The Obie Awards recognize dramatic excellence. But we’ll also confess a robust interest in the opposite of excellence—the appalling, the execrable, the plays so transcendently terrible that they somehow work their way back to wonderful again. We asked a collection of Off-Broadway’s best to reveal their experiences of theater’s worst.
Charles Busch, actor/playwright
Years ago, I played Orestes in a homoerotic production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies. All the guys wore extremely short Greek tunics and primitive G-strings underneath. Whenever I’d raise my arms to the Heavens, the tunic would rise and my bare ass would show. The giddy gay audience would hoot and holler. I shouldn’t complain—when the actor playing the king was slain, his G-string slid, and he had to lie dead for the rest of the scene with both testicles hanging out.
Kip Fagan, director
The year after I dropped out of college, my acting teacher asked me to come back to “star” in a play she was directing in Cleveland. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went and played the role of a 14-year-old Baptist boy who gets the stigmata and can heal people. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called my performance “beyond satire.”
Mac Wellman, playwright
I wrote a play called Energumen, produced by Soho Rep in their one season at Bellevue. (Yes, the hospital.) To make a cross backstage, one had to take the main corridor of the psychiatric ward. Once, our actors (costumed as Santas and a Master of Many Perfections) took the elevator from their dressing room and found themselves accompanied by two policemen and a prisoner in chains. Never could figure out that damn play.
Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, playwrights/directors
Seven years ago, in Slovakia, we saw our niece’s school theater pageant. It was about three hours long and featured at least four separate dances about traffic safety. There was also a long play about cell phones. Then, for the finale, there was this desperate collective yearning for spectacle, which manifested in various plastic guns that blew bubbles—except for when they clogged. We have honestly
never had a more moving experience in the theater.
Jackie Hoffman, actor
When I first got to NYU, I met these older, old-school homosexuals who lived in the faculty housing and had these two scruffy, nasty little dogs. They had written a musical revue called Sex Is Here to Stay. There was a song I had, called “The Phantom Breather,” where I would get all hot and bothered and was in love with my obscene caller.
José Zayas, director
The worst play I ever directed was a historical drama about Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy taken from his family by the Papal States and raised as a Catholic. It was written by a first-time playwright, part-time historian, and full-time proctologist. Near the end of the first act, the Jewish father accuses the boy’s guardian of being a Catholic monster. The guardian says, “But I wasn’t always a Catholic,” and he lifts up his robe to prove it.
Tovah Feldshuh, actor
In a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Guthrie, I played Pease-blossom, in a G-string with silver paint sprayed upon every exposed inch of my little body. The leading lady vomited daily to stay thin, and all her fairies followed suit. The director was so thrilled with my work, he said in front of the entire company, “Why do you even bother being an actor? You should be an insurance agent.”
Christian Camargo and Juliet Rylance, actors
We were both in England seeing a classical piece—one of the greats. And the actors had a gimmick: They would use found objects in the telling of their tale. Beautiful iambic text was slurred to catch a juggled shoe, rhyming couplets were beaten away by surfboards, and the most startling soliloquies were mumbled while balancing on audience seat-backs. What was going on? A neighbor turned and, in a bland aside, growled, “. . . art.” Then he dutifully stood, offered his middle finger to the stage, and left.
Matthew Maher, actor
I was in a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at Nada. The director of the theater was involved in some kind of crazy feud with the upstairs neighbor, who, one evening, lashed out by buying a copy of the play and shouting every line about 10 lines ahead of our speaking. A few moments before our entrance, the whole theater could hear our entrance lines being yelled through the ceiling—then we would enter. This went on for three hours.
Mike Daisey, actor
I was in Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, a relentlessly elliptical German Expressionist play that features a 14-page monologue on the pointlessness of living. The only night we had over nine audience members, I ran around hysterically backstage, chanting, “Double digits! Double digits!” somewhere between ironic detachment and weeping.
Craig Wright, playwright
Over 20 years ago, in Minneapolis, I played a number of racial and cultural stereotypes in El Grande de Coca-Cola, this tasteless cabaret-style confection—think of it as an anti-Latino Noises Off without any of the structural grace. My most offensive role was probably that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which I played on my knees with a French-Mexican accent.
Michael Friedman, composer
I worked on a musical/operatic version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Cuba. The problem was that the musical was in English, but the performers spoke no English, which led to some imprecision in the rendering of the words. At a climactic moment, the villain decried the degradation of “all you heretics” but sang “all Jew heretics.”
Sheila Callaghan, playwright
I saw a production of Carousel in a barn in New Jersey one summer night in the ’80s. The ground was covered in bug-infested hay. By Act Two, half the audience was pitched forward, scratching their ankles because of all the biting. The other half had walked out.
John Cullum, actor
Infidel Caesar—Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in Castro’s Cuba. I played Cassius. A papier-mâché mound plopped stage center represented a mountain. Caesar (Castro) and his army lounged on thrift-store pillows, drinking and cavorting with sexy gals in shorts and skimpy halters. Several of the “producers” were definitely mafia types. Rocky Graziano, the ex–middleweight champ, used to drop by to joke with them and the girls, who weren’t just drop-dead gorgeous, they were literally molls. Capitalized at $100,000 in 1962, the entire production couldn’t have cost more than $15,000, so somebody walked away with some loot. We opened and closed after one preview performance at the Music Box. The cast evaporated, and the “producers” retired to Little Italy for wine and spaghetti.