running even if nobody comes -- a distinct possibility, since the play is about nuclear war.

"This doesn't sound like what I'd call a box-office smash," says Agent No. 2. At once, the three of them apply their skills at disguising serious subject matter as Broadway entertainment.

A major star would do the trick. "Hank!" suggests Agent No. 2, recalling how Henry Fonda had drawn ticket buyers even to "First Monday in October," a play on a not-too-riveting subject, the Supreme Court. "Hank is dead," Agent No. 3 says.

Agent No. 2 turns to Agent No. 1: "What about this as a musical?" A firm no. Agent No. 2 then suggests, "We could take the Winter Garden after 'Cats' is gone, blow the place up. I mean, it's halfway there already."

But, Agent No. 1 explains, the billionaire claims to have information indicating that the earth is doomed, and he hopes to forestall catastrophe by having the play produced quickly.

"When he says doomed," wonders a shocked Agent No. 3, thinking of pending deals, "does he mean the West Coast, too?"

The conversation above is from Arthur Kopit's new play, "End of the World," opening at the Music Box Theater nest Sunday, May 6, after a four-week commercial tryout in Washington. Kopit's is the first new American play of this season, and one of but a handful in the last five years, produced directly for Broadway -- without having its origins Off Broadway, where the financial stakes are lower, or at a not-for-profit regional theater. What's more, the play is about the very problem it faces: not merely the survival of the human race, but the survival of a serious playwright on Broadway.

Arthur Kopit may not have had the epoch-making impact of an Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, nor does he head the list when critics rank important American playwrights. Possible reasons: He is not prolific, his writing lacks the readily identifiable style of a David Mamet or Sam Shepard, and his plays are so unlike one another that they seem the work of several different authors. Nonetheless, at a time of spiraling costs and ticket prices -- which make it increasingly difficult for producers to speculate, for audiences to attend, and for playwrights to ply their trade -- Kopit is that curiosity, the serious American playwright who has survived on Broadway.

Kopit has experienced long dry spells between plays, yet most of the time he has earned his livelihood as a playwright -- contradicting Robert Anderson's famous quip, "The theater is a place where you can make a killing but not a living." And each of his plays, including the new one, has prompted remarks similar to what The New York Times wrote about "Indians": "It is ... one of those plays that is going to test the Broadway audience and ultimately determine whether there is any role for serious drama on Broadway."

SERIOUS DRAMA on Broadway dates back to the 1920's and 1930's, when playwrights like Maxwell Anderson and Eugene O'Neill routinely received commercial Broadway productions. And it still had meaning during the 1940's and 1950's, when Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge represented American drama at its finest. Combining stage naturalism with poetic language, they explored the personal disappointment and sexual torment masked by the tranquil surface of postwar America. They were the theater's contribution to the literary heritage of Mark Twain and Henry James, Broadway's answer to George Bernard Shaw and John Osborne, Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux.

Today there is less unanimity about the playwrights who represent American drama to the world. The serious writers who emerged during the 1970's have in common only the assumption that their work will not be produced on Broadway. Economics have made it inadvisable to produce anything but musicals, light comedies or star vehicles. The typical Broadway play today is likely to be a formula sitcom, such as "Same Time, Next Year," or a pseudoserious melodrama like "Agnes of God." Significantly, over the last 20 years, only three Pulitzer-Prize- winning plays originated on Broadway.

Broadway and serious drama began to go their separate ways around 1960, but nobody told Arthur Kopit, Jack Gelber, Jack Richardson and Edward Albee, who all received their first critical acclaim that year. Article after article proclaimed this foursome as the potential heirs to the triumvirate of Miller, Williams and Inge. But it was misleading ever to look at them as a group. Richardson, who wrote "The Prodigal," has since vanished into the footnotes of theater history. Gelber's "The Connection" was produced by the Living Theater, whose every impulse was antithetical to Broadway. "I never thought of myself as going to Broadway," says Gelber, who still teaches playwriting and directs Off Broadway. "I worked with people who were too far-out for that."

Albee did achieve spectacular success on Broadway in 1962 with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and he continued to dominate American drama throughout the 1960's with plays like "Tiny Alice" and "A Delicate Balance." But in the last decade, Albee's writing has struck most critics as pretentious and empty, and his recent plays have had very brief runs on Broadway. Only Kopit has survived more than 20 years on Broadway artistically sound and financially solvent, though the way he managed it could never have been predicted or duplicated by anybody else.

