Cherry Vs. Larry: Dual Lysistrata s Prick Stage War

A funny thing happened on the way to the Manhattan Theater Club.

Larry Gelbart, the author of Tootsie and the TV version of M*A*S*H , and co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, wrote a racy adaptation of Lysistrata -the Aristophanes play about Grecian sexual politics-with songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel.

On Feb. 5, it was precipitously dumped by the Harvard-funded Cambridge, Mass., American Repertory Theatre after its leading lady, Cherry Jones, refused to perform it.

And while the A.R.T.’s artistic director, Robert Brustein, rushes to get his own replacement adaptation in order by the play’s May 10 opening, Mr. Gelbart’s offending version, subtitled “Sex and the City-State,” will get a reading at the Manhattan Theater Club on March 11.

“What is there to say, except for something probably unprintable?” said Mr. Gelbart by phone from Los Angeles.

The writer received news that his raucous adaptation was toast on Feb. 5, in an e-mail from Mr. Brustein, with whom he’d been corresponding about the project since August. Mr. Brustein, a founding member of the A.R.T. who is retiring at the end of this season, wanted to corral a group of seasoned colleagues for his valedictory production. Lysistrata was to star fellow founder Cherry Jones and to be directed by Mr. Brustein’s frequent collaborator, Andrei Serban. Mr. Brustein asked his colleagues William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein to compose songs. Mr. Gelbart himself had worked with Mr. Brustein on 1989’s Mastergate and 1991’s Power Failure .

But Mr. Bolcom and Mr. Weinstein soon backed out because of other commitments, and Mr. Gelbart was joined by Disney composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel, neither of whom had ever worked with Mr. Brustein. Messrs. Menken and Zippel had collaborated with Mr. Gelbart on City of Angels , as well as an in-progress musical about choreographer Busby Berkeley called Buzz!! Nothing Succeeds Like Excess!!

By December, Mr. Gelbart was having a blast adapting the 411 B.C. play about Athenian and Spartan women who stage a sex strike to get their husbands to stop warring. After briefly considering “Phallus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” he had settled on the “Sex and the City-State” subtitle and was working to strike the right tone in the script.

“It is just loaded with references to genitalia and intercourse as a weapon, or the denial of intercourse as a weapon,” Mr. Gelbart said. “It took me a long while before I could get down and be as bawdy as the play eventually became.”

His results included bits of dialogue like this line from Lysistrata, the play’s heroine:

You will fly from the room at the mention of bush.

You will offer no pussy.

Nor one bit of tush.

For their part, Messrs. Menken and Zippel were working to keep the songs, in Mr. Zippel’s words, “bawdy and funny-and because it was Larry Gelbart, smart.” To that end, they were composing ditties along these lines:

We will not play till they lay down their spears

Till then our ankles won’t visit our ears …

Hands off their phalluses

Let them get calluses

Don’t let their chalices


According to Mr. Gelbart and Mr. Zippel, they were dutifully sending their work to Mr. Brustein in Boston and receiving, in Mr. Zippel’s words, “reams of e-mail telling us how brilliant it was.”

One, to Mr. Zippel on Jan. 15, read “CD arrived and it’s glorious. Many thanks to you and Alan for a superb job of work. The songs are witty, lyrical and very moving.”

Mr. Gelbart said, “I was constantly encouraged to keep going along the lines I was going …. [The e-mails] were quite enthusiastic expressions of delight, to use mild terms.”

Mr. Gelbart remembered that “the first fly in this Grecian ointment” came when Mr. Serban sent his notes in mid-January.

“Serban thought that some of my material was a little repetitive, and he was right. I did tighten up a scene here and there,” said Mr. Gelbart, adding that “he said that certain scenes needed structural simplification. I didn’t know quite what that meant.”

Mr. Gelbart said that he was especially understanding since he’d been told that Mr. Serban was “used to working with dead authors.”

But on Feb. 5, Mr. Gelbart received a “Dear Larry e-mail” from Mr. Brustein.

According to Mr. Gelbart, Mr. Brustein apologetically explained that the production designer, Michael Yeargan, “had refused to design the production based on my adaptation, that Cherry Jones hated my adaptation and that, inasmuch as the leading lady and the production designer were not going to do the play, that Mr. Serban did not see how he could.”

Mr. Brustein explained in his e-mail that he himself would now “pound out” an adaptation of Lysistrata by May.

Mr. Gelbart declined to read the message to The Transom, but he said that the phrase “‘political correctness’ was never used-but I think if we dusted the e-mail, we might see those fingerprints.” A subsequent e-mail from Mr. Brustein, Mr. Gelbart said, told him that “Ms. Jones and Mr. Serban had a rather low tolerance for obscene humor, whereas [Mr. Brustein] shared my [sensibility].”

