Remembering Harry

DOUG HUGHES

I met Harry twelve years ago. At that time, I was the Associate Artistic Director of the Manhattan Theatre Club where I directed a play of his. Later, I migrated to the Seattle Rep where I directed two more.

Although Harry’s immune system failed his body, he always seemed to me remarkable for his ironclad immunity to any number of spiritual plagues which rage unchecked on this planet. He seemed, for instance, to be utterly resistant to an affliction which ravages the little village of those who work in the theatre — constant concern about what people might think.

This was most powerfully demonstrated to me when I directed Harry’s Slacks and Tops at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I had programmed this one act on a bill of two other short plays. Rehearsals were difficult. I still have a note Harry passed to me during one particularly trying session. It read, “You are wealthy with patience.” A custom made fortune cookie message from the hand of a master.

Rehearsals were difficult. Previews were hell. The audience at MTC just loved the first two plays. Then along came Slacks and Tops with its savage family dynamics played at farce tempo. It did not prove to be right up the alley of Mr. and Mrs. Subscriber. I would, very maturely, rail against the audience. These yahoos; these philistines. What was wrong with these people? Harry, far more wealthy with patience than I was at this point, supplied the answer. “The taste of my play,” he said, “is not yet on the palate of this audience.” This was a very precise analysis. After the meat and potatoes of the first two plays along came the strange dessert of Slacks and Tops — an exotic tropical sorbet laced with controlled substances: a whiteface clown having a nervous breakdown, jungle plants bursting through the windows of a seedy hotel room.

We kept working. Bizarrely enough, the audience acquired a taste for the play. Why? The New York Times told them to. The day after the paper of record gave the play a rave, the lights went up on the piece and an audience that looked rather similar to the stony ones we had faced for weeks roared with laughter as the actress onstage cleared her throat. I remember making a jubilant call from a pay phone to let Harry know the thrilling news that Frank Rich loved his play. “That’s nice,” he said. “I’m coming down with a cold. I better go to bed.”

He was immune to the stony silence of the subscribers. He was immune as well to the adulation of the New York Times. He was an artist — one of the few I’ve ever known — an acute realist sometimes mistaken for a loopy surrealist. The real world he was interested in was the invisible world; the world that only opens for most of us when we finally get to sleep, the world most of us are too frightened to describe. Like all people worth knowing, like all writers worth reading, he was a paradox: an innocent sophisticate, a cynic filled with hope. He really was too busy making things to worry about what people thought.

Some years later I airlifted him to Seattle to work on his wonderful and wonderfully titled Play Yourself. One of the chief lures for Harry in making his pilgrimage to our odd little corner of the map was the opportunity to commune with nature. I promised him an excursion; some breath-taking vistas — tulip fields, rocky coastlines, snow-covered peaks.

On a day off from rehearsal, at the appointed hour, I picked him up. For some reason, Harry had selected rather costly raiment for this rustic outing: a beautiful linen suit and elegant espadrilles of some pastel hue. The big secret on this little adventure was that I had not planned well. An automotive late bloomer, I barely knew how to drive and certainly had no idea where I was going. I headed north to the Skagit Valley. It was May in Seattle. This meant that it was drizzly and gray. As I expertly steered us into depressed little towns and onto hillsides ravaged by the logging industry, it became clear that I was not going to deliver the scenic splendor of the great Northwest in quantities sufficient to suit Harry. He was polite, but he was disappointed. And as we know one of the few arts he never mastered was the art of concealing his disappointment. Desperate to turn things around, I strayed onto a back road dotted delightfully by ruined trailer homes and abandoned pick-up trucks. The back road became a dirt road. The dirt road got narrower and narrower. This narrow road was then blocked entirely by a jacked up, and at the moment broken down Chevy Impala of mid-’70s vintage. Sitting on the hood were three burly lads with rather prominent foreheads drinking Rainer beer from very tall cans. This rare specimen of the local fauna utterly blocked the forward progress of my effete funky old Volvo. The only feature of the lads’ car which seemed to be working properly was the tape deck — from this the strains of Megadeth filled the air. It was shaping up to be a very interesting encounter. Bertie Wooster and Oscar Wilde had somehow stumbled into the third reel of Deliverance.

I imagine that very few of you have had the pleasure of watching Harry Kondoleon leaning into the rear bumper of an old Chevy and helping to rock it out of the ditch. He managed this, I remember, without getting so much as a dot of mud on that splendid linen suit. The boys put the car in neutral and we rolled it beside the Volvo to receive a jump start. I fumbled with jumper cables, pretending I had some rudimentary grasp of what to do with them. Harry politely refused the offer of one of those tall cans of beer. Then something just a little further down the road caught his eye. He withdrew from this landmark event in the history of male bonding and took off. His destination was a wild rose bush. Finally, at the end of a dreadful day some natural splendor! I turned from the hood of the Chevy to catch the sight of him burying his nose in a blossom. There I stood, jumper cables in hand, surrounded by the gun rack club — three guys who looked like they were going to spend the rest of the afternoon skinning muskrats. Harry called back at all of us, “They’re so beautiful. Do you think I could pluck one?”

The question proved very disarming to our comrades. It was agreed that he could. So Harry came back to us with his treasure, strolling that sorry dirt road as though he were strolling the gardens at Bellagio — playing, superbly, himself.