From Minor Theater to Off-Broadway to Biarritz, Harry Kondoleon’s (’77)
scripts are winning awards and notice.
by Jon Cashen ’76
THE TROUBLE, railed the head in the June 13 edition of the Village Voice, was with Harry. But confessed in the review that followed were the difficulties of actors and actresses, directors and designers, in interpreting his most recent work, “Christmas on Mars.” The playwright’s subtleties and savageries, as intermixed as pianissimos and sforzandos in Schoenberg, left the most talented among them hapless. In other words, the problem was not so much with Harry as with the theatre today. Or, if he could be charged at all, then the offense had to be one of relentless and piercing vision in an age of superficialities.
The “trouble” with Harry was diagnosed following the 1983 Obies, where he was voted Off-Broadway’s Most Promising Playwright of the Year. But it began years ago when Kondoleon discovered a fascination for creating, and turned to painting and writing as natural outlets for expression. At Hamilton, where he majored in English Literature, he stocked up on courses in art-dwelling in the caves of the List Art Center to study photography and painting. But the written word as acted out remained his chief tonic: each semester for four years he wrote and produced a play, in return for which he took home the Wallace-Bradley Johnson Award for the best one-act student play of the year. Every year for four years.
That virtual monopoly has since vanished, as Kondoleon has run up against a seasoned establishment not accustomed to hand out praise to parvenus. (He was the youngest to win an Obie this year.) But the recognition and the successes have continued. At Yale, where he studied for three years in pursuit of an MFA, he twice won the coveted Kazan Playwrighting Award-first for his “The Cote D’Azur Triangle,” a story of menage on the Riviera made lunatic by the sudden appearance of sea monsters, and later for “Disrobing the Brides,” a fantasy-studded walk to the altar in which bride and groom examine each other with undisguised and revealing sexuality.
Other kudos followed, as his “Rococo” was selected for production in the Yale Rep’s first Winterfest. In 1982, the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference singled out his “Clara Toil” for production along with only 1l other scripts from a total of more than 1500 submitted.
In the aggregate, then, the story tells of unparalleled success for one so young and bespeaks a promising career ahead. But the Voice article bespeaks of problems, if not with Harry, then at least for him. And reading the reviews, one approaches understanding. His titles alone set Kondoleon apart: “The Cote D’Azur Triangle,” “The Fairy Garden,” “Christmas on Mars,” “Self-Torture and Strenuous Exercise.” They indicate magic and otherworldliness, an “Otherworld” of triangular love relationships and warped realities. Nor is one disappointed by the scripts themselves, in which characters suffer from neuroses and internal foibles, illusions arising from either drugs or the need to self-delude. Personalities drop, then pick up, masks and personas (“The Fairy Garden”)-in a change of identity reminiscent of “As You Like It”- with such facility that you soon forget the initial cast and fall prey to Kondoleon’s Melvillean confidence game. Love triangles, quartets, and other geometrical cross-overs, sometimes ending unsatisfactorily after stormy trysts, make one question the very concept of love, if not fidelity and marriage. Homosexuality-both male and female-comes in for strong treatment as well.
THE CHARGE to the acting community seems staggering: Kondoleon, as he admits and his critics realize, is dealing, and dealing directly, with some very real and painful issues. In consequence, the story for him becomes secondary: “merely a premise,” as he is wont to say. But theatre, spurred on by the box office, lusts for story, such has been the impact of television and the film industry. “You can see the changes taking place,” Kondoleon says. “It used to be that every resume submitted when try-outs were announced followed the traditional order under ‘Experience’: theatre first, film and television next. Recently, however, that order has inverted. Now television and film head the list. Theatre is at the bottom. It just can’t compete with the salaries offered in Hollywood.”
All the same, Kondoleon’s writing takes no notice of shifting pools or “what will sell.” Indeed, his approach to writing is as unorthodox as his stage plays themselves. “I have a book of titles that I carry with me,” he explained, “and whenever I get an idea for a new one, I write it down. When I write, I pick a title I feel like writing about, and write that play. To a certain extent, the play then becomes an exploration of that title.”
Working mainly by night, and only when he wishes to, he produces a first draft in longhand, following that with a second. The third, he types. So deliberate is the creative process that hardly a line will change in production. “Everything I write, I put there for a reason,” he says.
