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Larry Shue: Waiting in the wings

Larry Shue: Waiting in the wings

Posted: May 22, 2002

By Alan Levy

Wenceslas Square's playwright died in Virginia plane crash

Larry Shue will not attend the Prague premiere of his second full-length play, Wenceslas Square, on Saturday, June 1, two decades after he wrote it for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Wisconsin. For Shue perished at 39 in a plane crash in 1985, leaving a legacy of three plays, two of them comedies - The Nerd (1981) and The Foreigner (1983) - that are staples of stateside community theater. In Czech, The Foreigner (Cizinec) is in the repertory of Prague's Divadlo ABC, just off Vaclavske namesti.

A darker, more bittersweet drama, Wenceslas Square is based on a visit Shue paid to "normalized," post-invasion communist Czechoslovakia in 1974. In the original English-language version that Cathy Meils' fast-improving Prague Ensemble Theater starts previewing Sunday, May 26, at Divadlo U Hasicu, local audiences will be exposed to two of the three constants in all of Shue's work: the anguish of shyness and the pitfalls of language.

Early in Wenceslas Square, Ladislav (one of 10 characters portrayed by Todd Kramer) apologizes that "English - my English -has grown down."

Visiting professor Vince Corey (John McKillop) corrects him: "We'd say: "My English is rusty.'"

"Rusty?" says Ladislav, consulting his dictionary. ""Rusty - brown from oxidation.' ... My English is brown from oxidation? Good! Now, shall we eat the beer?"

In Shue's show, shyness is personified by Bob Dooley (Matej Novak), a young student accompanying Vince to take photos for the concluding update of a scholarly book about Czech theater in the 1970s. "A charming boy" is how a bawdy Czech dissident describes him. "He will be a charming man, once he gets a piece of ass."

Mistaken identity

Shue's third trademark - the liberating power of disguise and the alchemy of impersonation - is virtually absent from Wenceslas Square, but it dominates his two successful comedies. The Nerd is about "the houseguest from hell" who is not all that he seems. In its Milwaukee debut, the author - whose professional beginnings were as an actor - played one of the principals, a likable architect. In 1982-83, a British production by the Royal Exchange Theater Company in Manchester led to a successful engagement in London's West End - with Rowan Atkinson (better known as Mr. Bean) in the title role - and eventually to a 1987 Broadway production.

In The Foreigner, a proofreader vacationing in the Dixie state of Georgia outwits a scheming Southern preacher and his Ku Klux Klan accomplice in some real-estate skullduggery by pretending to speak no English at all. A high point of the show is when the title character tells the tale of Little Red Riding Hood in Shue's invented East European gibberish.

The Foreigner was Shue's greatest success. Starting in Milwaukee, it moved to off-Broadway, Broadway and West End success. At the time of his death, 68 productions of the play were either running or scheduled to open soon in regional theaters across the United States. Disney had taken a screen option and Shue was preparing a film script.

A klutz touches Bottom

"I'm a square," Larry Shue once said of himself. "I stammer and stutter a lot. A real klutz, especially when I go out into the world to do a big thing, like buy a hamburger."

The son of a drama teacher at Tulane University in his native New Orleans, Louisiana, Shue went into acting to escape his real-life personality. Growing up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, he played Bottom in his high school's version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. At Illinois Wesleyan University, where he studied theater and writing, he penned two plays in his senior year: My Emperor's New Clothes, a children's musical, and Grandma Duck Is Dead, a farcical one-acter about his college years.

"I write plays out of embarrassment," he confessed. "... either about my personal experiences, or I find an interesting character and try to fill in the world around him."

Enlisting in the U.S. Army for three years, he stayed active in military show business and won a First Army (U.S. eastern seaboard) talent contest in 1970. Then, as a professional actor, he gave more than 1,300 performances in some two dozen shows for Harlequin Dinner Theaters of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia. In 1977, he joined the Milwaukee Rep as an actor (appearing in American Buffalo and Merton of the Movies), but the company's director, John Dillon, encouraged him to write, too.

Even while basking in his royalties as a playwright, Shue was enjoying success as an actor. He had been cast in a featured role in Joseph Papp's Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he boarded a Beech 99 commuter plane on Sept. 23, 1985, to go look at a horse farm he'd bought. As the pilot tried to land in an electrical storm, the small craft crashed on its approach to Shenandoah Valley Airport, killing Shue and 13 others aboard. He is buried in nearby Staunton, Virginia.

Ironically, in a second-act monologue in his own The Nerd, actor Shue told the comic story of a bumpy ride in a commuter plane.

Desperately seeking Vanek

For a short-termer in communist Prague, Shue captured the mood of the place in scenes of Wenceslas Square that were accurate then and relevant now. Courting danger by dining with dissidents, Vince warns Dooley about secret-police surveillance: "... you gotta figure, some of these places you're not only having lunch but you're also cutting an album." One of the suppressed playwrights they're trying to see is "Vanek," the name of the character who was Vaclav Havel's alter ego in several of his one-act plays. A noted actor playing a Nazi on TV tells how he's no longer invited to appear at the National Theater anymore:

"One day you're working, you've achieved some fame, you're free to pick and choose. Everything's good. The next day, you're restricted. You no longer have choices. Your name is everywhere on some government list. "Why?' you ask. But you never know why. ... A letter has come down from somewhere. Someone has decided that your work must be - supervised. Who has decided this? You don't know. No one tells you. And so - who can you fight? Who can you plead with? This Mister No-One, who has taken a few minutes from his day to send down this letter to change your life. "What have I said? What have I done to deserve this?' Something, surely. Some talk, or something you've done, has been interpreted to mean - something. But you don't even know what that is. So if you're absolutely careful, you don't do or say anything from then on."

In an earlier scene, a secretary at the National Museum (one of the female roles played by Julie Ann Hassett) asks Vince if he's noted any changes since he was last here. "Yeah," he replies. "Lipstick, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, bright clothing. ... I don't know if I like it. ... It's too much like - it's too -"

"Too much like America?"

"Yeah. Like the worst of America. Plastic America."

"I see," she says with a knowing smile. "And without these things ... do you think we were a better people?"

"Well, I can't think that - that these things are an improvement."

"Were we better for having only one style of coat to choose from each winter, do you think? Did that improve our intellect?"

"No, of course not," Vince says politely. But Larry Shue makes you wonder.

Alan Levy's e-mail address is



Born July 23, 1946, in New Orleans, Louisiana

Educated Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, bachelor of fine arts, 1968

Career U.S. Army, 1969-72; dinner-theater actor in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, 1972-77; actor-playwright, Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Repertory Theater, 1977-85

Married Actress Linda Faye Wilson, 1968; divorced, 1977

Died Sept. 23, 1985, in plane crash in Virginia

Previewing Sunday, May 26, at 2 p.m. and May 31 at 7 p.m.

and premiering June 1 at 7 p.m., Wenceslas Square will be repeated June 7-8, 13-14 and 20-21, at 7 p.m. at Divadlo U Hasicu, Rimska 45, Prague 2,

Tel. 251 6910 or

(0604) 46 17 61.

Tickets: 200 Kc ($6);

students, 100 Kc

By Alan Levy

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