Playwright Vic Gialanella still remembers the show business executive who took him aside after the final Broadway preview of "Frankenstein" and said knowingly, "You're going to be a rich man! A very rich man."
It certainly looked that way on Jan. 3, 1981. After two years of nonstop hassle, Gialanella's adaptation of the Mary Shelley horror tale was finally opening at the Palace Theatre in New York. It had more special effects per square inch than "2001"--a blinding snowstorm, billows of fog rolling over a sinister graveyard, a horse and carriage, a cottage that went up in flames, and a diabolical laboratory with crackling dynamos. It wasn't great literature, perhaps, but preview audiences seemed to find it a grand piece of spectacle--the kind, people kept assuring the author, that runs for years and years.
Late the following evening, it was evident not only that Gialanella was not going to be a rich man, but that he had the dubious distinction of penning the most expensive straight-play flop in Broadway history: $2,175,000, by the time the show closed, which was less than 24 hours after it opened.
Here is what he reaped for what amounted to two years of nerves and sweat:
a brutal set of reviews from the New York critics.
royalties and options amounting to less than $10,000.
a paralyzing blow to his self-confidence.
a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Now Gialanella is preparing for the opening of his second play, "Ivory Pawns," which will be performed tomorrow and Saturday evening as part of Source Theatre's Washington Theatre Festival. It is about "three old men and a girl in a park, and deals with perceptions of old age and approaching death."
The budget this time: $35.
" 'Frankenstein' was the biggest event of my life, the biggest challenge and the biggest disappointment to get through," says Gialanella, who wouldn't even talk about the experience for months afterward. "I couldn't get a script read in New York. My agent told me to get out of town and let things cool off because nobody would touch my stuff for a while. I sat around in Washington for three or four months, believing her. I was terribly lethargic, terribly depressed. You know, wallowing, self-pity, hair shirts, gnashing of teeth, all of that, as if I could turn back the clock and everything was going to be okay. Then I came down with mononucleosis. Just caving in, I guess. Finally, my wife said, 'Enough moaning. We've got to get on with it.' "
Gialanella is very much on the psychological upswing these days, although he figures it took him nearly two years to regain his footing. A Catholic University dropout, he is a stocky man who, at 33, looks startling like Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws" and in another 10 years will probably pass for Peter Ustinov. The single most distinct impression he imparts, curiously, is one of quiet resolve. Occasionally, he permits himself the luxury of irony, but he is largely rancor-free.
While the wounds left by "Frankenstein" were healing over, he understudied Stanley Anderson in a couple of plays at Arena Stage; appeared, as a father estranged from his son, in "Blood Relations" at New Playwrights' Theatre; and functioned as a part-time arts consultant for the Rouse Co. But he's a playwright first and foremost--chastened by Broadway, perhaps, but in no way daunted.
"I really think I've learned a lot," he says, between quick puffs on a Merit Light. "The most important thing I learned was that I could go the distance on a first play--get through the 2,700 rewrites and the pressures of the money people, the demands of the actors. It's a little like surviving the Titanic. And I have found that the personal evaluation of what you are doing is much more important than the public evaluation of it. It really is a question of not reading your reviews."
The "Frankenstein" reviews were mostly the sort you wouldn't wish on an enemy. The all-important New York Times notice actually brought the opening night black-tie party at the Milford Plaza Hotel to a dead halt. "It really was like a magic sign," Gialanella recalls. "The tables were instantly cleared, the waiters whisked away the food and it was all over." He ended up the night polishing off a bottle of brandy in his hotel room with the "Frankenstein" stage manager. The next morning, he returned his rented tuxedo and got the news the producers were closing up shop.
"There's no point taking on the New York critics, but it was amazing to us that a show we regarded as a kind of non-musical musical, 18th-century theater of spectacle, was so shockingly misunderstood," he says. "It was meant to provide a good time and it got standing ovations in previews. We all felt good about it. The show that was up on the stage was the show we wanted to be up there.
"But somehow if musicals are allowed to be fun in New York, plays aren't. They have to be important, relevant. I guess what stung the most were the reviews that said I didn't have any dramaturgic skill at all. You remember them. You even tend to believe them for a while, because whatever went wrong, you know damn well your show is closed.
"I've learned there are no guarantees in the theater. Success used to be fame and money for me. A Tony nomination. During previews, I never found myself counting the money, but I sometimes thought about the Porsche I might buy. But that's not it at all. What matters is getting value out of the work itself. I could never have another show produced in the theater, or if I do, I could go the same route all over again. But I'll continue to write because it's important that I do it. It all comes down to the strength of your conviction."
Gialanella has, in fact, turned out four plays and a screenplay since the "Frankenstein" debacle, mostly in an attempt to "find out what I'm comfortable with as a writer." He believes that "Ivory Pawns," rooted in his personal experience, is a deliberate reaction to "Frankenstein"--a small, intimate piece to counter the mind-boggling spectacle of his maiden effort. In New York he was part of a crack team headed by whiz-kid director Tom Moore and Broadway's top scenic designers and special effects people. At the Source, "Ivory Pawns" is being put together by a local director and actors who donate their spare time. A park bench and a garbage can have been rustled up for scenery. The discrepancy doesn't seem to bother Gialanella.
"I'm getting the chance to hear the play and work on it," he says. "To go for that commercial Broadway hit would be a false motivation. What I'm really hoping is that my plays will eventually get done in a regional theater or a festival situation, where I can continue to develop them. I've written an Ira Levin-ish thriller called 'Conjurer,' about a magician, but I know the moment another thriller by me gets done in a high-visibility situation, they're going to jump all over me. So it's wise to write for myself for a while, explore different genres, pay my dues."
After the festival, "Ivory Pawns" will have a three-week run beginning Aug. 4 in the Source's Warehouse Rep. "The time and space were available and we thought it would be worth a gamble," says Source's artistic director Bart Whiteman. Although that means that critics will be dropping in, Gialanella views the prospect of being reviewed with equanimity. He has even developed a certain philosophical attitude toward the multimillion-dollar fiasco that had an irate Moore vowing, the week after it closed, that he would never direct on Broadway again. "We're part of history," the playwright says, phlegmatically. "And it can never happen again to me again. Whatever happens, there will never be that enormity of the first time."
In his apartment he keeps a stuffed dog, the very dog the monster in "Frankenstein" strangled in a moment of offstage mayhem and then carried onstage in his burly arms. "It was the prop I most wanted to have, when they were dismantling the show," Gialanella says. "Somehow it seemed very apropos that the one thing I should take away with me was the dead dog."