Lanford Wilson, 73, leading light of Off Off Broadway



When Lanford Wilson was approaching death last week in Wayne, New Jersey, one of the people at his bedside, director Marshall Mason tells us, was the actor Jeff Daniels. Some of the time the visitor sang some old favorites to ease Lanford’s journey into the darkness.

Of course it would be Jeff Daniels, a man who knows what loyalty is — loyalty to life, to the theater, to his home town in Michigan, and to the Lanford in whose autobiographical “Lemon Sky” he, Daniels, had given a brilliantly realer-than-real performance as a troubled young Midwesterner on the way to San Diego to meet the father who’d left long ago and started a whole new wacko family out there.

I saw “Lemon Sky” at the Upper West Side’s now-extinct Promenade Theater in December 1985, I think on my birthday, and, as you may detect, never forgot it. But then, I’ve never forgotten almost anything of Lanford’s that I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot, starting way back in 1964, at Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street, with “The Madness of Lady Bright,” a shockingly early and no-less-shockingly uncloseted short play centered around a suicidal old poof staring into his dressing-room mirror.

That was really the start of Off Off Broadway.

It was also the gutsy feat of a then still-wet-behind-the-ears, 27-year-old playwright yanking the great unspoken but glaringly obvious secret of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — and hundreds of plays of all kinds and eras before that — out into full daylight. Or, let us say, a half daylight awaiting the arrival of The Plague a decade and a half later

Human, humanistic, humane — that was Lanford, in person and in his work. You know the saying: God must love the poor, he made so many of them. Well, Lanford certainly loved actors — he wrote parts, made work, for so many of them, 30 or more in plays like “Balm in Gilead” and “The Hot l Baltimore” alone.

“Balm in Gilead,” his keystone play, an assemblage of the walking wounded, was set in an all-night coffee house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side close to where Lanford was then living. Can’t you just see playwright Wilson blearily wandering down at 4 a.m. for a bit more fuel — Scramble two! Chaser on the side — and then rushing back upstairs to get some poor, draggled, nutsy new arrival down on paper?

Yes, Lanford was a drinker, I don’t know from what starting age but enough of a one to worry all who loved him. I don’t remember ever seeing him drunk, but I do remember he often, when we met, seemed exhausted, played out, bone tired.

The Circle Rep that he and Marshall W. Mason founded and ran had offices that hiphopped from one part of town to another. For some years they were on an upper floor of the curious building where Spring Street crosses Sixth Avenue, a stone’s throw from where this newspaper is today. There was a sacrosanct room there — Lanford’s Room — sort of like Thurber’s Room or E.B. White’s Room at The New Yorker. I could just see the Circle Reppers tiptoeing around while the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of “Talley’s Folly” snatched 40 winks.

If I myself had been jolted awake by the, excuse the expression, naked homosexuality of “Lady Bright” 23 years earlier, in 1987 I was jolted even wider awake in the opposite direction by a play and its performance I loved so much that I went back — with my wife, an even more ardent enthusiast — to see it two more times.

“Burn This” is as blazing a case for good old bad old heterosexual love as I’ve ever seen on stage. When super-virile, horse-maned, blue-collar John Malkovich (named Pale, like ale) breaks down beauteous Joan Allen (Anna) with “No tits at all?” and she wistfully echoes, “No tits at all,” I damn near died — all three times. It was like a generous gift from an artist of opposite persuasion to the — oh yeah? — norm.

But Lanford also, in “Burn This,” supplies us with a charmer of his own persuasion, Anna’s no-threat homosexual roommate Larry, played with sweet-sad wry grace by Lou Liberatore in Mason’s production.

Lanford, when you’re up there checking into the Hot l Humanity, let me know if they have a Lanford’s Room.