FOUR-TIME Tony award winner Terrence McNally (born 1938) is the subject of this well-made documentary about a major American playwright many of whose plays address gay themes. McNally grew up in Corpus Christi as the son of an abusive father who worked as a beer distributor and sampled the product heavily. However, his parents liked Broadway shows and took occasional trips to New York, where Terrence saw his first musicals at age eight. Every Act of Life is a documentary with something for anyone who loves American theater.
McNally knew from childhood that he was gay, started college at Columbia before turning seventeen, and began his literary career early. He wrote and copy-edited for his high school newspaper. It was a high school English teacher who encouraged him to become a writer, and he never forgot her. McNally’s brother Peter is interviewed in depth in the film and offers thoughtful words about their childhood. The many show biz talking heads, including Audra McDonald, F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, and Billy Porter, all have fascinating stories to tell.
After graduation from Columbia in 1960, McNally became the tutor to John Steinbeck’s teenage sons while the family traveled the world during the last days of ocean liners. In 1965, he had his first Broadway play produced, and his first flop, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which featured an openly gay character. Undaunted, he proceeded to write a string of progressively more successful plays and musicals in an amazingly prolific career that’s well into its sixth decade. His three dozen plays include The Ritz (1975), which earned Rita Moreno her first Tony Award, The Lisbon Traviata (1989), Love! Valor! Compassion! (1994), Master Class (1995), and Mothers and Sons (2014). The dozen musicals for which McNally wrote the libretto include Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) and Ragtime (1996). His corpus of work also includes several opera librettos and movie screenplays.
In the documentary, McNally speaks plainly about his relationships with his lovers, beginning with Edward Albee, who was writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when they met, and moving on to a serious romantic affair with the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein. He is married to theater producer Tom Kirdahy. Having survived grueling treatment for lung cancer, McNally is currently working on three plays. How lucky for him, and for us, that he disregarded Steinbeck’s heartfelt suggestion: “Don’t become a playwright. It’ll break your heart.”
Every Act of Lifewill be shown on PBS in June, as part of the “American Masters” series, and will be available as a DVD.