Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.
Underground, Smokin’, with Anne Meara
Where are you taking me?" I ask. "Down to
the dungeon — it’s where they make me go to have a cigaret,"
says Anne Meara, as she leads me down a flight of steps somewhere
below the stage at the George Street Playhouse. Meara is in rehearsal
as an actor in her own play, "After-Play," which opens at
George Street this Wednesday, September 23. "It’s my choice. But
I have to tell you that my brand is the lowest in nicotine, the lowest
in tar, and the lowest in taste," says the Long Island-born and
raised actor and comedienne, known to many of us of a certain
as the distaff side of the popular husband and wife comedy team,
Stiller and (Anne) Meara.
Allowing for the success she experienced with "After-Play"
when it was first produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, and later
during an extended run Off-Broadway, Meara is continuing to nurture
her play and her relationship with George Street’s new artistic
David Saint, who directed Meara in "After-Play’s" original
production. It seems only natural that Meara would want to be a part
of Saint’s inaugural season at George Street, and that Saint would
want to include this play that he guided to acclaim.
"After-Play" originally came as something of a surprise to
critics and theatergoers. Who expected more than a mere windstorm
of snappy one-liners and explosive punchlines from this traditionally
funny lady? How wrong we were. Meara delivered a play that not only
pays homage to the mysterious and mystical styles of two of her
playwrights, A. R. Gurney and John Guare, but also constitutes an
entertaining and thought-provoking play about deepening relationships.
Framed with a wealth of humorously considered insights, Meara’s play,
about two middle-aged couples who meet for drinks and dinner after
the theater, is notable for the compassion we feel for four charmingly
flawed human beings, each of whom appear to be in the midst of finding
his and her best way through life.
When Meara, as Renee, offers lines such as "What do you say to
a schizophrenic that you don’t have to say twice?" Or, "A
divorce is difficult. All my divorces were difficult," you will
be forced to laugh as well as to think twice.
The actor and playwright is serious about the shift her life has taken
since "After-Play" proved to have an after-life. The renowned
comedienne, whose identifiable New York dialect and down-to-earth
dialogue graced such commercials as Amalgamated Bank, Blue Nun Wine,
and United Van Lines, will admit that the classic comedy routines,
written and performed with her husband, may be a thing of the past
— like the Ed Sullivan show.
But if the Ed Sullivan Show gigs brought widespread acclaim to the
easy-to-adore comedy team, it was as individual actors that Stiller
and Meara made their marks. Meara’s Broadway credits go back to
in Nighttown" (1958), with Zero Mostel, as well as Joseph Papp’s
first season of the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.
Fans of Meara could always count on a change of pace. Whether she
played the nurse in Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," the
83-year-old mother in John Guare’s "Bosom and Neglect," a
bag lady in Richard Greenberg’s "Eastern Standard," or the
sleazy alcoholic in the acclaimed revival of "Anna Christie,"
fans would see a completely different side to this versatile actor.
Meara recalls working with Sir Laurence Olivier when
they appeared in the film, "The Boys From Brazil," in which
she played the mother of a Hitler clone. "He was very ill, but
he was always there and very professional," she says. "I never
had to face a stand-in or a piece of tape on a pole for my
When I mention that the George Street press advances for
refer to her as "legendary," she wisely answers, "Well,
I guess that’s once step away from being a memorial."
While their acting assignments weren’t destined to bring them fame
as a dramatic acting team, as were the Lunts or like their close
Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Stiller and Meara’s teamwork should
gain a new visibility in a Joan Micklin Silver film now awaiting
"The Fish in the Bathtub," and as the hosts of a video
"So You Want To Be An Actor?"
Meara says she actually wrote "After-Play" for her husband.
But it wasn’t until the play had closed in New York that the two
in it together in a couple of straw-hat engagements (the Cape and
Westport Playhouses) last summer. Meara remembers her husband saying
initially, "I’m not going to be in your play, because I don’t
want to louse it up and spoil it for you."
Now with Stiller engaged in other projects (he is currently on the
West Coast taping the new sitcom, "The King of Queens"), Meara
freely allows herself to consider how terrific Larry Storch is in
the role at George Street. Not that the other actors — Helen
Merwin Goldsmith, Earl Baker, Jr., Laurie Kennedy, and Peter Maloney
— are less terrific, she assures me.
