Lynda Barry slowly drove home to Chicago last week after taking New York by storm. Her play The Good Times Are Killing Me, an adaptation of her novel of the same name, is a hit off-Broadway, and a lucrative deal has just been cut for a film version to be directed by Norman Jewison. Barry was profiled last week in Newsweek, the New York Times, and Theater Week magazine. She's hot.
But the City Lit Theater Company, where The Good Times's theatrical journey began, and its artistic director Arnold Aprill, who first adapted the novel, are not. Both the Newsweek and Times profiles fleetingly (and in identical language) referred to City Lit's long-running production as a "staged reading," both giving credit to New York's Second Stage Theatre for turning the novel into a "full-fledged play." These blatant slights, combined with a string of earher public comments made by or attributed to Barry, have angered some theater people here, leading them to wonder if the cartoonist has forgotten who helped her along the road to stardom. In an interview in her downtown studio last Friday, Barry tried to answer the criticism.
When City Lit's production of The Good Times Are Killing Me opened in May 1989, in the 70-seat Live Bait Theater space at 3914 N. Clark, no one could have predicted the fate that awaited it. Just getting the show up was a struggle. Barry was wary of the theater business because of a previous experience she'd had in Seattle, and Aprill had to convince her to let him do his adaptation. The contracts they signed promised Aprill 5 percent of Barry's royalties on all productions of his adaptation, and City Lit was promised a program credit for any future presentations of that adaptation. "There was no room to bargain for better terms," remembers City Lit managing director Charles Twichell. When the play ended its Live Bait run, Barry gave Aprill more of her royalties than he had bargained for, 50 percent instead of the agreed-upon 5. Aprill says he then contacted Barry's agent to request the same cut for future productions, but he was refused. He wound up earning a total of $4,659.19 in fees and royalties for the show.
Chicago critics liked The Good Times, and theatergoers flocked to see it. After the Live Bait run ended, the commercial producers Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt (who have since parted company) mounted the City Lit production commercially at the Body Politic. Aprill sat down with Barry and her friend Ira Glass to revise the script. A couple of scenes were added and a couple were cut, remembers Aprill. Where the City Lit program had said the show was adapted for the stage by Arnold Aprill, the title page of the Body Politic program said it was adapted by Arnold Aprill with Lynda Barry and Ira Glass.
About halfway through the commercial run (which began in September 1989), Barry ceased having much contact with the production or with City Lit. Some feared she had grown disenchanted with the show (which eventually moved to the Halsted Theatre Centre and ran through March 1990), but Barry claims that was not the case. "I didn't have anything else to do," she says. "My job was done."
Enter Carole Rothman and Robyn Goodman, the artistic directors of New York's not-for-profit Second Stage Theatre. They came to Chicago to see the play and "out of the blue," says Barry, called to ask if she wanted to come to New York to work on a new adaptation. Barry emphasizes that they insisted on a new script. "People think I had the option to take the Chicago production to New York, but Second Stage would have walked away if I didn't agree to their demands."
In January 1991, Barry, Second Stage literary manager Erin Sanders, and director Mark Brokaw began to work on the new script. As Sanders remembers it, they began with the City Lit adaptation and worked out a new version that "became more of a play with a dramatic throughline." Barry says she went "back to the drawing board." Meanwhile in Chicago, Twichell and other City Lit staffers heard a New York production might be in the works. "We spent weeks trying to get that confirmed," says Twichell.
Last February Twichell received a letter from Barry's business manager saying that the following credit line would appear in the Second Stage program in Barry's bio--not on the title page: "A separate adaptation of the novel The Good Times Are Killing Me was produced by City Lit Theater Company in Chicago." Barry says Second Stage had a "prideful feeling" about the new script and wasn't interested in giving title-page credit to City Lit. "I had to fight just to get Erin's [Sanders] name on the title page," she said.
In late March, Jeannie Affelder, a Chicago actress who appeared in more than 250 performances of City Lit's Good Times, attended a preview performance at Second Stage. She came away with the impression that "about 70 percent" of the show was the same as the Chicago production. On the other hand, Sanders describes the two scripts as like "night and day," and Barry says the show is "completely rewritten." According to all concerned, the big difference' between the two scripts is that the City Lit version contains a lot of narration that in the Second Stage version is dramatized--shown rather than told.
When The Good Times opened at Second Stage on April 18, neither Aprill nor Twichell nor any of the City Lit staff were in the audience (nor have they yet seen it). But New York Times drama critic Frank Rich did see the show and called it "funny and engaging" in his review. Barry says there has been interest in filming The Good Times since the novel was published in 1988, but when Rich's review appeared "things started to pop." She went to Los Angeles to take meetings with a slew of potential producers and directors, and on July 26 the Times announced a film deal that could net Barry a sum "in the high six figures" if the film is made. Barry says that report is an "overexaggeration."
In the wake of the press deluge that has now engulfed Barry and The Good Times, a dejected Aprill last week said he couldn't understand why City Lit and its adaptation have gotten such short shrift. Barry tries to explain it as the work of blindered reporters. "I went on and on to the woman at Newsweek," she says. "I told her the Chicago production was the first time I found out you can't do a play all by yourself. I told her all the funniest lines were from the actors in Chicago....But they don't want to write about what went on in Chicago. They live in New York. They want to talk about the movie deal, and what it looks like to them is the movie deal came from the Second Stage production." Barry wonders if the reporters were "getting some feed" from Second Stage or its publicists--a reasonable speculation, given the uncanny correspondence between the Times's language and Newsweek's. But Richard Kornberg, The Good Times's New York press representative, said that his press releases made no reference to a Chicago production and that Second Stage executives did not talk to the authors of last week's Times and Newsweek articles. He also revealed that the Second Stage staff never discussed the City Lit production with him.
"I had no reservations about the Chicago production," Barry says; "if the book closed on it there I would have been happy. But I was interested in trying new stuff. It's breaking my heart, this whole thing....I live here, I love this place. What's difficult for me is this feeling that I turned my back on Chicago by going to New York and working on this piece. It's been my story for a long time."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Cox.