Documentary Review: “Every Act of Life” celebrates Terrence McNally’s Life in the Theater

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In the documentary “Every Act of Life,” the playwright Terrence McNally admits “my work never gave me pleasure before the last couple of years.”

To which any fan of the theater might spit up her chablis, sputter in his espresso.

A 60 year veteran of the Broadway stage, four time Tony winner, creator of “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,””Master Class,” “The Ritz,” “Corpus Christi,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and adapter of musicals from “Ragtime” to “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and the man isn’t enjoying his creations?

Oh. That’s for the rest of us, I guess.

“Every Act of Life” is a sweet spirited genuflection before the master, a man universally adored by those interviewed by filmmaker Jeff Kaufman, quick to admit his failures and those times actors such as Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera or John Glover saved his bacon.

The film is a brisk walk-through of McNally’s life, skipping much but getting at what we have to regard as “the important stuff.” He was born in St. Petersburg, Fla. (not mentioned) but crew up in a “sh—y town,” Corpus Christi, Texas, which gave its name to one of his most controversial plays.

His dad was a Schlitz beer distributor, and “there wasn’t a day when my parents weren’t drunk.” Younger brother Peter is here to verify that miserable, abusive childhood.

But that one special teacher, Mrs. Maurine McElroy, whom he has thanked in awards ceremonies, “was the first person who really got me, my humor, got what I’m smart about…and what I’m not smart at.”

She put him on the path that sent him to New York (which he and his Broadway loving parents had visited), Columbia University and A Life in the Theater.

His first serious boyfriend was none other than “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” era Edward Albee, a combative affair that saw Albee hit his peak and McNally get a foot in the door. His 1964 Broadway debut, the critically dismissed “And Things that Go Bump in the Night,” was the first of many failures. But having a famous playwright boyfriend gets you more at-bats.

Maybe he was ahead of his time, but it wasn’t until his plays took on more overtly gay subtexts and subjects that he became the legend he is today. That took years and years.

“Frankie and Johnny” was an early success. Others followed, with the odd dud blended in. Sometimes, multiple duds.

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He “gets at the core of the human condition,” and in many different ways, from different angles, says “Master Class” star Audra McDonald.

“He’s had his triumphs, and his huge disappointments,” Baranski (“Lips Together, Teeth Apart”) notes. “That’s a test of character.”

She tested it further, offered a role in his “Lips Together,” when she told him what she thought of the show. He fixed it and it became a triumph.

McNally persevered because through it all, as Nathan Lane (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”) points out, “nobody loves the theater like Terrence.”

“It reinvents itself every night,” McNally says with a smile. Lane helped him cut “Love! Valour!” into a stageable play, after first trying to get absurdly long early drafts up on their feet.

Being the son of alcoholics weighed on him and crippled relationships and may have even hobbled his earliest Broadway shows. But when Angela Lansbury tells you to “sober up,” what Broadway baby could refuse?

McNally started out writing and mounting “operas in our family’s garage,” according to brother Peter. He developed a passion for hunting for “something beautiful and meaningful and putting it on stage.” And he launched some careers (Lane, McDonald) and revived others (Chita, Rita, etc. ).

It’s a celebratory film, plainly directed by a fan. Kaufman has docs on jazz musician Chick Webb and “The State of Marriage” was about the test case that pushed gay marriage into mainstream legal thought to his credit. He doesn’t press hard on the more intriguing corners of McNally’s personal story, and doesn’t really need to.

Because McNally, after cancer scares (He has the same amount of lung tissue as John Wayne did in his final years.), flops and epoch-defining hits, celebrated his 80th birthday Nov. 3, he’s due his accolades and the victory lap Kaufman’s documentary gives him.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Terrence McNally, Edie Falco, Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Tyne Daley, Christine Baranski, Zoe Caldwell

Credits: Written and directed by Jeff Kaufman. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:33

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