“You could say all theater people are building surrogate families,” says Terrence McNally in “Every Act of Life,” a moving biography of the playwright that suggests he would know better than most. The son of a Schlitz Beer distributor who drank too much of his product, McNally escaped to the Great White Way as soon as he could leave Corpus Christi, getting a standing room only ticket to see “My Fair Lady” while attending Columbia and not looking back. It makes sense then that you don’t see much of McNally’s biological family in Jeff Kaufman’s profile of the prolific scribe, save for McNally’s brother Peter, but a who’s who of Broadway royalty shows up to pay tribute, a symbol of stature when Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep are willing to lend their voices to influences in his life such as John Steinbeck, for whom he once assisted, and his his school teacher Mrs. McElroy, respectively.
However, the chorus of famed collaborators serve another purpose in “Every Act of Life,” with many speaking about how McNally gave them a much-needed break and speak to work after having lived inside of it rather than having the man himself talk about it much, creating a fitting and dynamic portrait of an artist who has shown time and again that he clearly appreciates a variety of perspectives rather than just one. Tracing McNally’s career from an ad in the school paper looking for someone to pen the varsity play at Columbia through misfires such as “And Things That Go in the Bump in the Night” and triumphs such as “Love! Valor! Compassion!”, “Every Act of Life” skillfully weaves together the playwright’s personal and professional lives, creating collisions between what McNally says in recalling his career and what he can only say about himself through his art that illuminate each other.
Which isn’t to say that McNally isn’t candid with Kaufman in interviews that cover professional-turned-personal couplings with Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein, responding to the AIDS crisis that engulfed the gay community during the 1980s and the uproar over “Corpus Christi,” which in postulating that Jesus was gay, nearly upended the Manhattan Theater Club in 1998 with revolts from both evangelicals and the creative community as the play’s fate hung in the balance. Although “Every Act of Life” finds McNally reflecting on his life in an idyllic nook in Bridgehampton, Long Island where he’s presumably found a sense of peace with husband Tom Kirdahy, the film strongly summons a time when that wasn’t the case as McNally, who was open about his sexuality when many others in the theater community weren’t, and his clear-eyed dramas and comedies were pioneering eye-openers.
Kaufman is keen to use his dialogue throughout to show how McNally could so effectively cut to the quick, having many of the actors on hand, whether it be Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski or F. Murray Abraham, recite a few lines that they once performed with perspective on how progressive they were when they first said them onstage. It’s clear they are as excited to say them again because of the electrical charge the dialogue still holds, but also because as they speak they remember the generosity of the man who wrote them, often giving them a crucial break in the business. One of the most interesting aspects of “Every Act of Life” comes from McNally’s vision of the theater as a living, breathing organism that needs to be continually nurtured in order to thrive, lamenting at one point that not enough other theater professionals check out other productions, where he’s continually trawling for new talent. While “Every Act of Life” is a testament to how vital McNally’s work as a playwright is and continues to be, it does true justice to its subject by showing how his influence goes well beyond words, finding his tribe on Broadway and making it feel like home for others.