Meara’s Work

Meara’s Bio

David Saint

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

generation

as the distaff side of the popular husband and wife comedy team,

(Jerry)

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

director

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

favorite

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.

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Meara’s Work

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

"Ulysses

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

close-ups."

When I mention that the George Street press advances for

"After-Play"

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

friends

Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Stiller and Meara’s teamwork should

gain a new visibility in a Joan Micklin Silver film now awaiting

release,

"The Fish in the Bathtub," and as the hosts of a video

documentary,

"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

performed

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

Gallagher,

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

playwright.

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Meara’s Bio

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

"serious,

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

comedy,

"There’s Something About Mary." "I don’t think I was ever

a role model for education, but Jerry graduated from Syracuse

University."

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

academic

path.

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

1994,"

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,

1995.

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David Saint

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

action,"

Meara says she knew exactly what he meant and would just go home and

fix it.

Meara makes no bones about being an untrained playwright. "If

I stopped to think about how to write a play, I never would have

written

it. But I wasn’t a complete fool. I was in the theater all my

life."

Did Meara feel the urge to butt into Saint’s domain? "In the

beginning

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

dramaturg.

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

twice-a-month

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

would."

The subject? "It’s about choices. That’s all I’m going to

say,"

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

Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $36. Opens Wednesday, September

23, and runs to Sunday, October 18.


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