"It's a strange situation," says Kopit, cutting through Shubert Alley on his way from rehearsal at the Music Box to an early dinner at Sardi's. Nearly 47, Arthur Kopit (pronounced COPE-it) retains the boyishness and springy step of a high-school basketball player. His accommodating slouch, bushy mustache and overstuffed leather bookbag add a sort of puppy-dog droopiness to his tall-dark-and- handsome looks. "I've had these plays on Broadway, yet I'm anything but what one would consider a Broadway playwright. What is a Broadway playwright?"

Anyone with a show currently in production, presumably. And Kopit has spent the day watching Harold Prince rehearse the cast of "End of the World." He plans to spend the evening rewriting scenes for the touring version of "Nine," the 1982 Tony Award-winning musical for which he wrote the book. And the ease with which he slides into his corner table bespeaks the Broadway playwright. His friends note Kopit's fondness for Sardi's and the glamour of Broadway, and his savoring the savvy of a producer opening a play on the last possible day to qualify for a Tony Award nomination -- as the producers of "Nine" and "End of the World" have done.

But to Kopit, a Broadway playwright means Robert Anderson or Neil Simon. "Then again, Tom Stoppard has his plays done on Broadway, and Harold Pinter," Kopit muses, digging into some pasta. "I don't know; they say without awards or a major star there's only three months' audience for a serious play. Because of the economic problems, because television has taken over the primary entertainment role theater used to play, because it's more dangerous in the midtown area -- all of these factors work against...the play that is successful that doesn't sell out. You either become a smash hit, or you're not going to run. It's harder to be merely a success."

The career of a writer, like a play, generally has a beginning, a middle and an end. Kopit has had all those, but not necessarily in the right order. His success came big and early, before he knew who he was as an artist, and unlike many writers he has spent much of his career struggling not for recognition but for the kind of inspiration that usually launches careers rather than crowning them.

Born Arthur Lee Koenig May 10, 1937 (his mother, Maxine, was divorced when he was very young and married George Kopit, a jewelry salesman), he grew up in an affluent Long Island suburb, assuming he would go into science or business. But he became excited by theater when he took a modern drama workshop at Harvard and began writing short plays with outlandish titles. In 1959, the summer he graduated with a degree in engineering, Kopit entered a playwriting contest.

In five days, he wrote a wacky one-act about an elegantly monstrous woman who keeps her husband's coffin at her bedside and her grown son attached to her apron strings at all times. He finished the play in Europe, where he was traveling on a fellowship, and submitted it. When he learned he had won the $250 prize and that the play would be put on at Harvard, Kopit was happy that he was out of the country -- he didn't see how anyone could produce a play featuring a talking, cat-eating fish, a man-eating plant and such a ridiculous title as "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad."

"Oh Dad" was staged Off Broadway by Jerome Robbins, ran for more than a year, toured for 11 weeks and ended with a six-week run on Broadway. Kopit received a Vernon Rice Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for best new play of 1962, and the critics both praised and damned him for synthesizing the comic, grotesque and surreal elements of such Theater of the Absurd playwrights as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett.

The play's success spared Kopit the years of waiting on tables and driving cabs that subsidize most young playwrights' careers. And it inaugurated his relationship with Roger L. Stevens, the veteran Broadway producer and chairman of the Kennedy Center, whom Kopit met through a classmate while a Harvard undergraduate. Over the years, Stevens has been involved in producing all of Kopit's work since "Oh Dad," except "Nine," and he has pulled the playwright through various financial crises with generous advances and commissions (for instance, the translation of Ibsen's "Ghosts" that Liv Ullman performed on Broadway).

If young Kopit did not have to worry about earning a living, he did struggle to fit into his almost accidental career as playwright. "A lot of the period from 'Oh Dad' to 'Indians' was spent waiting for something to seize me," he says now.

What seized Kopit was a newspaper item about a shooting incident in Saigon that fueled his impression that the Vietnam War was a continuation of cowboys-and-Indians on another continent. Out of this and lengthy research came "Indians," which used Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a metaphor for the good-guy bad-guy mythology that often disguises the greed and genocide with which the West was won. Audiences recognized the parallels to Vietnam and to the racial tension in urban America; the critics, many of whom had found "Oh Dad" juvenile, hailed "Indians" as a giant step forward.

