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And He Made a Her (and the Caffe Cino)|
by Doric Wilson
May, 2007, revised June 1, 2007
Regina moved me to a table. I asked her where the stage was, she pointed to a six-by-eight-foot space of open floor. Maria Callas singing an aria from Tosca ended on the jukebox, a Greek folk song began. A handsome man (Joe Davies - the father of overalls as fashion) stood to dance an impromptu, almost modest male-less-strip-than-tease. From another table, an amply structured, overtly female woman (Shirley Stoller) watched with languid disdain. (Shirley’s expression of approval, I would later learn.)
The room was amber, red and warm except for a frigid table in the corner, where a neo-monastic in the sackcloth of corduroy sat reading Sartre (Robert Heide?). Four or five inadvertent impersonations of James Dean wandered in (without cause) — the one with the body was named (call it chance) Dean. With him was a walking, breathing Botticelli (Johnny Dodd). In the months that followed they would perform a dialogue of Andre Gide in very brief fur loincloths.
A lovely, lavender person named Ester joined our table and was even more overjoyed at my pending production than I was. I asked Ester if she would like to read my script. She also politely refused. I asked one of Dean’s Jimmy Deans if he would like to read my script. He politely refused. Among the laughing, hopeful, winking 8 x 10s on the wall were paintings (by Johnny India) of old men/old women sitting lonely on Washington Square benches. Perhaps they would like something to read. The Greek folk song ended. I would prefer to remember its being followed by Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” It was on the jukebox. Everything was.
I had come to New York City from Kennewick, a wheat town in the banana belt (ask Susi Thiss) of Washington State to study set and costume design. I was a closet dramatist. At ten, I was writing and staging westerns in the barn of my grandfather’s ranch on the Columbia River (to the chagrin of my cousin Dan Doyle who was always cast as the dance hall floozy).
My first play, The Moon is August (blank, blank verse), was handed in as my senior composition in English Lit. My teacher Mrs. Shrieves failed me, convinced I had plagiarized it. She left me with the impression there were no living playwrights.
Here I was, in the city, barely two years later, and about to have a play performed. A play written thanks to the unknowing subsidy of Time, Inc., who were under the naive assumption they were paying me to work for them.
I left the Cino and hurried home (an apartment in mid-town sublet from Kenny Mars who had gone west) to share my news with my director/roommate, Paxton Whitehead. I didn’t mention the six-by-eight-foot stage. The next night, I took him downtown to see the Cino. I couldn’t find the Cino, I couldn’t find Cornelia St. I could not even find the Village. Paxton was not pleased.
Paxton and I cast the male roles (three angels and Adam) from Cino irregulars. We couldn’t find the right actress to play Eve. Karl Schenzer, the actor playing Urhelancia, had filched from another audition (for unclear reasons) a photo and resume of a likely candidate.
Paxton sent me into my bedroom when Jane Lowry arrived to read — playwrights are to be heard but not seen. Lady Jane got the part (the first of many she would play for me) and became one of Joe Cino’s most beloved actresses (and my Gertrude Lawrence.)
Determined to look the part of an urban playwright, I wore three-piece navy pin-striped suits, ties with tiny pale polka dots and a trench coat nonchalantly tossed over my shoulder. I also drank brandy and soda (until the Devil and Janis Mars introduced me to stingers in the BAQ Room). I told my good news to Bernie (noblesse oblige) Hart at the Little Bar at Sardi’s. Bernie warned me “not to get involved down in the Village — you’ll never get back uptown.”
We were a hit. We extended from only playing a weekend, to a week, to two whole weeks (two shows a night on Saturdays) to an instant revival. (There was time out for Tennessee Williams, as essayed by the smoldering Stoller, and a one-man show featuring an ex-pro football star who put on a housedress and lipstick, delivered a monologue while tearing a phone book in half, and was never seen again.)
We were such a hit that Alan Zamp, the one Equity member in the cast, had to change his name four times during the run to not incur the awful wrath of the tragic Muses of AEA. “And He Made a Her” received what may have been the first review the Village Voice gave to the yet to be labeled (and oft Equity libeled) Off-Off-Broadway — the gist of which suggested plays should not be done in coffee houses.
My next play, “Babel, Babel, Little Tower” was written for the Cino and dedicated to Joe. It made use of the whole room, from behind the counter, and the toilet in back (flushed on cue), to the tables which Ralph (Paul Vincent Romeo) took away from the customers, and piled on top of each other to build a tower he hoped would prove I-forget-what to Eppie (Jane Lowry).
At the time, the NYPD, as happy as hornets, were busy preventing plays in coffee houses by handing out summons when not physically stopping the performance. I incorporated this living history into the climax: a cop-ish looking actor entered from Cornelia St., ad-libbed a fracas with the waiter/doorman (Scotty), and demanded the actors put the tables back where they belonged. The actors, led by Lady Jane, refused. Authority in blue destroyed the tower. Most of the audience thought it was for real. It was very convincing. Too convincing. Opening night a front table was occupied by strippers from Third St. They were very protective of us innocents in theatre. As the actor playing the cop approached the stage, Sunny (her specialty was tassel twirling) kneed him in the groin. The show did go limping on. (The injured actor has since taken up Scientology).
