Volume 76, Number 18 | September 20 - 26, 2006

A truth stranger than Thornton Wilder’s

By JERRY TALLMER

Theophilus North, age 30, stranded in Newport, Rhode Island, in the spring of 1926 when the used car he’d bought for $25 gives up the ghost; survives for some months in that elegant resort by teaching tennis (badly) and French (well enough) to the young and the less young inmates of those moneyed mansions that line the shore. He also — without in the least trying to — has a certain impact that changes the lives of this one and that one who come within his range.

Eloise Fenwick, a tennis pupil, is another matter. The impact is the other way round.
 
THEOPHILUS: She is fourteen. Which means, of course, she can be any age between ten and sixty, as the spirit moves her. Some days on the court I have to drag her to the back line. Other days she precedes me … She is intelligent, deep and able to keep her counsel, beautiful and shows no signs of knowing it. It’s like having a friendship with one of Shakespeare’s heroines at the age of fourteen …
 
ELOISE: I wish my brother Charles [age 16 and difficult] would take lessons with you … Mama wants you to help Charles with his French. She’s going to ask you today after the lesson. She’s over there in the gallery. The one wearing all the veils … She’s motoring today. Come on, I’ll introduce you. I just hope you’re better at French than you are at tennis. Mama, this is Mr. North. The gentleman I was telling you about …
 
Matthew Burnett, now age 40, then age 23, was stranded in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1989, when the 1976 Honda Civic hatchback that his father had sold him for $1 broke down in front of New Haven’s Taft Hotel (since become the Taft Apartments). A Californian by birth, young Burnett had intended to stay in New Haven only a day or two to gather his bearings before he tackled the big, buzzing wonderland he knew nothing about — New York City.

“Well, I stayed in New Haven two years,” says the Burnett who has adapted Thornton Wilder’s last (1973) novel “Theophilus North” into the purely delightful and strangely moving play of the same title that became, on September 14, the opener of director Carl Forsman’s previously Off-Off-Broadway Keen Company’s first season as a full-ledged Off-Broadway unit in its new home, the Harold Clurman on Theater Row.
“In New Haven I was held up at gunpoint in front of the Big Boy Laundry. So I decided to move where it was safer:  Brooklyn.”

It was when Burnett, still in his 20s, went home on a visit to Los Angeles that a teacher who’d directed him in “Our Town” at Calabasas High School — “the name means ‘pumpkin’ in Spanish, but our mascot was a coyote” — upon hearing Matthew’s New Haven story, said: “There’s this book you should read when you get back to Brooklyn.” And told him, but did not write down, its title.

At the Brooklyn Public Library, Matthew searched and searched and searched, but could not for the life of him find any card or computer entry for a Thornton Wilder book called ‘The Awfullest North.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen — that kind of mishearing, misconnection — is how wars are started. “I kept looking through all the ‘A’s’ [for Awfullest], and then somehow I finally did find it, ‘Theophilus North,’ by Thornton Wilder, and began to read about this young man who was dissatisfied, like me, and whose jalopy breaks down, like mine, so he has to stay in a place he doesn’t want to be.

“Then something in the book made my hair stand up. He talks about a place in New Haven [not Newport] where the winds blow and there are pigeons, in front of the Taft Hotel at the corner of College and Chapel Streets, the exact spot where my car broke down.

“So I kept reading this story about this overwhelmingly intelligent, erudite, effective young man. I was charmed, yes, but I also felt there was something real and dark there, beneath the surface. And within a very few pages I said to myself: This is so astounding, with so much of it in dialogue form, why didn’t he write it as a play in the first place?”

And why didn’t he, do you think?

“For one thing, when he wrote it he was well into his 70s. And he knew that theater requires collaboration with a lot of other people, and that requires physical energy.”

Writer Burnett was actor Burnett first. “The acting has gone onto the back burner on a very low simmer.” For all that, just a little way into his adaptation of “Theophilus North” he had broken out laughing at the thought: This is a perfect part for me.  But the thought never went any farther.

Thornton Wilder — born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897 — had died in 1975. So now it was a question of getting the rights to adapt.

Burnett’s agent told him that the Wilder estate never gives the rights to any of Wilder’s literary properties to any would-be adaptor, but that he, the agent, would send Burnett’s proposition anyway to Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew and executor of his estate.

“So we sent it to him, and while waiting with bated breath for my rejection, I was sitting at home one night when the telephone rang. ‘Matthew, this is Tappan Wilder. Can you meet me at the Yale Club tomorrow? You must wear a tie or they won’t let you in.’

“At the Yale Club [on Vanderbilt Avenue] he asked me why I wanted to do this, and why I felt I could do it. I gave the answer as best I could, and as we said goodbye, at the bottom of the steps, he held out his hand and said: ‘Yes.’ And has been great on everything ever since.”

The play, once written, was workshopped at the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, New York — thanks to a neighbor of Burnett’s whose sister had worked there — and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

The Keen Company, under Carl Forsman’s leadership, has given us many superb productions from the American canon, and Forsman has known about this play for quite some years. He has populated it with Giorgio Litt as Theophilus, Virginia Kull as Eloise, and Margaret Daly, Joe Delafield, Brian Hutchison, Geddeth Smith, and Regan Thompson as all the others.

You write a story like this, you interview somebody like Matthew Burnett, and you learn something. I learned that Thornton Wilder, one of my gods, whose “Our Town” always was and still is the greatest American play, had a twin brother who died at birth and whose name was Theophilus.

“And ‘North’ is an anagram of Thorn — as in Thornton. I see this play,” says the adaptor/playwright — who nowadays lives alone in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen — “as sort of a fantasy of how Thornton Wilder’s twin brother, who was everything Thornton wasn’t” — presumably including sexually — “could handle things. So I think there’s a very strong undercurrent of emptiness, and longing, and seeking.”

Matthew Burnett, the son of an English-teacher mother and a piano-player father “who segued into the computer industry,” is a great admirer of another now all-but-forgotten Wilder novel, “Heaven’s My Destination” (1935), about another young man who drifts in and out of people’s lives, affecting them.

“Having been in that position myself,” says Burnett, “I’ve come to the realization of what he wanted.”

And what do you want, Matthew?

“To be surrounded by people who connect to you, and be involved in their lives.”

The theater can do that, be that. Once every show or so — if you’re lucky.

 THEOPHILUS NORTH. By Matthew Burnett, adapted from the 1973 novel by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Carl Forsman. A Keen Company production at the Harold Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200.

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