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Dispatch from New York: 'The Subject Was Roses' and its original L.A. angels

March 7, 2010 | 12:26 pm

Getprev-10Los Angeles theatergoers watching the Mark Taper Forum’s current revival of “The Subject Was Roses” might be surprised to know how important L.A. figured in the creation of the play. The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is set entirely in New York (and is filled with Gotham references and dialects), but without Los Angeles, it’s possible that Frank D. Gilroy’s American classic would have never reached the stage.

“Roses” is the subject of much conversation this year, as 2010 marks 45 years since it won theater’s triple crown (the Tony Award for best play, the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award). At a screening of the film version of “Roses” (which was released on DVD in January) at New York’s Walter Reade Theatre on Saturday, Gilroy spoke about the play’s recent spike in popularity -- and how L.A. came to its rescue early on.

His angels? “The Hi-B-Lo-B Game,” he said, “we would meet every Wednesday and play until midnight.”  Gilroy’s L.A. poker buddies put up the initial money toward “Roses' " Broadway backing.

“For years it was optioned and re-optioned,” he recalled. “I was getting frustrated, so I figured out how much it would cost to stage it on Broadway. You won’t believe it: $50,000. That didn’t sound impossible to raise.”

Gilroy was working as a screenwriter for the studios at the time, and when he was out in L.A., he played poker with a group of Hollywood actors, writers and directors. “I called them and said, ‘This is not a social call.’ Within five minutes I had nine grand.”

Gilroy got the rest of the money and got “Roses” to Broadway, with Jack Albertson in the lead role of the father. (In another L.A .connection, the playwright said he spotted Albertson in a performance of a play called “Burlesque” at UCLA.) Albertson went on to win the Tony and the Oscar for best supporting actor. Also in both the Broadway show and the film was the young Martin Sheen.

During a Q&A after the screening (moderated by former LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas), Gilroy credited Ulu Grosbard (who directed the original Broadway show and the film) with finding Sheen, and praised the actor’s performance in the Taper revival. One audience member asked, “When will he and the production come to New York?” Gilroy said he thought it was unlikely: “Martin hasn’t been onstage much since then. He told me he had forgotten what it was like to do eight shows a week.”

New Yorkers jealous of the Taper production will be comforted somewhat to know that another revival of “Roses” is in the works. The Pearl Theatre Company in New York is also staging “Roses” this season.  Their revival opens at Manhattan’s City Center in April -- and in fact their production was scheduled long before the Taper version. The Pearl’s artistic director, J.R. Sullivan, reached by phone, says they made their plans to do “Roses” almost a year ago: “It’s a play I’ve always been fond of. … As a young actor I was in it. I played Timmy, the young soldier.”

Sullivan says he was aware of the 45th anniversary, but insists it didn’t factor in the programming. “Look, it’s a mid-1960’s drama that really made an impact, back when that impact really resonated. To me that’s what accounts for its ‘great’ status.”

He says another reason he thinks productions of “Roses” are blooming right now is the economy: “It’s a great play, but it also has a smaller cast with a single setting. You can’t overestimate the practicality of it.”

Despite its humble beginnings, Gilroy is clearly tickled with “Roses' " resurgence. Speaking with him after the screening, Gilroy said of the Taper production, “No playwright could be better served … with Martin coming back to play the father. It’s like I’ve been given a double miracle.”  If anything, the autobiographical play’s recent success means more to the author personally rather than professionally: “My five grandchildren were at the opening night in Los Angeles, and I have to say, after seeing it, they looked at me a little differently."

-- James C. Taylor


Theater review: 'The Subject Was Roses' at Mark Taper Forum

Martin Sheen comes full circle with 'The Subject Was Roses

Above: Irene Dailey, Martin Sheen, on floor, and Jack Albertson in the original Broadway production of "The Subject Was Roses." Credit: Bert Andrews