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173 16 Curtains With one Broadway hit after another in the 1960s, Arthur Penn was at the top of every producer’s list. “I was offered everything,” he reports. “I can’t say it quite that broadly, but there were a lot of plays.” He was also available as a doctor. “I had certain friends and I could get called up if they had a show out of town, or they had a show in trouble: ‘Would you come up and talk to us?’ I did that for quite a while without remuneration because I was in the theater community. I also had enough money at that point, what with five hits and The Chase.” Over the years there were hits, misses, and false starts. After Two for the Seesaw in 1957, he became intrigued with doing a musical about New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and offered his research to producers Harold Prince and Robert Griffith. When they expressed interest, he proposed that Arnold Schulman write the book. Unfortunately, Schulman got carried away and began writing lyrics too, not knowing that Prince and Griffith had already engaged Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof). Penn and Schulman withdrew, but Fiorello! ran two years and won 1960 Tonys for Best Musical, Best Director (Abbott), Best Actor (Tom Bosley), and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “It was a big hit,” Penn smiles, “and I still have a little percentage of it.” Of those plays that he did direct, some were hits and some were not, but, like surgeons, Broadway tends to quietly bury its mistakes. In the Counting House lasted two previews and four 174 Arthur Penn performances at the Biltmore Theatre after trying out in Boston , where it received an impatient, if supportive, send-off to New York. The story of a middle-aged businessman of principles who forsakes them one by one as love and pragmatism intrude, it starred Howard DaSilva, Sydney Chaplin, Kay Medford, and Nancy R. Pollock. Playwright Leslie Weiner worked with Penn to build sturdier connective tissue for what was never more than a series of vivid individual scenes, and the results opened at the Biltmore on December 13, 1962, before they could gel. Different obstacles awaited Lorenzo, Jack Richardson’s ambitious 1963 drama set in Renaissance Italy. Starring Alfred Drake, Fritz Weaver, David Opatoshu, Herb Edelman, and Camila Ashland , it followed the adventures of a troupe of actors caught in a regional war. When two of them are killed, the others decide that the show must go on, even though war, specific or generic, makes no sense. “That was a good production, but it was during a newspaper strike,” the director laments, “so we came and we went.” Lorenzo, at the Plymouth Theatre, like In the Counting House, also shuttered after four performances. Then came a hit that audiences are still screaming about. “You wait for that click, or as in the case of Wait Until Dark, you just want to play in the theater, you want to play with it! I knew that I wanted to get to a point where the audience came out of their seats and screamed. And there it was!” Although he also wrote other plays, Frederick Major Paull Knott (1916–2002) is best remembered for two joyously manipulative thrillers: Dial “M” for Murder (1952) and Wait Until Dark (1965). With Wait Until Dark, he again hit the mark. His play tells of three miscreants who taunt a blind woman because they think she knows the whereabouts of a doll containing heroin that her husband has unknowingly smuggled into the country and hidden somewhere in their apartment. A classic one-set play told in nearly continuous time, it gleefully etches a rising line of unbearable tension with characters who go after one another as well as their intended victim. In other words, the writer and the director play the audience like a harp. “Freddy Knott was a very pristine, small Englishman but he Curtains 175 wrote these two wild plays,” Penn describes. After he got the script, he “took it to Fred Coe, and financing was a snap. The script was just too actor-friendly to not want to do it.” Lee Remick (who was nominated for a Tony) starred with Mitch Ryan. But the standout was Robert Duvall as Harry Roat Jr., the creepy chameleon who takes perverse delight in taunting his sightless prey. “That was when Duvall was new to us,” enthuses Penn, who had used him...


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