The Lost Voice of Harry Kondoleon


Harry Kondoleon was a playwright constitutionally incapable of playing by the rules. A Dionysian talent dancing in the face of his own extinction, he had the misfortune not only to die from AIDS a few years before the advent of life-extending medications, but also to practice his art in an age when Apollo, with his tight-noosed aesthetic logic, remained king. If fate hadn’t been so quick to shortchange Kondoleon, no doubt our theater would have done so eventually. In a world with an inexhaustible appetite for clone drama, it’s always the oddball peg that’s the problem, never the banal round hole.

Kondoleon’s death at age 39 left behind an agonizing legacy of what-ifs. What if he’d had the chance to grow into his voice? What if he’d had the time to become more rigorously himself? Fortunately, there’s plenty of Kondoleon writing to appreciate, much of it inadequately understood when it first emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His sui generis offerings were often treated as though they were mere eccentric trinkets. But then it’s still hard toaccept just how liberated he was from thetheatrical past.

The current Kondoleon Festival at Rattle-stick Productions—which features the premiere of his final play, Saved or Destroyed, as well as a full menu of readings hosted by admiring artists and critics—couldn’t have come at a better time. Though only six years have passed since Kondoleon’s death, the intoxicating vapors of his imagination have faded from the memory of all but a faithful few, friends and colleagues emboldened by the sight of art trumping the epidemic’s abyss.

“Harry’s plays are the plays of a Baudelaire fop,” observes playwright John Guare, one of Kondoleon’s teachers at the Yale School of Drama. “They may be brutal, but they’re written with such high-style elegance.” It was in Guare’s workshop where Kondoleon wrote Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, a one-act involving bickering literary couples and a vegetable-obsessed man in search of “God’s great recipe.” “I was teaching this class with Arthur Kopit and Derek Walcott,” Guare recalls, “and the three of us couldn’t stop screaming at each other. We disagreed about everything. But it conveyed the fact that there isn’t only one way to write a play. Harry obviously absorbed the lesson. He was a genuinely original writer, who offered his audience only the most unsure footing in relationship to his work.”

Best known for Zero Positive, which premiered at the Public Theater in 1988, Kondoleon had a hypertheatrical sensibility that was ballasted by a premonition of loss. And not just that of his own life from AIDS. Like Proust, he knew that though our mortal life dies but once, we die countless times within ourselves—and never more painfully than at the end of romantic love. In the meantime, there’s so much Present to get through—a strange nonrealistic drama, starring you, in a role you can never quite fully grasp.

One might as well try to have some flamboyant fun with it, which is what Kondoleon’s gravely ill and terminally heartsick characters invariably attempt to do. Often beginning in the most domestic of settings, the plays erupt into unabashed spectacles of theatrical mischief. Zero Positive culminates in a performance of an amateur drama that’s waggishly described as a mix of Plato and Feydeau. In Saved or Destroyed, the action takes place in a rehearsal hall, where the lives of the actors merge unpredictably with the parts they’re playing. Directed with gentle lunacy by Craig Lucas, the play pushes the subject of theatricality into Pirandello-like terrain—reality and theater blurring like the sea and sky of a distant horizon.

With his inimitable creepy grace, David Greenspan portrays the playwright arranging the scenes, like a demigod or all-knowing window dresser. His plot involves the heterosexual relationship between a pair of cousins, examined in snapshots over a 35-year period. The rehearsal atmosphere of this genre-less (and rather elusive) drama is playful, yet streaked with unself-pitying sorrow. Scotty Bloch, who portrays a veteran actress recently diagnosed with cancer, captures the subtle hues of pathos that endow the daft comedy with meaning even when it all seems to be wafting into outer space.

So why has it taken so long for Saved or Destroyed to be produced? “The play needed extremely deft actors to bring it to life,” Lucas says. “It doesn’t rely on plot mechanics or theatrical tricks such as descending helicopters or full frontal nudity. It lives at the threshold between actors and their roles, and so it’s taken time to find a venue and six extraordinary performers to give the play its due.”

Lucas, who admits to having always been “slightly in awe” of Kondoleon, admires the way Saved or Destroyed refuses to pander to convention. “When the raft of recent Pulitzer winners resembles nothing more than night-time TV drama,” he says, “it’s tonic to find a play that hurls the force of our irrational, tragic existence with all its pointed beauty and absurdity and cruelty and elegance—the squalid and the sublime side by side, just like life.

“My biggest concern obviously is—have we let Harry down?” he says. “Since he’s not returning my calls, I think I’m just going to have to live with that one.”