"After-Play" marks Meara’s breakthrough as a playwright, but
it wasn’t her first play. Meara began to master the craft as co-writer
(with Lila Garrett) and star of "The Other Woman," a CBS movie
that won a Writer’s Guild Award. "After-Play" won the 1995
Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, awarded to a new and
Promising has to be an encouraging word to Meara, who was an only
child and a terrible student. "I had to go to summer school to
get the 16 credits needed to graduate from high school," she says.
Meara got all the credits that count for her as an acting student
of Alfred Linder and Uta Hagen. It was 45 years ago that the
boring acting student" met and married Stiller. "We were young
and waited almost 10 years before we had the kids," says Meara,
who speaks with pride of daughter Amy Stiller, a comic actress, and
son Ben Stiller, the actor and writer currently in the hit film
"There’s Something About Mary." "I don’t think I was ever
a role model for education, but Jerry graduated from Syracuse
Like their mother, both Ben, who went to UCLA for one semester, and
Amy, who went to Emerson for not much more, both chose the less
There is something about writing alone that appeals to Meara, who
had been used to co-writing sketches with Stiller and had scored a
success co-writing the TV movie with Garrett. "It was in 1993.
I was thinking about all of us getting older, and began writing down
snippets and short scenes, all the while taking time off to do a low
budget movie, when suddenly I finished the play. That was in
says Meara, lighting the third cigaret of our 30-minute talk.
"It was pretty cheeky of me to take my play to Flora Roberts.
She’s Stephen Sondheim’s and Alfred Uhry’s (`Driving Miss Daisy,’
`Last Night of Ballyhoo’) agent, but she’s also a friend of mine,"
Meara says. Roberts, who had read Meara’s earlier play, was interested
enough to set up a reading of "After-Play" at New Dramatists.
A representative from the Manhattan Theater Club brought the play
to the attention of MTC artistic director Lynn Meadows. A subsequent
reading at MTC resulted in Meadows saying, "I want to do your
play." That was in the spring of 1994; the play opened in January,
Meara says she decided to go with Saint as the director
of her play after seeing daughter Amy, husband Jerry, and his Seinfeld
co-star Estelle Harris (who plays Jerry’s wife), in the touring comedy
"Beau Jeste," directed by Saint, who had (as fate would have
it) been one of the interviewees in the Stiller-Meara documentary,
"So You Want To Be An Actor?" Meara’s confidence in Saint
at the helm increased when he discovered what she already knew. When
Saint said, bravely, "There’s something missing in that scene,
or that a character needed to be affected in deeper way by the
Meara says she knew exactly what he meant and would just go home and
Meara makes no bones about being an untrained playwright. "If
I stopped to think about how to write a play, I never would have
it. But I wasn’t a complete fool. I was in the theater all my
Did Meara feel the urge to butt into Saint’s domain? "In the
I did. I would sit next to him and nudge him. It was hard to listen
to the actors because I was hearing the voices of my characters in
my head. I’m going out of my mind and whispering to him." Saint
leaned over and said, "Stop it! You’re a wonderful actor, but
you’ve got to let the actors on stage grow." Meara concedes now
that Saint was right, "because everyone brought something unique
to their part."
Almost aimed as a jest, I ask Meara if Saint also acted as her
The first-time playwright winces at the sound of this newfangled term,
but does not hesitate to say that Saint understood her play from the
start. "I had met with other directors at the beginning, but I
knew that Saint was really on the same wavelength with my play. Later
we were on the same wavelength with everything."
Is Meara working on her next play? "I certainly am. I only took
time off to appear in a couple of low-budget films (`The Fish in the
Bathtub’ and `The Daytrippers’) — the only kind I seem to appear
in. I don’t feel the need to look for work as an actor anymore. Now
I want to write," says Meara. "I do like my once or
appearances on the soap `All My Children.’ I always say to them, keep
the check the same but keep my part simple."
So, would Meara trust Saint with her next play? "I certainly
The subject? "It’s about choices. That’s all I’m going to
says Meara, as she takes a last drag on her cigaret and leads the
way out of the dungeon.
— Simon Saltzman
After-Play, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston
New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $36. Opens Wednesday, September
23, and runs to Sunday, October 18.
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