Although the play received a Tony Award nomination, it closed after only 96 performances. Kopit limped off to Vermont with the $250,000 he got for selling the play to the movies (it loosely inspired Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians") and didn't come up with another for nine years.

Kopit had been excited by the dramatic form of "Indians" -- a hallucinatory mosaic of documentary, Wild West fantasy, and three-ring circus -- and profoundly dissatisfied with the proscenium- style theater it had to play in on Broadway. During his Vermont years, Kopit experimented to see how far he could carry the carnival aspects of 1960's avant-garde theater and still have a play. In 1972, he staged a fantastic outdoor theater piece involving the whole town. While teaching at Wesleyan College in 1975, he created a daylong, improvisatory Bicentennial pageant called "Lewis and Clark: Lost and Found." At the same time, he continued to write, conceiving a cycle of plays beginning with "The Discovery of America," which his friends consider Kopit's most imaginative work, the distillation of his obsessions with American history and theatrical spectacle.

This experimentation was a maturing process that culminated in "Wings," his most avant-garde play. Commissioned by the National Public Radio drama series "Earplay," it served a personal need. Kopit's father suffered a stroke in 1976 that rendered him incapable of speech, and the playwright, himself a loquacious and highly articulate speaker, began to brood about language dysfunction and the emotional isolation of a stroke victim. His script for "Wings" resembles a John Cage score -- instructions for performance combining dialogue, interior monologue, sounds, images and garbled speech. Brought to the stage by John Madden with a Tony-Award-winning performance by Constance Cummings in the central role, it was closer to performance art or the experimental theater of Robert Wilson than to conventional drama. It ran on Broadway three months.

By 1979, Kopit was just scraping by, on grants and residuals from amateur rights, but since he had married and was a father by then, it was never enough. Since he never had a large backlog of produced plays, he couldn't count on the annuity that more prolific contemporaries like Lanford Wilson and David Mamet enjoy. Yet, unlike such talented writers as David Rabe, John Guare and Michael Weller, he never took leave from playwriting to concentrate on movie scripts, which he attributes to the influence of Audrey Wood, who was his agent until her stroke in 1981.

"One of the remarkable things about Audrey is she said from the beginning, 'Dear, write plays.' She knew all the writers who went out to California and never came back," says Kopit. "My life after 'Oh Dad' through 'Nine,' which was the first real money I ever made, was a series of 11th-hour escapes from some economic danger. If I needed money, I'd call up the television department at I.C.M. and go in and pitch some stories. I'm very good at selling a story, making a deal. But to me it was always to get me through so I could write another play. The nuclear play is very much formed by the experience of my family, being out of myself and caring so deeply about other people."

A scene from "End of the World" -- the playwright Michael Trent is on the phone with his agent, Audrey Wood.

TRENT: Audrey, the idea is ternble!
AUDREY: Then don't take it.
TRENT: How can I not take a deal like this? . . . This is the deal of a lifetime!
AUDREY: Dear, what do you want me to do?
TRENT: Advise me!
AUDREY: Take the deal...
TRENT: I've used up the advance.
TRENT: I've used up the advance.
AUDREY: Darling, I'm sorry, I must have misunderstood: I tbought you got this advance last night.
TRENT: I did.
AUDREY: Dear, it is 10:30 in the morning, what do you do up there in Connecticut?

In "End of the World," the playwright Michael Trent (played by John Shea), on commission from billionaire Philip Stone (Barnard Hughes), plunges into research on the horrifying effects of nuclear weapons. What he learns confirms the playwright's suspicion that a play on the subject would be impossible to write, let alone watch. Yet financial need forces him to persist. Affecting the manner of a detective (his office door reads "Michael Trent, Playwright -- No Domestic Comedies"), he goes to Washington looking for a villain among the hawks, hard-liners and "war-gamers" who promote the Government's pronuclear-arms policy.

Meanwhile, his agent, Audrey Wood (played by Linda Hunt, the Oscar-winning actress from the film "The Year of Living Dangerously"), wheels and deals in the Russian Tea Room. The mixture of comedy and documentary prevents the play from being a simplistic antinuke diatribe; it also prepares the audience for what becomes a philosophical inquiry into the connection between man's creative and destructive impulses. Trent can only proceed in writing his play when he discovers the evil he's looking for in an unexpected place -- himself.

