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Thomas Babe: An actor's playwright worth remembering

February 16, 2010 | 10:45 am

Crown City Theatre Company's gritty production of Thomas Babe’s 1978 drama, “A Prayer for My Daughter," directed by Albert Alarr, struck me as the kind of shoestring gem that L.A.’s extensive 99-seat theater scene does better than anywhere else. Kevin Brief, Matthew J. Williamson, Matthew Thompson and Gary Lamb – operating in a makeshift police station reminiscent of the old sitcom "Barney Miller" – bring a feverish intensity to this drama exposing the shoddy, brokenhearted morality of a society that’s having a harder time than ever separating its cops from its criminals.

My only disappointment had to do with the playbill, which lacked a bio for Babe, an American dramatist who died of lung cancer in 2000. This oversight pained me a little more than it might otherwise, as I got to know Babe a bit through a graduate playwriting course he gave at NYU in the late '80s.

Babe makes a cameo appearance in the invaluable, long-in-the-making oral history that recently came out by Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp, “Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told,” but has largely been forgotten. Attending this vigorously acted revival of “A Prayer for My Daughter” will tell you everything you need to know about why Babe’s memory is worth preserving.

Prayer photo But I’d like to make a personal confession: Without Babe, I might never have become a critic. (But please don’t blame him for any collateral damage.)

I enrolled in Babe’s class and wrote two drawing-room urban comedies — a cross between A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally, except they weren’t any good. What received a bigger reaction were my comments to other students: I enjoyed breaking up the tense, competitive atmosphere with humorous and, I hope, not completely off-the-wall remarks.

A consensus developed in Babe's playwriting seminar that my colorful feedback was slightly more entertaining than my rather conventional stabs at Coward-esque New York wit. I believe I was dubbed the John Simon of the class -- which, oddly enough for an inveterate Village Voice reader, I took as a compliment.
Babe himself seemed to enjoy my unmitigated advice to other students – a generous impulse coming from a man who never really received his critical due. 

One lingering recollection: I remember steeling myself to get the courage to tell him, after bumping into him at a Greenwich Village deli before class (he was buying cigarettes), that I had ventured uptown to Applause Bookstore to find a copy of his play "A Prayer for My Daughter." I was nervous to speak to him outside of class (he had been produced at the Public Theater!). Babe, clad in a jeans jacket, saw the embarrassed strain on my face and dropped his normally jaded reserve. After hearing about my subway adventure to the Upper West Side for a cheap Samuel French edition of one of his works, he said in a voice of unusual masculine tenderness, "I can't tell you how moving it is to me that you would make such an effort for one of my plays."

A decade or so later, after returning from Yale to study theater criticism and dramaturgy, I got to work with his partner, Neal Bell, another American playwright of intelligence and sensitivity, who served with me as member of the Obie Award panel. Babe’s distinction, met early in my career, has stayed with me. Go see “A Prayer for My Daughter” – and let it pique your curiosity about one of our country’s lesser-known but  worthy talents, a playwright whose legacy lives in the gratitude of actors.

--Charles McNulty

follow me on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photos: From top: Thomas Babe, left, and Timian Alsaker at the State of Art symposium, Feb. 25, 1989. Credit: Steve Dykes/Los Angeles Times; Matthew Thompson, left, and Kevin Brief in Crown City Theatre Company's production of "A Prayer for My Daughter." Credit: Neil Reinhold