A spokeswoman for the A.R.T. confirmed that “neither Ms. Jones nor Mr. Serban nor Mr. Yeargan were pleased with the adaptation …. They didn’t like it, they didn’t want to work with it-so, much to his chagrin, because he’s a good friend of Larry Gelbart’s, Bob Brustein decided to tackle it on his own.”

The spokeswoman said that new songs were being composed by Hair composer Galt MacDermot, with lyrics by Matty Selman. Though she couldn’t point to the offending problems in Mr. Gelbart’s script, it was her understanding that the company found it too bawdy.

“I refuse to call it ‘obscene,'” said Mr. Gelbart, who pointed to the Lawrence Durrell quotation he’d chosen to preface his adaptation: “It’s only with great vulgarity that you can achieve real refinement, only out of bawdry that you can get tenderness.”

Mr. Brustein never contacted Mr. Menken or Mr. Zippel, leaving Mr. Gelbart to pass along the news of their termination.

They didn’t take it too badly.

“We were stunned by the ungracious way in which it unfolded, but we all laughed a lot,” said Mr. Zippel. For his part, Mr. Gelbart remembered, “I forwarded Brustein’s ‘Dear Larry’ letter to David and Alan … Alan called me, and after we said hello we never stopped laughing. It was bizarre, but so healthy I can’t tell you.”

What’s not as funny to Mr. Gelbart was the implication that his work may have been lacking. “When a production is dropped, what is one to think except that the writer’s work wasn’t deemed fit for production, so another one has to be substituted?”

The sting of rejection didn’t last long. An adaptation of Aristophanes which boasts “a bawdy script with some social merit is like chum in the water,” Mr. Gelbart said.

The Manhattan Theater Club, which proved it wasn’t prudish in 1998 with its controversial staging of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, bit first. M.T.C. artistic director Lynne Meadow heard about the Lysistrata script and asked Mr. Gelbart if she could read it. She “loved it,” and confirmed that on March 11, M.T.C. will stage an unrehearsed, “extremely private” reading of the Gelbart-Menken-Zippel version of the play.

Ms. Meadow said that she has asked her friend Christine Baranski to read Ms. Jones’ part, and that Ms. Baranski has agreed, provided that she can make it to New York from Toronto, where she is shooting a film.

Mr. Gelbart added with a chuckle that he’d heard that Ms. Baranski and Ms. Jones are scheduled to share a stage “in some other part of the asylum playground” later this year. It has been reported that in December, Ms. Baranski will play Lillian Hellman to Ms. Jones’ Mary McCarthy in the utterly surreal, Nora Ephron–penned musical Imaginary Friends , with music by Marvin Hamlisch.

He also said that he’s “curious” to see Mr. Brustein’s Lysistrata, “to see what is acceptable to these people.”

Although he won’t be able to make the Manhattan Theater Club reading because of a pilot he’s shooting for ABC in Los Angeles, Mr. Gelbart said he was pleased about the Broadway turn the project took and was working on the script “as we speak.” On his way to a root canal, Mr. Gelbart said, “I’d rather do it this way the first time out than have to prove it’s worth doing to people who aren’t especially enthusiastic about it.”

Proof = Paltrow

Back in 1999, actress Gwyneth Paltrow complained that Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein had pressured her to pose in an S&M get-up on the cover of Talk magazine. Now she seems to be cracking the whip.

According to a source close to the situation, Ms. Paltrow is “the natural front-runner” to appear in a Miramax-produced film version of the Pulitzer-winning play Proof , adapted by its author, David Auburn. Beginning in May, Ms. Paltrow will star in the London production of the play as Catherine, the insane math-genius daughter of an insane math genius. That production’s director, John Madden, is the apparent choice to direct the movie. In 1998, he directed Ms. Paltrow in Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love , for which she won a Best Actress Oscar.

At the time, Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Weinstein seemed to be members of a mutual-admiration society, but their enthusiasm for each other eventually waned.

But after a period during which Ms. Paltrow starred in more fashion shoots than films, Mr. Weinstein seems to once again be opening doors for the actress. In November, Ms. Paltrow told Harper’s Bazaar that she wanted the film rights to Donna Tartt’s book, The Secret History , for her younger brother Jake to direct. Poof! A week later, Miramax owned the film, Ms. Paltrow was producing, and Mr. Paltrow was directing.

Now it seems that what Ms. Paltrow wants is Proof . “Harvey drove a truck full of money up to [the producers’] houses,” said one source close to the situation. “What choice did they have? He wants Gwyneth.”

It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Weinstein has made friends with Mr. Auburn. The playwright is adapting Paul Watkins’ 2000 novel, The Forger , for an upcoming Miramax film.