BUT NOT all is concentration and regimentation. For Kondoleon, writing comes as a release, as the reward for research and characterization, painful notetaking and sketching. By the time he touches pen to paper to begin the first draft, his characters dance before him. He knows precisely how they will behave in a given situation, having already tested them on his own mental stages. When he begins the dialogue, then, the characters themselves “take over. At that moment, there’s a great sense of otherness, of standing outside yourself as you become these other people.”
That unleashing leads his list of essentials for the successful playwright. But it does not lead alone. “The really good playwright must also have the power to edit himself. I used to have more of the first-the power to step outside myself, but I’ve come to develop the other with time.”
KONDOLEON DOESN’T fool himself into thinking that wordsmanship alone makes
the award-winning play. Staging, acting, and direction all impinge. “There’s no such thing as a fool-proof play,” he says” ” ‘Private Lives’ proved that.” So he involves himself totally in each production, taking with him a strong sense of how the finished product is to look. The try-outs, he feels, try him the most. “Without good acting, it’s nothing. And it’s terribly nerve-racking to sit and watch all those people go by. You might get nothing but blondes when you’re sure that the character has black hair.”
Despite unending worry, however, even with all the grub-street hackery that goes on around him, Kondoleon has never had the luxury of good first reviews. Whatever the reason-and he ascribes it in part to a failure of the critics to understand-he doesn’t mind. More important that the audience appreciates and enjoys what is going on. In that regard, his latest success, “Christmas on Mars,” is illustrative. A wacky tale of a love-bound foursome-at the center of which stands a narcissistic young man pursued by his pregnant girlfriend; her mother, who supports the couple; and his former male lover-that takes its final setting at Christmastime, in the midst of a season loved for sentimental reasons but celebrated for ones more cynical, the two-act drama drew mixed reviews from the established critics but infected audiences with laughing mania each night.
AFTER ONE of those nights, a member of the audience was so thoroughly taken that she rushed into her boss’s office the next day and raved about the play. Her boss just happened to be film mogul Robert Altman, of “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” “Brewster McCloud,” and “Popeye” fame, and within days he was looking across his desk at the author, asking whether or not he would be interested in writing the screenplay for his next movie. Kondoleon accepted and, by the end of the summer, after a preliminary trip in July to “stimulate my imagination,” plans to have a finished draft. The plot for “Biarritz,” to be filmed in the French coastal resort of the same name, is understandably murky at present, but promises thrills as a psychological murder. To a certain extent, Kondoleon thinks its structure will parallel that of his earlier play “Clara Toil,” produced at the O’Neill Playwrighters Conference and mixing murder, mystery, and comedy all in one. The combination sounds an odd recipe, but to Kondoleon, a comic playwright, it makes perfect sense. “You can’t say anything seriously without comedy,” he insists. “Comedy is life. Ingmar Bergman is my favorite artist, but a flaw in his work is the absence of comedy.”
PERHAPS HIS own growing reputation as a writer of comic vision prompted a giant of Altman’s status to risk a multi-million dollar production on a virtually unknown and inexperienced screenwriter. “A comic playwright.. poised to take his place in (the) lineage of..Wilde… Orton… Guare… and Durang,” were the words the Voice, unusually vocal on Kondoleon’s doings, used to foresee his future. Another could be his mastery of dealing with characters such as those Altman has already perceived as peopling his next film. “He’s looking for characters who are highly articulate to the point of being haughty. The underlying situation calls for arrogant, elegant people surrounding a terribly ill-at-ease protagonist. My characters are like that: they tend toward witty, high-blown dialogue along the lines of Noel Coward.”
If Kondoleon has mastered the type, then he has his own character to thank. Roots of the self-assurance that invests his casts can be glimpsed at times in the playwright himself, and Kondoleon readily admits the connection. “In this world,” he says, speaking of the theatre, “you need to be a bit assertive, a bit bold and sure of yourself.” He recalled an early instance six years ago at Hamilton, when sitting for his honors examination in English Literature. One of his three faculty examiners asked for an explication of a collection of Donne’s poems, and Harry responded coolly, “It would be an insult to the poet to discuss his poems without having them in front of me.” The faculty rushed to agree.
That same sense of self-confidence guys him in his writing, enabling him to reduce a world of options and possible plots down to fundamentals, and from that base begin his synthesis. “Shaw once said,” he explained, “that there were only two stories: Cinderells and Jack and the Beanstalk. Someone else claimed that there were only 36 different dramatic situations. And they’re both right. But I can do virtually anything with them, turn them into anything I want.”
And that’s no fairy tale.