Tina Howe, Playwright Best Known for ‘Coastal Disturbances,’ Dies at 85
This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater
Written by: Neil Genzlinger
She mixed insight and absurdity in a vast body of work that also included “Painting Churches” and “Pride’s Crossing,” both of which were Pulitzer finalists.
Tina Howe, who in plays that could be extravagant productions or small-cast gems zeroed in on the humor, heartache and solidity of her characters’ lives, particularly the female ones, died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 85.
Her family said the cause was complications of a broken hip sustained in a recent fall.
Ms. Howe was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, for “Painting Churches” in 1984 and “Pride’s Crossing” in 1997. Her “Coastal Disturbances” had a 350-performance run on Broadway in 1987 and was nominated for the Tony Award for best play.
In the foreword to a 1984 collection of her plays “Museum,” “The Art of Dining” and “Painting Churches,” she described those three works this way, a summary that applies to much of her output:
“They share an absorption with the making and consuming of art, a fascination with food, a tendency to veer off into the primitive and neurotic, and of course a hopeless infatuation with the sight gag.”
Her plays also generally share another attribute: They have multidimensional female characters of a type that were not often seen when she started out in the 1970s. As she told an interviewer in 2004 on the CUNY TV program “Women in Theater,” in those years many artistic directors were men who were interested only in plays in which female characters were victims. It was harder, she said, to get support for a play that featured “a strong woman, a sexy woman, a smart woman.”
Some of her plays were sprawling creations, like “Museum,” which, set in the gallery of a major art museum, had a cast of almost 50 when it premiered in 1976 at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater. “Coastal Disturbances,” as Ms. Howe described it in the preface to a 1989 collection, takes place on “a beach complete with heaving ocean and 20 tons of sand.”
“I seem to go out of my way to make putting them on as hard as possible,” she wrote of those types of play.
But she also wrote more intimate works, one of which, “Painting Churches,” took her career to a new level when it had its premiere at Second Stage in Manhattan in 1983. The play has just three characters: a married couple and their artist daughter, who as the play progresses paints her parents’ portrait, with truths about the family revealed as she goes about the task. Ms. Howe described it as a sort of reverse image of “Museum,” in which characters talk about art; in “Painting Churches,” the characters become art.
Frank Rich, reviewing the production in The New York Times, invoked a line spoken by the father late in the play.
“‘The whole thing shimmers,’ he says, in a line of art criticism that can also serve as an apt description of Miss Howe’s lovely play,” Mr. Rich wrote.
After its run at Second Stage, the production moved to another Midtown theater and ran for months more.
“Coastal Disturbances” also opened at Second Stage, in 1986, and it, too, drew raves. That play is about four generations of vacationers gathered on a beach, though this is merely the premise.
“It was really about the anguish of love and the ache of love and the exhilaration and the heartbreak and the joy,” Annette Bening, who played the central role, a photographer named Holly who has a relationship with a lifeguard, said in a phone interview.
Ms. Bening, who earned a Tony nomination after the play moved to Broadway, was new to New York and largely unknown at the time. Holly, she said, was a thinly veiled version of Ms. Howe herself, which meant that she and Ms. Howe developed a bond.
“She was incredibly incisive and hard-core intelligent,” Ms. Bening said, “and her plays reflected all of that.”
Mr. Rich, reviewing “Coastal Disturbances,” called it “distinctly the creation of a female sensibility, but its beautiful, isolated private beach generously illuminates the intimate landscape that is shared by women and men.”
“Coastal Disturbances” showed Ms. Howe’s flair for absurdity. In one scene, Ms. Bening was buried up to her neck in sand by the lifeguard (played by Tim Daly) while relating a somewhat erotic fantasy involving anthropomorphized dolphins.
In the introduction to a 2010 collection of her plays, Ms. Howe explained her penchant for wacky scenes.
“I came of age during the heyday of Absurdism when it was the fellas who were shaking up perceptions of what was stage worthy — Pirandello, Genet, Ionesco, Beckett and Albee,” she wrote. “Their artistry and daring were thrilling as they scrambled logic and language, but where were their female counterparts, shaking up what was stage worthy for us? Since I was a hopelessly unevolved feminist with no ax to grind, who better to take on the challenge than me?”
Mabel Davis Howe was born on Nov. 21, 1937, in Manhattan to Quincy and Mary (Post) Howe. (She was called Tina from childhood and made it her legal name when she turned 18, her son, Eben Levy, said.) Her father, an author, journalist and broadcast commentator, worked for CBS radio and ABC television. Her mother was an amateur artist who exhibited on Long Island.
Marx Brothers movies were among Ms. Howe’s childhood passions and influenced her playwriting.
“The whole point was to keep piling excess upon excess,” she wrote in the 1989 collection. “Why shouldn’t it be the same in the theater?”
While she was attending Sarah Lawrence College, the actress Jane Alexander, a friend and fellow student, directed one of Ms. Howe’s first plays, “Closing Time.” Ms. Howe graduated in 1959 and then spent a year in Paris.
“The most profound thing that happened to me that year was seeing ‘The Bald Soprano’ by Ionesco,” she told The Times in 1983. “That exploded me all over the place.”
She married Norman Levy, a teacher and writer, in 1961 and accompanied him to Maine and Wisconsin while he finished his degrees. In 1967, when Mr. Levy got a job teaching at the State University of New York at Albany (now the University at Albany), the couple moved to Kinderhook, N.Y., where Ms. Howe made a start working on plays in earnest.
In 1970, her play “The Nest,” which she described as a “funny, erotic play about women and how fierce and pathetic they are when dealing with men,” received a production at the Mercury Theater on East 13th Street in Manhattan. That the first sentence of Clive Barnes’s review in The Times didn’t kill her fledgling career was something of a miracle.
“It is always rash to use superlatives,” Mr. Barnes wrote, “but it does most forcibly occur to me that ‘The Nest,’ which boldly calls itself a play and even more boldly opened last night at the Mercury Theater, must be on any reasonable short list of the worst plays I have ever seen.”
Ms. Howe, though, kept at it, drawing attention not only for “Museum” but also for “The Art of Dining” (staged at the Public Theater in 1979) and other plays. In 1983 she won an Obie Award for her recent works. Numerous other awards followed.
Among her most successful plays after “Coastal Disturbances” was “Pride’s Crossing,” in which a 90-year-old swimmer looks back on her life. That piece was staged at Lincoln Center in 1997.
“Old women have great power,’‘ Ms. Howe said at the time. “Magic is afoot with them. A lot of times they are not on this earth; their thoughts are in never-never land. But in with the magic and the dreaming is that anger that old women have. I wanted to put that voice, that fever, that sort of animal yelp of self-preservation on the stage.”
André Bishop, producing artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater, recalled a playwright with a unique style.
“Tina was a deliciously idiosyncratic writer whose playful wit and sense of the absurd infused all her work,” he said in a statement. “She was delightful, as were the plays written in her highly distinctive voice.”
Ms. Howe and Mr. Levy settled in Manhattan in 1973 and had most recently lived in the Bronx. Mr. Levy died last year. In addition to her son, Ms. Howe is survived by a daughter, Dara Rebell, and three grandchildren.
In an Instagram post yesterday, the playwright Sarah Ruhl called Ms. Howe both a friend and a mentor.
“One of the last times I visited her,” Ms. Ruhl wrote, “she said: ‘I still want to write. Women are still an undiscovered country.’” Kirsten Noyes contributed research.