On Making A Play
Last month, the press agents for Deathtrap notified The Crimson that Robert Moore, the play's director, would be available for an interview. It seemed like a fair opportunity to ask all those gosh-gee what's-it-like-to-be-a-real-director questions, and Moore, who directed the play The Boys in the Band and the film Murder By Death, has worked as steadily as anyone in theatre, movies, and television in the last few years.
It was Friday, Jan. 27, the day after Deathtrap had opened at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. Moore had spent the afternoon with the playwright, Ira Levin, and the cast, making cuts in the script and rehearsing the changes. At 5 p.m. the rehearsal broke up; the Boston Globe arrived to talk to John Wood, the show's lead, who had stopped in Boston last year with Tom Stoppard's Travesties, and we settled down in the auditorium with a relaxed, casual Robert Moore. A few stagehands milled about the stage.
The opening? "Terrific," Moore said, "Terrific for Boston, terrific for anywhere. It was the best opening I've ever had." He has tried out shows here before, notably the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach musical, Promises, Promises, and Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. The reviews that morning had been moderately favorable; Kevin Kelly of the Globe had enjoyed the show. "Kevin Kelly is generally regarded as no pushover," said Moore. "It was a terrific score.
"This is in remarkably lean shape as plays go. When you're dealing with this type of play you must have a cleanness of structure in advance or you're nowhere. With straight dramas you sometimes end up cutting half an act, but Deathtrap is like a house of cards--you can't pull one out without toppling the whole structure. We're clarifying in some places, and trimming a little fat, but we're already in opening-night shape."
Moore seemed puzzled by questions about lack of sleep, or working all night revising the script. "There was no smoky hotel room, if that's what you mean," he said. "I've never been in one. I think they went out with Hecht and MacArthur."
Much of the work on the show has been on the numerous physical stunts: fights, garrotings, stabbings, death by cross-bow, etc. One scene, where Wood frees himself from a pair of trick handcuffs, almost turned into a disaster on opening night. Moore noticed at the beginning of the act that the positions of two chairs had been reversed. Had Moore not rushed backstage and told the stagehands to switch them during a blackout, Wood might have fastened himself to a chair for the remainder of the play.
Robert Moore began his career as an actor, making his Broadway debut at age 19 in Jean Kerr's Jenny Kissed Me. "I'm still basically an out-of-work actor," he said. "Acting is a nice way to goof off." In 1968, he made his professional directing debut with The Boys in the Band. "I didn't really want to direct it. I was directing college theater at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and Mart Crowley, the author, was a student of mine. He had been working on the play and he brought it to me. I had to direct it to get him out of my apartment." Originally produced in an Off-Off-Broadway workshop, the play proved unexpectedly popular. "I never thought it would be a hit," said Moore. "Who thought anyone would be interested in a play about nine fags at a birthday party?
"I don't see myself as a director. I'm a director the way some people are typists. I direct to pay the rent."
Does he have any advice for aspiring directors? "Don't do it, it's a rotten life, a dumb job." Moore says the position has been highly overblown, probably because of cinema, where the director has much more control. "Plays used to be staged by the stage-managers," he said, "but films have carried over the idea that the director is a charismatic force, an 'auteur.' I've never made an 'auteur' film."
Moore has just finished post-production for Neil Simon's new film comedy, The Cheap Detective. "Neil does these spoofs as respites in between writing his more serious things. The last one we did, Murder By Death, was very successful, but it had its limitation. Concepts for Neil come out of a basic locale, a central place that his characters are tied to. The Cheap Detective is no exception, but it's a looser and much better script than Murder, and a much better movie. There were 11 names above the title in Murder; here there are 16. Cheap Detective largely shoots off The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and Chinatown. Peter Falk is sensational."
Before travelling to New York for rehearsals of Deathtrap, Moore "knocked off a few TV pilots. You work fast in television, and I like the improvisational atmosphere. It's very much like summer stock where you do a new show every six days. If the pilots work out, it can develop into something very comfortable. I directed the first 30 episodes of Rhoda, for example."
Deathtrap and John Wood came as a package, and Moore accepted the play eagerly. "John is dazzling. One of the biggest concerns of mine is whether I'll be able to put up with anyone else in the role." Is he a difficult actor to work with? "Not at all. Long ago I learned that the best actors are the easiest." But then, Moore considers himself an easy director to work for. "I'm disarmingly placid," he said.
Unlike some directors, Moore doesn't invite friends to preview the performance. "I don't go to see unfinished productions," he said, "and I hate for my friends to. I don't want to hear their opinions." He finds Boston audiences intelligent and responsive, but would have preferred to preview in New York. "No one likes to tour," he said. "There's nothing wrong with Boston, but I just don't feel like packing my razor."