For this theater critic, a round of applause


By Nicole Davis

Whether Norman Mailer’s father was a skilled accountant, or whether he wasn’t, by June of 1956, a year after Mailer senior agreed to look after the finances of the brand-new Village Voice, Edwin Fancher’s paper was out of money. So Fancher closed it down, and together with the drama critic Jerry Tallmer, they spent July and August redoing the books.

“I didn’t remember that!” a surprised Tallmer exclaimed upon hearing that story. “I must have blocked it out.” And so it went on Saturday — Tallmer, Fancher, former Voice contributor Jules Feiffer, and Tony-winning actress Marian Seldes, sitting together on stage at La MaMa, triggering each other’s memories about the early days of America’s first alt-weekly and the beginnings of Off and Off-Off Broadway.

The occasion was the Coffehouse Chronicles, an ongoing series of talks directed by Chris Kapp that is essentially “Inside the Actors Studio” for Off- and Off-Off-Broadway veterans, the critics, actors, directors, and playwrights who helped carve out a permanent place for avant-garde theater in New York. And as the crowd of 50 or more learned, or were reminded on Saturday, the Village Voice — make that its drama critic, Jerry Tallmer — helped map out that space in America’s imagination by writing about the startling new plays of Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett (among others) being performed at the dozens of theaters Tallmer remembers “popping up like mushrooms” around the office of the Voice in the mid ’50s and early ’60s.

Marian Seldes read about one of those plays, Genet’s “The Maids,” and its star, Julie Bovasso, while she was “exiled” in California making films. “I remember reading Jerry Tallmer’s review and thinking, I have to see that.” That Tallmer persuaded an actress to cross a continent for a show is certain; that he inspired her to return to the stage is only a guess, but after hearing Seldes heap praise upon this man, who all these years later is still such a prolific, enthusiastic lover and writer about theater, surely, somewhere deep down, Tallmer had something to do with that.

“Of course he’s a critic,” said Seldes, with a graceful air that betrays her early days as a dancer. “But he’s also an appreciator, and he made you care. I don’t remember him as one to bring things down,” she said, in comparison to critics who take undue pleasure in criticizing. “He built things up.”

Ms. Seldes, the biggest star on Saturday’s bill, revealed lots of surprising details about her career (the Actors Studio rejected her, for one) and not-so-shattering opinions on the state of Broadway today, but what was most remarkable, to this arts editor, was her appreciation of Mr. Tallmer, which she and Feiffer and Fancher circled back to throughout the conversation.

“Anyone who knows Jerry Tallmer,” Seldes continued, “knows he loves women, and if you know his wife, you know he loves beautiful women.” Actress Sally Kirkland seized upon the comment — she seized upon quite a few — standing up from her seat to remind the audience she too had been admired by Tallmer in print. “He made women feel like goddesses,” she said. To which Tallmer added: “Take a look at the Villager any week and you can tell I still appreciate good looks.” (See page 21 for proof.)

It was The Villager, in fact, this very paper that Tallmer now writes for, that inspired Fancher to create its antidote in 1955. Like many creative types in the midst of McCarthyism, Fancher fled to Greenwich Village to escape the oppressiveness of post-World War II America, and was disappointed to find that the local news outlets didn’t speak to his free-thinking sensibilities. The fact that he, like editor Daniel Wolf and all of the Voice’s founders, had served in the War as enlisted men only encouraged him more to create an alternate news forum.

“There was the feeling in all of us,” Fancher explained, “that we have survived this ordeal, and they can’t do anything to us. We can have an open newspaper, and no one will shoot us.”

Not that the early days of the Voice were bereft of violence. Both Tallmer and Fancher took turns Saturday swapping funny stories about Norman Mailer, including the time he encouraged Fancher to fire the delivery man, then offered to fill in for him, only to pick fights with newsstand owners who refused to take as many copies of the Voice Mailer wanted to give.

Between the four founders, only Tallmer had any prior newspaper experience as editor of the Dartmouth College daily. “At the Voice, he pretty much ran the goddamned place,” Fancher said. Tallmer also changed the way theater was covered in New York. “Up until that time, the dailies ignored Off Broadway. Jerry gave it enough of a boost, he forced them to recognize it” — in part through his creation of the Obie Awards. The name so confused Times editor Sam Zolotow, he called two years in a row to ask “What does this Obie stand for?” “O-B, Off Broadway,” Tallmer explained patiently, until finally, three years later, the Gray Lady ran a three-inch blurb about the ceremony.

Feiffer came into the picture shortly after the paper started, walking into the office with a portfolio of rejected illustrations beneath his arm. They were accepted on the spot, and he was immediately made a contributor. Marian Seldes, in addition to being a subject of the paper’s adulation, had a direct link to the Voice via her father, the crucially important arts critic Gilbert Seldes, who was a regular columnist and the paper’s most recognizable name early on. But ultimately it was Tallmer’s sensibility that “made the Village Voice what it was,” said Feiffer. “He wrote in a fresh casual conversational voice that one didn’t see in critics in those days.”

Better known as a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist than as a playwright, Feiffer spoke of the heat he took for using the word “shit” in his play “Little Murders” (“How dare you use a word like that the second night of Passover!” columnist Leonard Lyons scolded him). Feiffer didn’t forget Tallmer’s review, either. “[In it, he said], ‘I’ve never seen such an assault on a young writer.’ And then he proceeded to give me a very good review. If it wasn’t for Jerry and [producer] Joe Cino, I would be dead.”

Ms. Seldes, sensing a recurring theme in all this reminiscing, distilled it for everyone. “So often, people talk about a teacher who said to them, ‘yes.’ It isn’t a question of being praised, it’s a question of being encouraged.”

“I could also be very severe,” Tallmer said, as if in apology for cheering people on over the years. But it was no use. After the audience was given the chance to ask questions, two playwrights took the opportunity to thank Tallmer for building up their work. One also asked a barrage of questions: “When did you first start writing about theater?” (“When I started with the Voice.”) “What do you think of the Village Voice today?” (“I find it impossible to read.”)

Tallmer failed to answer one question: “How did you develop this writing style of yours?” When I posed it to him later, he gave an eloquent explanation of “wanting to put the ‘I,’ the human being” back into criticism. Then he chewed on it some more, and acknowledged being influenced by George Bernard Shaw, in particular by two pearls of his wisdom we can all use: “Be yourself, and care.”