Kopit's play is almost entirely autobiographical. In 1980, while teaching a playwriting workshop at the City College of the City University of New York, he met Leonard Davis, an insurance millionaire and one of the school's largest benefactors, who had written a four-page outline -- a futuristic scenario about a Soviet-American military showdown -- and wanted someone to write a play from it. He felt, as Kopit would later have Philip Stone say, "Theater alone among the arts engages in equal measure the emotion and the intellect, and both must be touched here if we are to survive."

At first, the playwright laughed at the thought of being hired to write someone else's play. Then he became intrigued with the practical challenge, and since this was before his involvement with "Nine," the financial arrangement was tempting: Davis offered $30,000 for researching and writing the play.

"I started to do this research, and it was just awful," says Kopit, his stocking feet propped up on the desk next to the Compaq computer on which he writes his plays, his enormous tennis shoes on the floor. He works in a tiny, paper-strewn bungalow 100 yards from the house in suburban Connecticut he shares with his wife, the writer Leslie Garis, their three children (Alex, 12, Ben, 4, and Kathleen, 2) and two golden retrievers, Ruby and Pearl. He goes on: "'The Prompt and Delayed Effects of Thermonuclear Explosions' -- how could anybody write a play from this? You could do it one night for the converted, but could I write a play in which the audience will come in and learn something about the issue that they haven't understood before?"

Kopit discarded Davis's scenario because he felt it was undramatizable. What he could dramatize, he realizedd, was his own inability to come to terms emotionally with the horrifying reality of nuclear weapons -- thus the autobiographical format. He decided to consult with experts in Washington, partly to make sure he had a secure understanding of the military strategy behind nuclear-arms policy, but also to learn how other people dealt with the issue emotionally: "I didn't care to talk to the freeze movement, the people who said we've got to stop. That I understood. I wanted to meet the hard-liners who say we need more weapons."

Kopit takes out a scrapbook from which he created "End of the World." It is a big artist's sketchbook whose pages are filled with newspaper clippings, handwriting, typed quotations and other bits of research colored and coded under such headings as "Why We Need More," "Deterrence Theory," "Problems with Deterrence Theory," "Views of the Soviet Union," "Blackmail Scenario," "Civil Defense," "Why Disarmament Is Dangerous."

One thinks of a playwright as someone with a stack of blank paper making it up as he goes along. Kopit's method is more physically involving, creating a maelstrom of paper to dive into each day, making a mess, then straightening out what's there, obsessed with documentary accuracy.

At the same time, this scrapbook is a symbol of the quality in Kopit's plays that strikes some critics as studious rather than imaginative. Kopit doesn't have Lanford Wilson's gift for creating rounded characters, Sam Shepard's trust in idiosyncratic dramatic structures, David Mamet's way with an overheard expletive, or the madcap spontaneity of Christopher Durang.

But Kopit has other strengths. His playful fascination with language invests individual words with unusual resonance. "Oh Dad" is a purposely silly Gothic-Absurd vignette. But the characters' names -- Madame Rosepettle, Rosalie, Rosalinda, Commodore Roseabove -- has the eerie insistence of an Ionesco game; they bring the image of Woman as Something Beautiful but Dangerous to the surface and then mock it with the repetitive echo of Gertrude Stein. "Indians" is so fraught with Buffalo Bill's paranoia and performance anxiety that words like "heroism" and "patriotism" sound rancid. "Wings" chases the mystery of words, the very source of language, into the life-or-death chasm between coherent speech and gibberish. "End of the World" lingers lovingly on the Pentagon's genius for inventing euphemisms such as "discontinuity" and "anticipatory retaliation" to describe repellent concepts.

These are verbal effects, and Kopit is as fond of them as he is of theatrical effects. His imagination is focused not on the page (his plays are difficult to read) but on the live event, the historical moment as well as the theatrical moment. It's hard to imagine plays like "Oh Dad" and "Indians" being revived, because they belong so much to their time, to the psychosexual or political attitudes the audience brings into the theater; "Wings," less so, but it demands a virtuoso performance. In "End of the World" as well, Kopit walks a thin line between being a playwright and a showman, braving the indifference of posterity for the opportunity to affect an audience today.

"Arthur has a gift for intuiting the ideas and moods of American culture and discovering metaphors that somehow clarify them," says the critic John Lahr, a longtime champion of Kopit's work. "That, to some extent, is what a playwright's job is, finding a way of expressing to the culture the anxiety it can't quite comprehend. People don't want to know; they pay for escape, not disenchantment. Arthur has found a way, which is the trick of really good playwrights, to essentially corrupt an audience with pleasure."

