LAST Wednesday, an enterprising Off Broadway company called Rattlestick Productions began a three-weekfestival devoted to Harry
Kondoleon's work. Some might ask, who is Harry Kondoleon?
Others will recall that for a decade beginning in 1983 he was practically ubiquitous in the New
York theater. He had plays produced at the Manhattan Theater Club, Second Stage,
Playwrights Horizons, Theater for the New City, the Public Theater
and at Circle Repertory. He won the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Play
writing Award for "Christmas on Mars" in 1983, the same year that
he won his first Obie Award as "most promising young playwright." He won another Obie
in 1993 for "The House Guests." In that same span of time, he
published a volume of poetry, mounted an exhibition of his paintings,
directed several shows and wrote a number of novels as well as
screenplays that were never produced. This torrent of activity came to a
halt in March 1994, when he died of complications from AIDS. He had
just turned 39.
The centerpiece of the festival is the world premiere of his play "Saved or
Destroyed," staged by the playwright Craig Lucas, making his New York
debut as a director. In addition to that production, which opens
tomorrow at the Rattlestick Theater in Greenwich Village, the festival
includes readings of three of Kondoleon's other plays: "The Côte d'Azur
Triangle" (Nov. 28), "Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise" (Dec. 4) and
"Play Yourself," to be read by Kathleen Chalfant, Martha Plimpton and
Amy Sedaris (Dec. 6). The screenplay adaptation of Kondoleon's 1994
novel "Diary of a Lost Boy" by Peter Hedges will also be read (Dec. 5),
and there will be talks about his work by Michael Feingold (Nov. 28),
John Guare (Dec. 4) and Wendy Wasserstein (Dec. 6).
Except for a handful of poems, "Saved or Destroyed" was the last
dramatic work Kondoleon wrote before he died. I know this because,
toward the end of his life, he lost the sight in one eye, and he sometimes
asked me to type his handwritten manuscripts into his laptop. One of
those was "Saved or Destroyed," which he wrote during a three-week
residency at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York, in the fall of
1993. At the time, he was frail and sick, and I expected a minor recap of
work he had done before. Instead, he was striking out into new theatrical
The story of a pregnant girl and her boyfriend on vacation with their
parents overlaps with the lives of the actors -- who frequently break
Character -- putting on the show. Treading the fine line between illusion
and reality, the play exists in the theatrical limbo that suggests Luigi
Pirandello rather than the satirists to whom Kondoleon has usually been
likened (Joe Orton, John Guare, Christopher Durang). In "Diary of a
Lost Boy," which he completed in early 1993, Kondoleon had
succeeded in imagining his own death with a Buddhist sense of
adventure. The novel's heartbreaking final line is, "Please do not feel
sorry for me -- I go to some place thrilling!" And "Saved or Destroyed"
seems to pick up where that thought left off.
I asked Craig Lucas what he thought the play was about (a question
Harry would surely have frowned upon). "In my view, it's six dead actors
and one dead playwright working out all of the elements of their time on
earth," replied Mr. Lucas. "They're getting ready to jettison the
unnecessary stuff and hold onto the most elemental and important factor
of having been alive in order to face a new life, prepared. I think the play
is about looking at one's life and deciding what is worth saving and what
should be destroyed in order to be born again." The cast of "Saved or
Destroyed" includes Scotty Bloch, David Greenspan, Julie Halston and
Harry Kondoleon arrived on this planet in 1955 and started observing its
inhabitants and their strange customs shortly thereafter. His parents were
named Sophocles and Athena, though their friends in Queens called them
by their Americanized names, Cliff and Tina. He shared a birthday and an
artistic precociousness with his sister, Christine, who was two years older
and is now an art historian. He spent a year in Bali, where he saw
witches dance and caught typhoid fever. He sometimes joked that he
majored in cutthroat competition at the Yale School of Drama, and for
more than a decade he studied heartbreak and rage with New York
City's daily newspaper critics who treated him like a perennially
promising playwright who never quite lived up to his potential.