-Ian Blecher

Pay Me, Sidney

Press agents just can’t seem to get respect when it comes to Sweet Smell of Success . First, actor Tony Curtis, who played flack Sidney Falco in the film version, put the producers on his personal drop-dead list. Now one of the last of the old-time New York press agents says he’s been spurned by, of all things, the Broadway adaptation’s publicists. After reading about himself in Kurt Andersen’s “Only Gossip” feature in the Mar. 3 issue of The New York Times Magazine , which was pegged to the musical’s opening, publicist Sy Presten thought he might qualify for press tickets. After all, Mr. Presten not only fed items to Walter Winchell, he represented Sherman Billingsley, owner of Winchell’s haunt, the Stork Club, as well as Jules Podell, who represented the Copacabana during its glory years. (In Sweet Smell , Winchell’s doppelgänger frequents “21.”)

So Mr. Presten called up the production’s publicists, Barlow Hartman, to see if he could get tickets for March 14. That’s the seventh anniversary of his marriage to Joanne Binder, who works the phones with him. The answer came back: No. Well, Mr. Presten said, “I’d rather be in The New York Times than see Sweet Smell of Success .”

But Barlow Hartman partner Michael Hartman said that Mr. Presten shouldn’t give up just yet. “We certainly don’t want to alienate him on any level,” Mr. Hartman said. “We can talk to him about getting him in at some point. We have a certain amount of tickets allotted for working members of the press. We have to methodically work the best way we know how.”

-Frank DiGiacomo

Naked in New York

Soho looked more like an art destination than a shopping mall on March 1, when dealer Jeffrey Deitch held twin simultaneous openings for Singapore-born Su-en Wong and Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft at his two Soho galleries.

The crowds spilled onto the sidewalks, Damian Loeb dropped by both, and outside the Beecroft show, two women had a violent verbal argument about a dog.

Ms. Wong’s show, Good Girls , was at Mr. Deitch’s Grand Street gallery. It was her first solo showing in New York. Near the gallery’s entrance, Asian women dressed in pink latex passed out pieces of chocolate cake that had been carved from a gigantic pink-coated mound near the door. On top of the cake sat an Asian blow-up doll and, from her paintings, more images of Asian girls depicted in sexually stereotypical situations. Dressed in a woolly blue cheongsam dress, a tattoo peeking from under her sleeves, Ms. Wong ran around looking for garbage bags and said she was too frazzled to talk to The Transom.

Ms. Beecroft’s exhibit, VB 45/VB 48 , took place at Mr. Deitch’s Wooster Street gallery and featured giant photographs of women, clad only in Helmut Lang boots, staring emptily back at viewers. The photos had been taken at two performance-art projects by Ms. Beecroft in Vienna and Genoa, and the experience of seeing them again was unnerving for the artist.

“I almost don’t even recognize it myself,” Ms. Beecroft said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s so physical.”

After Mr. Loeb, who was wearing stubble and tinted glasses, had taken a gander at each exhibit, The Transom asked him for his assessment before he headed off to dinner with his dealer, Mary Boone.

“I understand they’re both women,” Mr. Loeb said. “I’m coming from an outsider’s perspective, having never been a woman.” He paused, then added: “The connection between the two? Nudity sells … magazines and clothing and perfume and artwork.”

-Elisabeth Franck

Too Close, No Comfort

If you ever want to know what it feels like for an artist to watch his own work get sold at an auction house, ask Chuck Close. On March 4, Mr. Close was on hand when his Self-Portrait (1995) was put on the block at Sotheby’s for an auction to benefit the Spinal Cord Injury Project of Rutgers University. As the time for his painting to be sold drew near, Mr. Close looked visibly uncomfortable as he sat in his wheelchair in front of the artwork. “I don’t like to do that,” Mr. Close said. “For an artist to go to an auction house is a little bit like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse.”


The Transom Also Hears …

Actor Bill (Independence Day ) Pullman showed up at the March 4 benefit that artist James Wyeth hosted for the Savannah College of Art and Design at the Soho art gallery The Time Is Always Now. At one point, Mr. Pullman, who is in town rehearsing for Edward Albee’s The Goat , was introduced to actor Matthew Modine, who told his fellow thespian that he had auditioned for the part that Mr. Pullman had won.

“I went in there on The Goat ,” Mr. Modine told him enthusiastically. “They didn’t tell you about my run with them?” Mr. Modine looked suddenly crestfallen when he realized that The Transom was interviewing Mr. Pullman. After making a halfhearted attempt to grab our tape record, he hurried away.

“This is very awkward,” Mr. Pullman whispered. “He auditioned for it. It’s a little awkward, but, uhm, he’s a good actor and I’m sure he could do a good job with that.” He paused and thought about it some more.

“He offered that information. I don’t think I would have offered that information. Just shows you he’s more secure than I am.”

-E.F. Cherry Vs. Larry: Dual Lysistrata s Prick Stage War