The actors and Joe shared the same butcher block in the kitchen — they, to make up; he, to make sandwiches. There was the night Joanna Vischer (Helen of Troy - and very much so) applied a slice of pepperoni to her cheek at the very moment Scotty delivered to a customer a rouge pad on a roll.
I sat in the New Colony Bar on Greenwich Ave. with Edward Albee telling me, “I was too nice (since disputed) to ever become a playwright.” I suspect “nice” was meant as an euphemism for simple.
“And He Made a Her” may have been the first play to move from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway. Richard Barr (regardless of rumors contrary, the most generous man in New York theatre) presented it on the Monday Night Series at the Cherry Lane.
The night of dress rehearsal, I was entrapped by a plain (ill-fittingly) clothed policeman who rammed a gun into my larynx and arrested me for sexual (I was innocent) whatever. This was all part of an Ed Koch-Carol Greitzer-V.l.D. (they now deny it) campaign to clear the queers out of the Village. Richard Barr got me out of jail, I ran to the safety of Cornelia St., sat at a table and wrote (just like in the movies) “Now She Dances!,” an angry, ironic, nightmare version of the trial of Oscar Wilde. I should have dedicated it to the cop who entrapped me, and who, years later, encountered me elsewhere, leered, and suggested maybe he and I might … but that’s another play.
“Now She Dances!” was wonderful with the ever articulate Tom Lawrence as Lane, zany Zita Jenner as Lady Herodias, the so very beautiful Lucrezia Simmons as Miss Salome, and Lowry as Gladys, the maid. (If you were there, you still remember her doing the soup speech — an audition staple for the next decade.)
My last play at the Cino was “Pretty People.” Suzanne Smith (who designed the Cino window poster which still hangs on my wall) played “Glamour, Thinly Veiled,” Robert Corpora was “He, in the Middle, Sans Gender” (a character whose gayness was mater-of-fact and purely incidental), and Nancy Wilder (Auntie Mame to my Patrick Dennis when I still acted) was “The After Effects, Unveiled.”
Tom Lawrence gave his most articulate performance as the “Looker,” and Patricia Dillon was cool and classy as the “Looktress.” The stage carpenter who worked on the set (parts of which collapsed every night) was Jonathan Torrey. Somebody whispered to me that he and Joe … and it seems they were … and one thing led to another … and to yet another … and ultimately true love, and amphetamines proved a final fatal mix.
“And He Made a Her” was also the first play to venture from Off-Off to the regions, playing successfully at the Stables Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. But as a result of problems with the Cherry Lane and Detroit productions, which I mistakenly blamed on the script, for 40-some years I refused to allow productions of “And He Made a Her.” The publication of “Playing Underground” (Stephen J. Bottoms), “Off-Off-Broadway Explosion” (David A. Crespy), and “Caffe Cino” (Wendell C. Stone) made further withholding of the play impossible, if only because of the historical significance of the script.
In November 2005, as part of a gargantuan survey of origins of Off-Off-Broadway, Peculiar Works presented a brilliant production of “And He Made a Her” directed by Bryn Manion (at an underground firetrap of a tourist trap on Cornelia St. run by a Euro-trash twit of a Brit). Thanks to a splendid cast, I lost my ambivalence toward the script, and welcome it back to my oeuvre with great pleasure. (For which I am forever grateful to Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell!)
In 2007, Mark Finley directed “And He Made a Her” for TOSOS II at the Laurie Beechman on 42nd St., with manly Matt Rashid as Adam, wickedly funny Chris Weikel as Silvadorf, and the perfect Jamie Heinlein as Eve. As an out and active queer since high school in the late 50s, and always an avowed atheist, it is more than a little odd that the play which began my career should be about Adam and Eve.
I remember a stupid fight Joe Cino and I had over his plan to start charging an admission at the door. Equity opposed this, and not wanting to put my actors in risk of having their AEA cards torn up on the spot, I canceled a revival of “And He Made a Her.” I suspect the wonderful actor Gary Fillsinger never fully forgave me. From then on, I was only in the Cino as audience. The night of Joe’s death I stood outside, kicking the wall, too angry to cry, or crying too hard to harm much but my foot.
I remember most the plays of Lanford Wilson, William Hoffman, Robert Heide, David Starkweather, Claris Nelson, Harry Koutoukas, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Tom Eyen — I didn’t know the great fun of a Robert Patrick play until we produced a revival of “The Haunted Host” at TOSOS — they, and Joe Cino, Johnny Dodd, Joe Davies, Magie Dominic, Robert Fink, Phyllis Loubier, Joe Pichette, and all the others — so many others. The wonderful words, the laughter, the impossible made magic time by the ringing of a bell — that’s what I remember most. I remember everything but the dates.
Bernie Hart was right, I never did make it back uptown. Not in my heart and soul. And it has made for a wonderful life.