Traces of his life on Earth inevitably turned up in his plays: the eerie
symbiosis of siblings, the ancient pleasure of putting on a show, the
absurd realities of show business, the magic of delirium and the perversity
of divine forces wearing the most mundane of masks. "I was too beautiful
for public school," says a character in "Rococo," which Kondoleon wrote
at Yale. "I had to be taken out. The other students would bite me. They
couldn't deal with undiluted beauty. Children are irrational. I'm an artist. I
dip my fingers in poison and make beautiful things."
Yet much that goes on in the world of Kondoleon's plays escapes any
explanation that biography has to offer. His sneaky way, for instance, of
writing comedies that begin in recognizable living rooms and then spiral
into poetry -- where did it come from? That, like the love his characters
urgently seek, is a mystery that remains intact.
I first met Kondoleon in 1982 when I interviewed him for a newspaper
article, and before long we became friends. What endeared him to me
was that he was an original. I have never known anyone who lived so
relentlessly in the world of the imagination. His eye transformed
everything it looked at, filling it with bright colors and feverish emotions
or draining it of everything but the elegant geometry of ennui. He could
write with sophistication about sex and love and deviousness and
suffering, sparing none of the details of what he called "the incurable
hunger, the rampant churning, the pitiful diet of small kisses, handshakes
and telephone calls." He wrote out of insatiable curiosity and almost
willful not-knowing. He was like an inquisitive child, forever asking,
"Why, Mommy? Why are they doing that?"
In his lifetime, Kondoleon never achieved the level of recognition he
wanted and deserved. He never had a breakthrough hit. Although his
plays were produced by prominent theaters, they were not always
produced well. Truthfully speaking, they were not easy to produce well.
He never wrote plays "about" anything. "Zero Positive," which some
consider his masterpiece, is no more about AIDS than "The Cherry
Orchard" is about trees. His favorite book was "Grimms' Fairy Tales."
Kondoleon was impatient with conventional dramaturgy and resistant to
rewriting. While traditional "well-made" plays tie up the intricacies of a
plot, Kondoleon's subvert such satisfactions. They tend to end, bumpily
or inspiredly, with ecstatic dancing, a song, an expressionistic poem, or a
surreal dreamlike image. He was a diehard aesthete, less interested in
other plays (or wanting to emulate them) than in painting, poetry, art film
and rock music.
Producers and directors couldn't help responding to the originality of
Kondoleon's work. And they usually knew what to do with the plays'
more traditional elements -- the family settings, the romantic squabbling,
the fever-pitch comic dialogue. But they rarely knew what to do with the
surrealistic images, the magical transformations (people into animals, or
vice versa), or the spiritual yearning -- "the awful rowing toward God,"
in the words of Anne Sexton (a Kondoleon favorite).
The results were often lumpy and overly naturalistic. The playwright
longed for an avant-garde director to take his plays and do wild things
with them, someone like Lee Breuer or Robert Wilson. (The Flemish
director Ivo van Hove, who staged "A Streetcar Named Desire" at New
York Theater Workshop last year with no furniture except a bathtub,
would have been ideal.)
THE closest he got to a perfect production was the late Garland Wright's
staging of "Anteroom" at Playwrights Horizons in 1985. Wright's distaste
for comic clichés, an excellent cast led by Elizabeth Wilson, and a design
team that included Adrianne Lobel (sets) and Rita Ryack (costumes)
helped convey the sense of a play taking place halfway between the
reality of a Southampton mansion and the other world.
I'll never forget the scene during a masquerade party in which Ms.
Wilson, as a rich matron decked out in gossamer butterfly wings,
conversed with a black fashion model dressed in the striped uniform of a
convict, complete with ball and chain -- complementary images of spirit
trapped in a body. It was like an episode of "I Love Lucy," performed
inside one of Joseph Cornell's boxes.
Although it's cold comfort, Kondoleon's legacy lives on in the admiration
of other playwrights. First and foremost is Nicky Silver, whose darkly
over-the-top comedies would be unthinkable without Kondoleon's
example. John Patrick Shanley and Richard Greenberg have also paid
homage to Kondoleon in their work. Enthusiasts can be found at theater
companies like the Drama Dept. in New York and the Woolly Mammoth
in Washington. And a generation of younger playwrights -- including
Chay Yew, Tom Donaghy and Han Ong -- cite him as an influence. It is
this joy of rediscovery that the Rattlestick festival may encourage.
The New York Times, November 19, 2000