Playwright Albert Innaurato, best known for the plays Gemini and The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, died on Sept. 24. He was 70.
I met Albert Innaurato at the Yale School of Drama in September 1971. We were in the playwriting program, and our main teachers were Richard Gilman and Howard Stein. And when Albert and I brought plays in to class, it was clear we were both writing from our Catholic backgrounds. We both had nuns in our plays: mine were repressive Irish nuns, Albert’s were Italian nuns from Philadelphia, and they would hit students or sometimes sit on them. I felt lucky to have the Irish ones.
In playwriting class Albert was sure of himself when he gave an opinion. I brought a play into class and Albert said I was being too “light,” and that I should bring more pain into a particular character. Our (wonderful) teacher Howard asked me what I thought of this criticism, and I said with assurance, “Oh, I’ve heard Albert’s song and dance before.” To my surprise Albert laughed and laughed at what I said. And then I laughed. And after class we went out for coffee and laughed some more. And suddenly we were good friends.
I lived in the Hall of Graduate Studies. Albert rented a dark apartment nearby but came to the Hall for his meals. We pretty much had every lunch and dinner together, sometimes with someone named Sigourney Weaver.
The Yale Cabaret put on a new show each week Thursday through Saturday. Albert directed his play Urlicht, about a nun whose job was to kill rats with a baseball bat in the subway. One of the student directors put on my musical, Better Dead Than Sorry; Sigourney sang the title song while getting shock treatments. I played her worried brother.
That summer Albert and I and four other playwrights were invited to Edward Albee’s retreat in Montauk, generously offered for young writers and painters. I didn’t have an idea for a play; Albert suggested I draw on my family, since I often made jokes about the arguing and the alcohol. It was a good suggestion of Albert. The play eventually became The Marriage of Bette and Boo.
In our second year, we were very busy with two cabaret shows we wrote and performed. The first one was called I Don’t Usually Like Poetry But Have You Read “Trees.” With our friend Barbara Hauptman, we pretended we were reciting poetry, but it turned into various parodies. The best one was our version of The Glass Menagerie, in which Albert portrayed a gleefully mean Amanda and I was the poor, limping Laura, horrified by her crazy mother. We didn’t dress as women, however—we dressed as priests.
Later in the year we did Gyp: The Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor. Albert played Mitzi’s mother, who was like Rose in Gypsy, and I was poor, sensitive Mitzi. Again we dressed as priests.
Albert offered to direct Hedda Gabler at the undergrad drama club at Silliman College. But then he saw my crackpot student film of The Brothers Karamazov; I had made it in college with the characters quickly turning into parodies of movies. Albert said we should write a play together about Karamazov—a musical. Albert went back to the dean at Silliman and said he wanted to do this Karamazov thing rather than Hedda Gabler.
I remember writing it together: We both would have ideas, and I would take the notes. I found a composer, Jack Feldman. Albert directed. I played the young monk Alyosha. The other roles were played by undergrads.
Constance Garnett was the main translator of Russian novels including Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. And Albert had the idea of writing Constance as the show’s narrator; she would be in her 80s and messing everything up. Albert wanted to play that role, in his regular clothes but in a nice woman’s flowery hat.
To get an audience, we made up flyers saying, “See The Brothers Karamazov, starring Dame Edith Evans this weekend.” Most people took it as a joke, but one professor told his students they must go see the brilliant Dame Edith.
We had good audiences. And every night Albert stood up and announced that Dame Edith, alas, had fallen and broken her hip, and that he would play the role of Constance tonight.
The audience seemed to laugh a lot, although I sensed that the dean of Silliman probably wished we had done Hedda Gabler rather than this loony and sometimes naughty Dostoyevsky musical.
However, Howard Stein saw it, loved it, and brought it to Tom Haas, who was the head of the acting program, and Haas decided to do it as one of the main productions—a big deal at the Drama School. He had some suggestions, which were good, actually. And Albert and I did some significant rewriting. Later, though, at a rehearsal we suddenly saw that Haas had taken out most of the “laugh lines” to make the play more…dark? strange? As young playwrights we had to go to him and say, “You can’t just take out all this material without our permission, and you don’t have our permission.” He growled at us, but to our relief he did put the lines back in.
All the second year actors were wonderful, and Meryl Streep played Albert’s role of Constance. She was hilarious and complex.
Robert Brustein saw the production and decided to produce the play at the Yale Repertory Theater the following fall. Which for a playwriting student was like winning the lottery.
