Playwright, muse get primitive on Broadway

— When playwright Mark Medoff first met actress Phyllis Frelich, there was no sign that she would soon become his muse.

The two ran into each other in 1977 during a writers' workshop at the University of Rhode Island. She was an actress with the National Theatre of the Deaf; he was a hot off-Broadway playwright. It took only 20 minutes before Medoff wanted to write a play for her.

That early collaboration has endured for more than two decades and Medoff has penned five original pieces for Frelich, including the breakthrough Broadway smash "Children of a Lesser God," which earned them both Tony Awards in 1980.

"This doesn't happen very often," Frelich says through sign language. "The odds are against it. I'm so fortunate to have this terrific living writer writing for me. What more could an actor want? There's nobody else writing roles for deaf actors."

This spring, the duo has returned to Broadway for the first time since that early triumph, bearing the searing new drama "Prymate." Are audiences ready for a frank discussion of both AIDS and animal testing? A play that illustrates the destructive ego of scientists? A play with a violent interspecies sex act?

Over coffee in the theater district, 64-year-old Medoff and 60-year-old Frelich seem like little kids with a shiny new, dangerous toy. Robert Steinberg, Frelich's hearing husband and the show's set designer, interprets for his wife.

"I've heard that this may be controversial," Medoff says. "I'm trying not to be disingenuous when I say I don't see what all the controversy would be. I could see that it would at best precipitate some discussion. That would be excellent."

Drama development

"Prymate" tells the story of two middle-age scientists and former lovers -- animal behaviorist Esther Leeper (Frelich) and biologist Avrum Belasco (Robert Walden) -- in a tug-of-war over the fate of an aging gorilla that Leeper has rescued from Belasco's AIDS lab.

Hungry for a Nobel Prize, Belasco wants to infect the brute with the virus, a prospect that incenses Leeper, who considers the gorilla like a son and communicates with him through American Sign Language.

Two other actors round out the production: Heather Tom, a comely young interpreter caught between the two battling scientists, and Andre De Shields, who portrays the animal in just shorts and a T-shirt.

"Prymate" began life as a play called "Gila" during Medoff's tenure at New Mexico State University and was then re-examined when the playwright became an artist-in-residence at Florida State University.

"It was much more an intellectual effort, I'd guess," signs Frelich. "A lot of arguing, a lot of discussing, a lot of conversation. Now we are playing against that intellectual type. Instead of saying, 'I love you' softly, it became, 'I want you -- I want to tear you apart!' The guts of the play really began to appear."

Medoff agrees: "It is far more primal. It was driven below the waist. I think some of it has to do with the fact that I turned 60 in the interim and really became focused on the notion of a primal, physical passion between the upwardly middle-aged."

Instant notice

First staged in February on the Tallahassee campus, "Prymate" drew instant notice and made the unusual step of leaping to Broadway without first settling into a satellite orbit around New York on the regional circuit.

By sheer coincidence, "Prymate" won a spot at the Longacre Theatre -- the same theater where "Children of a Lesser God" was staged 24 years ago and launched the careers of both Medoff and Frelich.

When asked how that feels, Frelich brushes the length of her arm as a big smile erupts.

"Goose bumps," her husband translates.

The collaboration between Medoff and Frelich -- one that also created the plays "The Hands of Its Enemy" and "Road to a Revolution" -- is first a friendship, with both the playwright and his wife spending time with the actress and her husband.

"I write for her because she is as good as there is alive today on the stage. I write for her because she's good and, aside from that, we have an extremely close personal relationship," Medoff says. "One feeds the other."

Frelich, who appeared on Broadway in last year's revival of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1985 for the TV movie "Love Is Never Silent," is grateful for Medoff's insistence that his roles often don't explicitly deal with deafness.

"I remember when I first met Mark he kept asking me, 'What do deaf actors do? How do you do it?' When I told him there was nothing to do -- no one wrote roles for deaf actors -- he decided he would sit down and write for me," she signs.

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