"Everyone in the green entrance for 'The Grand Canal'!"

A crowd of women take their places at the stage manager's command. Tommy Tune sits on a high stool in the center aisle of the theater. Composer Maury Yeston scurries down front to confer with the conductor. Arthur Kopit slouches in his seat, yellow legal pad in his lap, and watches as four actresses begin speaking his dialogue.

The touring company of "Nine" is rehearsing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, and some drastic changes are being made in the show. The script is being altered to suit the personality of leading man Sergio Franchi, an acting singer in the role originally written for Raul Julla, a singing actor. Several cuts must also be made so the show will play faster out of town. One of these involves reducing the 20-minute "Grand Canal" number to eight minutes, and Tune is going about it in the same painstaking, moment-by-moment fashion in which "Nine" was created.

"I had to write what Tune could direct, and he works very visually," Kopit explains from the back of the theater as the rehearsal goes on. "He would stage a scene with the actors moving around just saying numbers, often in Italian, and he'd stop and say, 'O.K., we can talk for 10 seconds.' My challenge was to suggest ways to move the narrative forward in music or staging or lighting or costumes, because I didn't have enough time with language. I said to Tune one day, 'I see what I am here -- I am a custom tailor.' My job was to be invisible in the structure of the show."

Brought in after Maury Yeston's score was completed and another book had been scrapped, Kopit says, "I didn't have the emotional stake in 'Nine' that I have with my own material." Indeed, writing what amounts to sketch material for a nightclub singer like Sergio Franchi doesn't sound like the most meaningful work for a serious playwright. But in return for his 2 1/2 percent of the hit's weekly gross (the Broadway run brought him almost $600,000), Kopit has learned well that surviving on Broadway sometimes involves the art of compromise.

Not just with musicals. Even as passionate and personal a play as "End of the World" contains signs of the small, understandable but significant artistic compromises a playwright makes to get his work to Broadway. Using detectlve-story devices to draw audiences into a discussion of nuclear weapons is a comic way into the material, but also a step back; it sweetens strong medicine. Choosing a director like Harold Prince, best-known for staging Stephen Sondheim's musicals, as well as shows like "Evita" and "Cabaret," underlines the playwright's impulse to apologize for his play's serious content by stressing its entertainment value. And during the show's out-of-town tryout, Kopit even considered renaming the play "Funny Business."

Nobody wants hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work to evaporate in a month, a week, a night. And doing a serious play like "End of the World" is certainly risky. Even the serious American dramas that have set the standard for achievement on Broadway have concentrated on the realistic depiction of troubled American families. "End of the World" is a play that searches out the moral and spiritual underpinnings of the nuclear arms debate. Can it engage an audience? Will theatergoers accept the challenge of identifying with a playwright trying to rewrite the script of the future? Or will they just yawn?

Serious plays do get done on Broadway. A spartan one-act about suicide and a four-hour gay-liberation comedy aren't safe, predictable Broadway fare. Yet Marsha Norrnan's "'night, Mother" and Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" were hits last season. However, they came with insurance -- Marsha Norman's play rode in from the regional theater on a Pulitzer Prize, and Fierstein's had been selling out for a year Off Broadway. David Mamet's Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross" will soon be joined on Broadway by David Rabe's "Hurlyburly," but both came from Chicago's Goodman Theater. Mamet's play won the top prize from London critics when his play had its premiere at the National Theater last year, and Rabe's play features a cast of young movie stars, including William Hurt, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver.

Then there's Arthur Kopit's play, coming to Broadway with no box-office insurance at all, after an out-of-town tryout. That's the way Broadway shows used to be done. But nowadays, "End of the World" seems less a part of an honorable tradition than an historical aberration. The normal thing for a playwright to do would be to hold off on a Broadway production until the play had proven itself in a less pressured setting.

What is it that makes Arthur Kopit still willing to buck the odds by dealing with serious themes on Broadway?

"When you ask an audience to pay money and sit in a theater," says Kopit, "you've got to do more than just delight them. Television can do that. Movies and musicals can get by just with glitz, dancing, entertainment, sheer technical excellence. In the theater, you must feel and think also. It has to do with why theater has always existed in civilization. Theater matters."

New York Times, April 29, 1984