Tucked away in an attic storage room under the rafters, Anne Meara retreats to a folding chair next to the window. Seated among abandoned props and weary furniture, the setting sun catches her auburn hair.
"I really wrote this play for my husband, Jerry Stiller," she begins. But a role in a Broadway play, and his continuing character on NBC's "Seinfeld," prevented him from doing it.
The play, currently running Off Broadway at Theatre Four, is "After-Play," a biting comedy about two veteran show-business couples separated for years who spend an evening together.
"These two couples went to the theater, and made reservations at a restaurant," Ms. Meara says, explaining the plot, "but I was thinking about playwrights like Thornton Wilder and J.B. Priestley, where they leave at the end, going out to the next plateau of life."
The four characters discuss the play they have just seen, and the resulting differences of opinion unearth deep, unsettling, and unresolved feelings that shatter the veneer of friendship.
"I told my friend [playwright] John Guare, when you get older, you look back, and the operative word is amazement," she says.
Relating parent to child
Noting that older people are rarely depicted as complex characters in scripts, she particularly chose to explore strained parent-child relationships that extend into the children's adult years.
"The older generation just sees the young, not realizing their [own] responsibility in having formed them. That personally upsets me that people don't see how they've contributed to things. People become parents, but that doesn't mean that they're not little children themselves.
"When my children were little, about 6, I was emotionally about 3. Really. I know one person, quite elderly, and the son, now in his 50s, and there's this great resentment between them. 'Why can't he understand my side?' Both of them act like old children.
"One character in the play refutes the suggestion that everyone has issues with their parents, claiming that her mother was a saint. And sometimes people laugh at that, because they know no one's mother was a saint."
Her candid style in person finds its way into the writing of this, her first play, a recipient of the John Gassner Playwriting Award as best new playwright of 1995. After arranging a series of readings using acting friends, she was offered the opportunity to present it at the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), one of New York's premier Off Broadway nonprofit institutions.
A limited engagement there during MTC's regular season led to speculation that the play could be transferred to another theater for a commercial run. Finding producers willing to invest in the transfer was the next hurdle. Fortunately, a quartet of established women producers came forward to offer financial support and business expertise.
"All the more well-known writers, those with heavy track records like Neil Simon and David Mamet and Elaine May and Woody Allen are all going Off Broadway, and next to those guys, we're small potatoes," Meara says. "In the wide spectrum of Broadway and large Off Broadway, this is really a small-budgeted play, capitalized at I think $400,000."
She laughs now at the early rehearsals where she found herself in the role of playwright instead of actress.
"I had to stop hearing the voices in my head from when I was writing it, and instead hear the actors that were playing the parts. My director, David Saint, would turn to me and say, 'You're a good actress. Why are you carrying on like that for? Actors have to grow, we have to trust them.' Of course, I know that. But I was impatient."
Meara's acting career reaches back to the late 1950s when she and her husband created comedy routines as Stiller and Meara, leaping to national attention as regular guests on the "Ed Sullivan Show." Her career expanded, with roles on other TV shows such as "Archie Bunker's Place" and "Rhoda," as well as stage work in Broadway's "Eastern Standard" and "Anna Christie," and in films such as "Awakenings" and "The Boys From Brazil."
Hearing the actors rehearsing "After-Play" led to changes in the script, changes she welcomed. At one point she realized there was no buildup to a particular scene, and that the remedy was to have the audience hear the hateful feelings no one was expressing.
At first, she hesitated to write a particularly caustic speech given by one of the men, "because of that little censor in my head," but then wrote "these ugly, horrible lines, because it was the character talking, not me. That character would have said those things," she says.
Despite the stark territory the play covers, Meara tempers the hard edges with forgiveness. "One woman in the play says, 'we're all screaming at each other,' and the other answers, 'screaming is allowed. It's part of the deal, the deal of life.' And I believe that."
Acting in her own show
When the show opened, the cast included Barbara Barrie, Rue McClanahan, Larry Keith, and Merwin Goldsmith in the principal roles. But prior commitments kept Ms. McClanahan, familiar to TV audiences as Blanche on "The Golden Girls," from continuing.
The producers urged Meara to take over the part, but she was reluctant. "I suggested a whole list of actresses of a certain age. I said, 'won't it look like I've turned into Anne the Pig? First, she writes it and then she acts in it?' " They persisted, and she finally agreed, "because I was happy they were producing it. But I was scared. I didn't want to screw it up."
Can she separate her roles as writer and actress when performing? "Absolutely. I better. I was close to the cast when we did it at MTC. If you've been an actress, though, you know that what you're talking about is focus. And, Barbara [Barrie] and I are old friends. We were in small plays together in New York in 1955. That's exactly 40 years ago. Isn't time a strange dimension?" she adds with a laugh.
"Everyone speaks in a rhythm," she observes, relating her experiences as a comedy writer for the early Stiller and Meara routines to the process of writing a play. "Creating these characters, I could hear the way they talk. And I've known people who have experienced all these things," ranging from illnesses and operations to financial reversals. "Doesn't sound like comedy material, does it?" she says, smiling.
Meara traces her early career as an extension of comedy teams of vaudeville and radio, such as George Burns and Gracie Allen. "Jerry and I were doing boy-girl sketches, and then added in our own backgrounds, being Irish and Jewish."
Today, she believes that type of material would not be appropriate, "because those roles are less defined now, which is a good thing. Why do men have to be brave? Can't they cry? And why do women have to use ploys? Can't they be direct?"
Her eagerness in examining society has prompted her to begin a new play "about choices, all the different choices we make every nano-second of our lives."
Asked what roles she looks forward to playing, she points instead to her writing. "I think I've pushed my ego into another direction, becoming a writer. That's what I want to be."