The Other Philadelphia Story

For Albert Innaurato, the humiliation never seems to end. Channel-hopping one winter night, the playwright paused when he saw Wayne Knight, late of Seinfeld, now performing on Broadway in Art, talking to Conan. “I thought, Oh, he’s a funny actor. I haven’t seen him in years, but he was a nice guy back then.” Back, that is to say, in 1981, when Knight played Herschel in Innaurato’s four-year Broadway hit Gemini. His interest, however, quickly turned to dismay. “He said, ‘Oh, I was in this awful play called Gemini, and we used to have to throw food at the audience.’ I thought, Oh God, it’s not enough that it can just die, but I have to be made fun of on Conan O’Brien!” – here Innaurato, 51, tall and round and pink-faced, breaks into a booming, articulated laugh – “by an actor whose career it probably helped!” His voice sinks to a theatrical whisper: “I don’t think he was working that much then.”

Innaurato has not been working much recently – at least not as a playwright. He pays the rent on his Chelsea apartment by writing for newspapers and magazines about opera, music, even starlets. He spends an inordinate amount of time cruising opera Websites, where he is not always welcome, given his affiliation with the Establishment press. “I am hated, I am loathed, I was tossed from AOL for starting flame wars. Without warning, a cabal went and got me thrown off. Opera people are nuts,” he comments, without irony. And he watches nature shows “about insects who devour other insects.” And reads the New Testament, in Greek.

He hasn’t had a play produced in New York in ten years. Even now, as he tells of his humiliations, his eyes take on a steely glint. Gemini helped launch the careers of actors like Danny Aiello and Kathleen Turner, but they appear to have forgotten that fact. Then there was his William Morris agent, who rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, that’s just what I need to circulate, another Albert Innaurato play.” And there was Richard Eder, briefly the Times’s drama critic, who, Innaurato recalls, declared in his review of Ulysses in Traction that the author celebrated “perverted lifestyles” and that his “promise was broken.” It was 1977; he was 30 years old. “You know? That’s very hard to deal with. It’s very embittering.” In truth, Eder’s review makes no mention of perversity, calls The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie “extraordinary,” and concludes, “It is premature to say that Mr. Innaurato’s promise is broken in Ulysses. But it certainly is dispersed; no doubt, temporarily.” Hardly a career-ending pan.

Yet Innaurato-as-playwright has always seemed to be anticipating his own (Catholic, operatic) martyrdom. Just look at the titles of his plays: Passione (Italian family reunites, compares attempted suicides, with fat daughters-in-law and lots of food), Benno Blimpie (500-pound youth eats himself to death), the low-cal Ulysses in Traction (drama students are trapped in the theater during a race riot). Gemini, his sole hit, was his most baldly commercial effort – zero mutilation, self or otherwise. Anyone who watched New York late-night TV can remember the Gemini ad’s two indelible lines: “Take human bites!” and “No thank you, Fran, I’ll just pick.” Plus a 16-year-old fat kid riding around and around on a trike (that’s Herschel). It was as ubiquitous (and loud) as Crazy Eddie.

“You really think outrageous comedy and large-breasted women,” says Second Stage Theatre artistic director Carole Rothman, who decided to bring Gemini back despite its burlesque reputation. Opening June 16, it’s staged by Off Broadway’s superstar director Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive, This Is Our Youth). “It’s really a wonderfully written play, very funny, very uplifting,” Rothman says. “It had a dark side to it, a human, real side that got a little bit overlooked.” A year and a half ago, Second Stage did a reading of Gemini to see if it still worked; at the end of the afternoon, everyone cried.

Innaurato was 25 when he wrote Gemini, just out of Yale Drama School and working as a messenger. “I had the freedom of youth when I wrote it,” he says. It concerns an Italian-American boy, Francis Geminiani, home from Harvard to spend the summer in South Philly, about to turn 21 and sexually confused. His Waspy sometime girlfriend, Judith, shows up with her brother Randy, whom Francis thinks he rather prefers. Then there are Francis’s reformed gambler of a father, Fran, and his uptight girlfriend, Lucille; their oversexed next-door neighbor, Bunny; her fat transportation-obsessed son, Herschel. Cultures clash, food flies, hearts break.

If Gemini as written attempted something subtle in bridging high comedy and low, Broadway in the era of Annie and I Love My Wife wasn’t having any of that. “In 1977 and 1978, the only way to play it was to play it as a cartoon,” Innaurato recalls. “A lot of it was about the bad language, the outrageousness of it. There are people like this all around you, but society didn’t allow entertainment to acknowledge that. It’s much more realistic now.”

Brokaw didn’t see the original production (or the TV ads, for that matter) but has been directing scenes from the sections-with-heart in acting classes for the past twelve years. “I always loved the people in it,” he says. “It’s about a real collection of misfits who find acceptance in the most unexpected place.” In a post-ethnic world, do Italians and Wasps still count as misfits? “They still are strangers in a strange land in the world of the play,” says Brokaw. “That still holds true.”

Two years ago, Innaurato’s play about an obsessed actress, Dreading Thekla, was produced at the Williamstown Theater Festival. He couldn’t get a New York company interested, not even in a workshop, and he gave up, yet again, on the theater. With Gemini, however, Brokaw invited Innaurato to the rehearsals, and Innaurato sent Brokaw to his Philadelphia neighborhood to get a feel for the setting. That give-and-take (here’s when you should mist up) inspired Innaurato to write again. “Playwriting’s about being there, about being in touch,” he says. “If you get isolated – novelists have to be isolated or they won’t get their pages done every day unless you’re in your cabin in Montana without water, that’s when you do it – but when you’re a playwright it’s all about the chemistry and the people and the excitement.

“There are two actors in Gemini that triggered something in me,” he continues, “and I had this idea and I thought, No, I don’t want to have my heart broken again. I can’t do it again. Then I started just writing.” The new play is called Life After Sex. He won’t say much more about it than that “it’s an Albert play.

“It’s very crazy, out there, sexually deranged,” he adds.
You know.”

The Other Philadelphia Story