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"Welcome to our Roof. Welcome to our World."
— Leo Belraggio in Unusual Acts of Devotion

Dramaturg Shirley Fishman had a chance to chat with playwright Terrence McNally about Unusual Acts of Devotion, his poignant new play in which the need for abiding love, companionship and compassion binds together five neighbors on a Greenwich Village rooftop as they celebrate a joyful occasion, confront the past and face the unknown of tomorrow.

Shirley Fishman: Your plays have always had an all-embracing humanity to them. What was the jumping off point for writing this particular play?

Terrence McNally: There are always quirky things you think about when you start to write a new project. I wanted to write a play that took place outdoors. From my building I look down on a rooftop party area where I can see the residents hanging out in a sort of outdoor living room. I think it's a wonderful place to set a play. People relate to each other differently outdoors, they speak to each other differently. With indoor plays, the possibilities can be limited, but outdoors on a rooftop seemed limitless to me. As a dramatist, I like that. I very much began there. The "there" was very important to this play.

SF: The characters know each other so well. Yet there's a distance between them, which is interesting because they go beyond certain boundaries with each other on this particular night.

TM: Yes they do. I saw a recent revival of Our Town. It got me thinking that New Yorkers live so differently from the families in that play, who live side by side in their own homes, on their own property. When you share a building, there's a curious combination of intimacy and "keep your distance." There's a push-pull that I feel is true of urban living, especially when you're sharing hallways and common space. Yet right next door things are going on we don't know about. In my building there are people I don't know at all, some I know slightly and some I know more about than I care to. At times, we're family and at other times we're absolute strangers. In the play, the characters share a roof, it's "their" roof. But the boundaries are very clearly demarcated. At times they come down, but then they go right back up again.

SF: Each character's emotional turmoil is laid bare. How do you come to this depth of feeling in your writing?

TM: Well, I hope I have. I try to be very still and listen to the characters, take my opinion about them out of the play and let them be who they are. The older you get as a writer — although some people get it right away — the more you're able to write objectively, not subjectively, about people. I've been seeing a lot of Shakespeare lately. He doesn't give you his opinion about his characters — he doesn't tell you what to think about Iago or why he is like he is — he just writes him. Shakespeare and Chekhov are the two great writers who imbue a moral ambiguity in their characters and let you make up your own mind about them. That's something I've consciously striven for in my work. I used to be much more opinionated — I think there's more "me" in my younger plays. Now they're more about how I observe the world rather than what I think about it. There's still a moral point of view in my plays, but I've worked toward a more engaged observation.

SF: There's a delicate balance between feelings of loss and hope in the play. Were you thinking about this when you were writing it?

TM: I don't think it's a pessimistic play. In terms of Chick and Josie, I'm certainly not saying that their lives are over but they are at a very low point. Life is not without its enormous challenges, and they rail against its unfairness, but I think they're trying to make peace with it. Things can only get better for them. During the play, we hear the voice of a defiant and heroic Edith Piaf sing, "I regret nothing." It's all part of experience. But if, as Mrs. Darnell tells us, you're in awe of the mysteries of life and not defeated by its tragedies and sadness, there are joys and unexpected pleasures. In this sense, I think the play is hopeful. We all have days when we have a Beckettian moment: "I can't go on." But then we do.

SF: The idea of New York as a changing city is very palpable — the sense that things aren't the way they used to be.

TM: I hope it doesn't seem as though it's a lamentation. Cities have to change. Of course, people don't like it, but it has to happen. It's a fact of life. Greenwich Village was a neighborhood made up of Italian immigrants and struggling artists. Now it's gentrified and very expensive. Nostalgia for what was is a theme of modern living. The play is not nostalgic about a lost New York, but it is about a different New York. 9/11 is an unspoken presence in the play. New York City has been called a dangerous place; now the portent of danger has taken on a whole new meaning.

SF: You treat the love between Josie and Chick with such tenderness, even though it's troubled and unsatisfying for them.

TM: Yes, that's true. I wanted to write about that and examine it. Sometimes whom we love has nothing to do with our sexuality. Nadine says to Josie, "I think you made bad choices … in just about everything." She's right. Chick was a bad choice for her — they didn't have a future because of Chick's sexuality. On the other hand, we don't always get to choose who we love. If love were dictated by logic and reason, it would be a very different world. The love Josie has for Chick is very real, not neurotic or unhealthy — it just is. He had genuine feelings and desires for Josie but it didn't stick. We're often unsure of what we're doing and feeling. You can get resentful or angry at someone when they don't have the same feelings at the same time you do.

SF: And Leo is so matter-of-fact about his sexual encounters with men.

TM: Yes, he treats them like "I had sushi once or twice." He tried it, it wasn't for him. He's a happy heterosexual. And he's not judgmental. He makes himself available to his emotions, feelings and desires as they occur. He says, "Supposed to do this, supposed to do that. Who makes this ... up? They weren‘t a New Yorker." New Yorkers' entire sensibility about life is based in some kind of harmony and silent agreement with millions of other people.

SF: What are the play's unusual acts of devotion?

TM: The way they look out for each other, the kindness at unexpected times. I wanted to write about the kind of extended family that many of us now live in. I think the play examines what makes a family and the kind of devotion that comes with telling the truths no one else will tell you and those that lift you up. There are many unusual acts of devotion. I want the audience to decide for themselves what they are.

SF: As you enter into the process of bringing your play to life on the Playhouse stage, what thoughts come to your mind?

TM: I haven't made up these characters. I know people who are like them. I know stories that are very much like the stories in my play. They are about human need and human behavior, and I hope the audience will embrace them.

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