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January 9, 2020

Bouncing Off George S. Kaufman


George S. Kaufman was one of the greatest comic dramatists of the early 20th Century. His plays, mostly written in collaboration, remain among the most popular in the Concord catalog. For decades, his daughter, Anne Kaufman, has acted as the sole gatekeeper of her father’s work, but recently Laurence Maslon and David Pittu were brought into the fold as co-literary executors. Maslon is an arts professor at NYU’s Graduate Acting Program and author of numerous books about Broadway; Pittu is a Tony-nominated actor as well as a writer and director who will soon be appearing in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country on Broadway. They sat down recently to bounce perspectives off each other on all things Kaufman.

When was the first time you encountered George S. Kaufman?

David Pittu: Probably watching Marx Brothers movie on TV as a kid, but that was before I really understood that someone had actually written what was coming out of their mouths.  It’s funny, I remember growing up there was a copy of Act One we had that my mother got from Book of the Month Club but I didn’t actually read it until after college! Act One is where Moss Hart chronicles meeting Kaufman and the tumultuous process of bringing Once in a Lifetime (their first collaboration together) to fruition, so once I finished that I read Once in a Lifetime and after that I just wanted to be Kaufman and Hart. I felt like I’d found kindred spirits, the way they made fun of Hollywood, their whole sensibility was something I wanted to embody in my own work as an actor and also a satirical dramatist. I directed a production of Once in a Lifetime at Atlantic (in 1998, when I was 30!) and I was tremendously proud of it. 

Laurence Maslon: When I was eleven, they had a prime-time special of The Man Who Came to Dinner with Orson Welles as Sheridan Whiteside and Joan Collins as Lorraine on the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” It was updated for the seventies and I thought it was so funny that I went to the library and took out Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart. And that was it.

Was there a production of Kaufman’s work you have seen that made you think, “that’s as good as it gets”?

DP: It has yet to be challenged: The Royal Family from 1975, with Rosemary Harris and Eva Le Gallienne, directed by Ellis Rabb. I’d heard about the legendary stage production and I watched it as that wonderful televised version they did for PBS. That was a revelation for me.  It’s perfectly cast and perfectly period. Nostalgic and corny, yes, but so truthful and fresh and moving — so much love for the theatre you can practically smell the wood of the boards. It has all the Ferber salt-of-the-earth humanity and all the Kaufman vinegar just right. 

LM: Circle in the Square did a production of The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1980 — the first major revival in forty years. I’ll never forget: Carrie Nye played Lorraine Sheldon, this over-the-hill actress, and she wore this red backless dress and you could see her ribs. It was such a brave character choice because Nye knew Lorraine was so deluded that she probably thought she still looked great in this dress even though it was meant for a much younger woman. And it proved to me how these comic characters could be grounded in such a smart and vulnerable way.

Kaufman’s plays tend to skew towards large casts, but there are some smaller gems, right?

DP: The Butter and Egg Man is from 1925 and the only comedy he wrote without any collaborator. It’s a smaller piece that colleges or folks with limited resources could do; it doesn’t have to have millions of people and extras. It’s a great play and it’s so quintessential because the hero is so naive and comes with literally his life savings in the palms of his hands basically and just holds it out to these two seedy producers. I directed it at the Atlantic in 2002 and we had a great production. I always thought that The Producers was inspired by Butter and Egg Man.

LM: I think June Moon is very much like a jewel in that smaller category. I directed it at NYU about a billion years ago. But it’s a spoof about Tin Pan Alley and it has a slightly more acidulous quality because Ring Lardner is the collaborator. But that’s definitely a show that has the same panache as the bigger shows. And it really shows what the Depression period was doing to people and their relationships. The wife says how much she despises her songwriter husband, stating, “Why don’t you write a song like Irving Berlin?! You know, something sympathetic!” And he says, “You know why he can write sympathetic? Because he gets a little sympathy every now and then!” 

DP: I’ve always felt in a funny way that one of the messages in a Kaufman play is “Be yourself!” Like May says to George at the end of Once in a Lifetime after he’s made this terrible mess that finally works out, “George, you don’t need us. You just go ahead and be yourself!”

LM: There’s always the character who is sort of good-natured and does the right thing and wins the prize from the cynical and greedy folks by being themselves.

DP: Yeah, sometimes the characters are dopey and unwittingly find success. It’s a sweet idea to make the winner someone who’s clueless and hasn’t gone to finishing school or been born a millionaire. And Kaufman loves skewering characters that think they’re terribly grand or all that, like the Hollywood starlet who comes back to her former boarding house to do a publicity shoot in Stage Door. But of course, there are plenty of decent, determined Kaufman characters who aren’t jokes but have real goals for themselves. 

LM: The characters are very bold and they really challenge the actor to really go for it and be as large, in a good way, as those appetites and those passions and those hungers are for those characters. And there are so many different varieties of characters to play. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a perfect example: Sheridan Whiteside is a character who’s hilarious because of his unforgettably barbed dialogue — he’s out of a Restoration comedy. And then there’s a character based on Harpo Marx who jumps around and does everything but eat the furniture — he’s pure farce. So the plays offer opportunities for all sorts of actors to do their thing.

Do you think these plays still resonate with audiences today?

DP: I think they still resonate. One thing I take away from George S. Kaufman that’s even more reassuring these days is that he tends to champion the underdog. And I find the family portrait of You Can’t Take it With You really profound. It’s not surprising that it gets done the most out of all the plays. Whether or not such a family could ever exist, it’s so full of humanity and the sense that real life is what you make it. It’s a great work of art out of the Depression. 

LM: It’s hard to go back to the context of 1937 and imagine how revolutionary the play was. You Can’t Take it With You is a classic because it’s the original sit-com. And La Cage Aux Folles and The Addams Family are all sort of based off of that basic template. You Can’t Take It With You shows the essential loving family and that sets the pace for counter-culture and acceptance and “accept who you are” and what does “normal” really mean?

I think both the great thing about the plays and the frustrating thing about the plays is that they are very much set in the time in which Kaufman lived and they’re about things he went through: Hollywood, Broadway, the Depression, the elections, etc. So the references, which could be a little off-putting, are actually the fun part — because you’re diving right into another world.

DP: I would think that Stage Door, for all its screwball elements, is an accurate portrait of how things were in such a theatrical boarding house in the 1930s. And just because we don’t have such places anymore doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the play or because it shows girls going out on dates with producers to get parts in shows. That’s the way it was. And the play was co-written by Edna Ferber so it’s not like she didn’t know what she was writing. The plays are so well-constructed. The way exposition happens, how seeds are planted, how details of a person’s character play into the plot and people’s motives. You get the idea that Sheridan Whiteside is this famous columnist and everyone wants to ingratiate themselves with him and that’s all you need to know.

LM: What’s so admirable is that there’s this great craftsmanship at the center of all of George’s plays.

DP: And a performance style that goes with it. It helps to watch movies from the period and hear the way people articulated and used their voices. There are rules in a way. You were more declamatory. You speak to the end of the line. You don’t break up the lines. You deliver them. These writers wrote dialogue with rhythms and crescendos in mind. If it’s a punchline before an exit, there should be a door nearby so you don’t have to cross the stage. You want to get your laugh and — boom! — out the door.

LM: Kaufman and his friends, they were great at writing exit lines. When it came to a good curtain line, no one did it better than George S. Kaufman.

DP: That’s a good curtain line, too!


 To explore more from George S. Kaufman, click here.

(Photo courtesy of Laurence Maslon)