And then we graduated.
Albert had success at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Conference, especially with his funny and tragic play The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie. And so he went to New York. To my surprise I stayed in New Haven, because I got cast as Alyosha as well as in a nice small part in a serious version of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed directed by Andrej Wajda.
At Yale Rep our play was now called The Idiots Karamazov. It had a new director, and only some of the same actors, and it wasn’t quite as good as the Drama School production. However it pulled itself together, and audiences seemed to like it. The local reviews however were pretty bad, but early on, Mel Gussow of The New York Times came up to review it and he loved it. For both Albert and me, a good review in the Times opened doors.
I moved to New York a year after Albert. We went from daily friends to “still friends but not quite the same.” I wanted to write solo again; and I think he did too. And Albert would go into negativity rather quickly, or he’d be angry with the world or sometimes with me. His anger was kind of big, but would disappear in a few hours.
We kept liking each other’s plays. He won Obies for Benno Blimpie and Gemini. Then Gemini went to Broadway and ran for more than five years! He kept writing plays; I especially liked Passione and the playful Gus and Al. (Gus was Gustav Mahler, and Al was, well, Albert.)
When he went back to Philadelphia to live, I didn’t see much of him, but we started to talk on the phone more, checking in what was new with each other. When I ripped the tendons above my knee, Albert was very kind and understanding. He had had a number of health issues over his life. I invited him to see my Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center. He seemed to really like it, and also to enjoy how delightful Sigourney was as Masha. It meant a lot to me that he was willing to come see it.
I wish he had written more plays for all of us. I wish I believed in an afterlife—I almost do. Then I could see my mother and father and friends who’ve gone away, including Albert.
Albert Innaurato was a larger-than-life personality and a larger-than-life physical specimen, and his plays reflected so much of his life and thought and his wildly euphoric, wildly depressive moods.
He was highly intelligent, extremely articulate, theatrically savvy, musically astute; he was capable of writing the crudest sorts of jokes and physical pratfalls, and the most tender, most lyrical speeches. His warm Italian heart permeated everything he wrote. He could be a wonderful friend: enthusiastic, loyal, supportive, appreciative. And he could turn and become vicious, angry, hurt, bitter. He was a complicated guy, but when he was happy and filled with fun and mischief, there was no better person to be with.
His plays were often thought to be grotesque and bizarre; indeed a collection of six of his plays was entitled “Bizarre Behavior.” But the characters in those plays were neither bizarre nor grotesque. They were real human beings, not cartoons, and they were Albert’s soulmates. To quote from the back of his collection: “a lonely 400-pound boy eats his way toward death; a young man from a South Philadelphia ghetto finds love and trust in a drag queen, a hillbilly bride, and an aging transvestite; a young priest is sentenced to serve in a convent for mad nuns presided over by a bisexual hunchback Mother Superior and an obese head nurse named God.” Bizarre to some, perhaps, but not to Albert, and not to audiences if the productions were good and the actors played for real.
His small masterpiece is The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie. His most successful, wildly successful play is Gemini. His most personal play is Gus and Al and his tenderest play is Passione.
We had the pleasure of producing all of these plays when I was working at Playwrights Horizons in the 1970s and early ’80s; they were glorious and they were difficult and many a director was dismissed by the impatient perfectionist author. Albert was one of a number of writers who were part of an informal Playwrights Horizons collective, and some, like Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, had been Albert’s classmates at Yale Drama School.
We have so many great American playwrights today; we are truly living in a golden age of American playwrighting, with new plays being produced all over the country. But there is nobody around that I know of who can match Innaurato for outrageous, bravura, raw, over-the-top, vital, energetic work. And so hilarious!
Albert was a true original who wrote from the inside out but was fond of his favorite words, the necessity of always making an “imaginative leap.”
He was obsessed by what he called his eventual failure far more than by his actual success. Thoughts of ending up alone and poor filled his conversation and filled the many volumes of his diaries that I hope somebody will find and publish one day.
He was a lot like the opera divas (most notably sopranos) that he either worshipped or reviled: He had craft, he had technique, he had knowledge, he had love in his heart to spare, but he was undisciplined and often angry, and people were scared of him. And yet they loved him and admired him. I don’t think he really ever saw that.
Like Tosca, one of his favorite operatic heroines, he lived for art and he inspired those around him to do the same.
André Bishop, producing artistic director, Lincoln Center Theater