Judith Malina directs a living classic


By Jerry Tallmer

The Living Theater’s 50th anniversary revival of ‘The Connection’

It was in 1959 or maybe ’58 – “Don’t ask me the number, I’m no good at numbers,” says Judith Malina – that a young man stood at the door of her and husband Julian Beck’s West End Avenue apartment with a sheaf of paper he thrust at Julian.

“Julian looked at it, read a bit of it, then came running to me in the bedroom,” says Judith Malina these 50 or 51 years later. “He said: “This is the play we want to do.”

The young man at the door was Jack Gelber, a 26-year-old Irish-looking Jewish broth of a boy from Chicago, and the baby he’d cradled in his arms and thrust upon Julian was the script of a play called “The Connection” – a “jazz play,” as it quickly got pegged in the press – that, shattering the glass wall between actors and audience, would change the face of American drama, and make Beck and Malina’s avant-garde Living Theater and playwright Jack Gelber known around the world.

When it opened, under Judith’s direction, in the summer of 1959, on the Living Theater’s matchbox stage, one flight up in a portion of a defunct department store at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, it was met with such withering scorn by the reviewers from the big dailies that it almost didn’t make it. Nothing but “a farrago of dirt” was the verdict of the man from The New York Times, the dirt being the natural speech of burnt-out caustic anti-societal heroin addicts as given life by the kid from Chicago.

The Times merely led the baying pack – such a unanimous blast that “The Connection” was on the verge of closing before it had very well opened. But then, ta-ra-ta-ra!, cavalry came riding to the rescue – the reviewers from magazines and weekly newspapers, with yours truly in The Village Voice carrying the flag out in front.

“And then Allen Ginsberg saw it,” says the Judith Malina of 2009, “and he told Kenneth Tynan to see it” – Britain’s rebellious drama critic, writing that season in The New Yorker – “and then Harold Clurman came” and wrote enthusiastically about it in The Nation, and the day, and the play, were saved.

As was The Living Theater itself. “The Connection” ran for more than 700 performances at 14th Street and then toured Europe and elsewhere on the globe before being turned into a good shocking original-cast 1962 movie by Shirley Clarke.

So now it is 50 years since that opening on 14th Street, and The Living Theater is still in business, down on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side.

Judith Malina is also still in business, though her devoted partners Julian Beck and Hanon Reznikov are now gone. And guess what. She is not only directing a 50th anniversary revival of “The Connection,” down there on Clinton Street, ” but is acting in it as Sister Salvation, the little old Salvation Army lady who somehow finds herself up in this pad full of junkies, black and white – the little old lady so sweetly played originally by Barbara Winchester, who may well have been younger then than gutsy and vibrant Judith is now.

To steal from my own words of 50 years ago:

“This is the first production of any sort (not just theatre) in which I have seen (heard?) modern jazz used organically and dynamically to further the dramatic action rather than merely decorate or sabotage it; the music by Freddie Redd and his quartet … [piano, alto, drums, bass] … puts a highly charged contrapuntal beat under and against all the misery and stasis and permanent total crisis of ‘The Connection’s’ roomful of assorted drug addicts” who are desperately waiting for Cowboy, the dealer, to arrive with their fix.

Those four musicians – musicians who also took part in the play, semi-improvisationally – were Freddie Redd at the piano, Jackie McLean on sax, Larry Richie on drums, Michael Mattos on bass. The inflection was Charlie Parker. Bird lives!

When Julian had gone back to their apartment door to bring the playwright in, young Gelber was nowhere in sight. But he turned up soon enough – “and I must say,” says Judith, “he sat next to me at every rehearsal and worked with me on every line; we really co-directed in a way. Then we found Freddie Redd to do the music, and then we found Jackie McLean. Jackie was always after me through the years to bring ‘The Connection’ back, and now that we’re doing it he’s gone and died, but fortunately left us an offspring. Jackie’s son René is in it now. Yes, on sax, of course. He also composed new music.”

Back there in 1959 this playgoer knew he was in for something very different as soon as he walked into the theater before the play began. Up there, on stage, a few actors were milling around, but one of them, whose name turned out to be Ernie, sat there immobile except for a mouthpiece he was twiddling in his hands, round and round, the only part of the instrument he hadn’t hocked. And he was looking straight at me, staring at me – poor square me – with slow-burning fury.

It was all part of the show, or in any event part of the character. The actor’s name was Gary Goodrow. He’s still around and still lives in the Village, though he’s not in the new “Connection.” The part is in fact now played by a very nice 24-year-old named Brad Burgess, who is also Judith Malina’s all-purpose aide these days. As an Ernie, he’s in good company. In addition to Goodrow, the role has been done by what Judith calls “a couple of the biggies,” Joe Chaikin and Martin Sheen.

The unforgettable original actors were Gary Goodrow, Barbara Winchester, Warren Finnerty, Jerome Raphael, Jim Anderson, Carl Lee (as Cowboy, a black man in white-on-white garb), Henry Proach, Roscoe Lee Browne, and William Redfield.

The current players are all members of the Living Theater’s company. Except for one, the fellow who plays Sam. He’s Eno Edet, a Nigerian who was brought up in Atlanta (sound familiar?) and was told by a teacher: “You should go to New York.”

“We were looking for someone with a real Harlem presence, and then this guy from Atlanta walks in.”

Today’s other actors are Tom Walker, Eric Olsen, Anthony Sisco, Jeff Nash (as Cowboy), Albert Lamont, Enoch Wu, and – as Leach, in whose grungy digs this all takes place – John Kohan.

The Leach of 1959 was Warren Finnerty. He won an Obie Award, as did the play and the Living Theater. So realistic was Finnerty’s simulation of shooting an overdose of heroin into his arm that, says Judith, “twenty-eight people in the audience passed out, and I was the nurse who brought them back.”

Jack Gelber went on to write other plays and to teach playwriting at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. He died at 71 in 2003. “A dear warm-hearted friend. I loved him,” says Judith, “and he loved me. We loved each other.”

So what’s new in the show, Judith?

“Well, when we decided to do this, I sat down and said: What do I want to change, 50 years later? And I didn’t change anything. It’s all still good, still relevant, we didn’t have cell phones, but it’s the same thing now as then. Poverty is the same, drug addiction is the same … ”

And Judith Malina hasn’t changed. Well, that’s not true. “I’m a lot smarter than I was then,” said the tongue-in-cheek director of “The Connection” then and now. Happy 50th birthday, dear Sister Salvation.

THE CONNECTION. By Jack Gelber. Directed by Judith Malina. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 4 p.m. Through February 13. $30 general, $20 students and seniors. Wednesday is “Pay What You Can” night. At the Living Theater, 21 Clinton Street, (212) 352-3101, or livingtheater.org.