Background Information Regarding “Short Talks on the Universe”

Mister D: This article comes from the Sunday, Nov 17th, New York Times, in case anyone is interested…

With a Little Help From Mike Nichols’s Friends

HEY were each told to write a 10-minute, two-character play that takes place on a bare stage. Jon Robin Baitz and Terrence McNally did precisely that. Nora Ephron says she got no such assignment and simply offered up a monologue she had written that was published in Harper’s Bazaar.

Steve Martin created a conversation between a husband and wife in bed. Elaine May turned in a playlet about a man and a woman at a party. Jules Feiffer submitted a scene that had already been performed on Martha’s Vineyard.

Why did these six prominent dramatists come up with plays on demand? For a couple of good causes: Friends in Deed, a privately financed nonprofit organization that provides emotional and spiritual support to those affected by life-threatening illness, and the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

And because Mike Nichols asked them to. Mr. Nichols is the chairman of Friends in Deed and the moving force behind the benefit, titled “Short Talks on the Universe,” which is to be performed at 7 o’clock tonight and 8 o’clock tomorrow night at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. (Tickets for both performances are $250 and $500, available through Telecharge, 212-239-6200. For tonight’s performance and the dinner that follows at Noche, tickets are $1,000; call 800-996-5433 for combined tickets).

“We went for what we felt were among the best writers for the theater,” Mr. Nichols said in a telephone interview. “We hit on all the best that we knew.”

In addition to his playwriting friends, Mr. Nichols called on various well-known actors to participate, including Matthew Broderick, Christine Baranski, Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Bette Midler. Daniel Sullivan is to direct all the plays.

“In every case, they were friends of some of ours,” Mr. Nichols said, meaning friends of his or of Cynthia O’Neal, president of Friends in Deed, or of Sybil Christopher, who — with Stephen Hamilton and Emma Walton — founded Bay Street Theater in 1991. The benefit is sponsored by Target Stores.

Mr. Nichols and Ms. Christopher are old friends, and he said he likes to attend her theater whenever he can. Ms. O’Neal and Mr. Nichols, friends since 1959, started Friends in Deed in 1991. Ms. O’Neal — who runs support groups at her organization’s Lower Manhattan headquarters for those who are ill and others affected by the illness — said Mr. Nichols is an advantageous ally. “Everybody takes Mike Nichols’s calls,” she said.

Because he believes so strongly in the two organizations benefiting from the event, Mr. Nichols said he was happy to pick up the phone. Friends in Deed is the only organization on whose board Mr. Nichols currently serves. He said the work the group does continues to move him. “Strangely, I keep hearing people say, when they were diagnosed, that their lives began, which sounds like such a contradiction,” Mr. Nichols said. “It has something to do with being brought up short, beginning to consider the quality of their lives.”

As to the writing assignments, only Mr. Baitz with his “Show People” (“Lucifer gives a high-powered theater producer his just deserts after dessert at Sardi’s,” to quote the author’s description) and Mr. McNally and his “Ghost Light” (“An encounter with a famous older actress and a young man on the bare stage of a theater that is just about to be demolished”) seem to have played by the rules. “I’m not sure all the other kids did that,” said Mr. Baitz.

Mr. McNally sounded pleased. “I got my term paper in early,” he said.

Ms. Ephron (“I Hate My Purse,” a title that explains itself) said that Mr. Nichols had sent her an e-mail asking if she had anything that might work for the evening. “I think if someone had told me to write something for two people in a theater, I would have stared at it for about six years,” she said.

Mr. Martin said he came up with his play, “3 A.M.,” at 3 o’clock in the morning. “It’s completely topical and it will be passé on Tuesday,” he said.

Tony Kushner (there were originally going to be seven plays), got stuck. “I deeply adore Mike Nichols and wanted to help out, but 10 minutes is a hard format for me,” said the author of the two-part epic “Angels in America.” (Mr. Nichols is currently making a movie version of “Angels.”) The playwright, director and producer George C. Wolfe also bowed out, because he was too busy. His place was taken by Mr. Feiffer.

Mr. Nichols said the actors are expected to have memorized their lines — “They have to be off book at these prices” — and the playwrights were taking the project seriously.

No wonder the director is nervous. A benefit concert at which people sing songs is much easier, Mr. Sullivan decided. What is his goal for the performance? “To come out of it alive,” he said.

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