Lenny Bruce’s summary of musical comedy: “A big guy in leotards comes on stage. ‘There’s Fred,’ says a little guy in leotards to another little guy in leotards. ‘Hi, Fred. How are you?’ says the first little guy in leotards. ‘I don’t know,’ Fred answers. ‘I guess I’m in love.'”

As we all know, Lenny Bruce never lived to observe the world according to Sondheim. And he surely would have noticed that the leotards of A Chorus Line were woven from a different fabric than Fred’s. I think of Lenny a lot, in spite of Albert Goldman. I wonder what he would have thought of such and such, of so and so. It has to do with truth. Lenny told the truth. So what I’m really asking Lenny in my mind is: “Is so and so a liar? Is such and such false?”

It is 1979, and Fred is camp and Lenny is dead. Screwed-up women are writing books and making fortunes. They say they are telling us the truth; who slept with whom, what drugs were taken where and when, who got custody of the children—photos of the children are in these books. Lenny would recognize these women in a moment: liars. But if he were to leaf through the pages of Susan Miller, the playwright, he would stop, pull up a chair, and begin to read carefully. “Now wait just a second,” he might say. “I think we’ve got something here.”

Susan Miller’s newest play, Nasty Rumors and Final Remarks, is currently at the Public Theatre for a limited run. It is the second of Susan’s plays that Joseph Papp has produced.

Joe Papp: “Susan is not afraid to reveal her darkest, innermost fears. She is not afraid to reveal that she is ridiculous or fearful or cowardly. She’s not afraid to face her shadows.”

John Cheever has said that the role of autobiography in fiction is precisely the role of reality in dreams. Susan Miller feels that there is no present tense. “It’s so fleeting. It’s made up of the past and the future and dreams. A mosquito lives longer than the present tense. I’m held captive, either moving ahead in my mind to what might be, to the possibilities or to the extinctions. And feelings. People. Memories I can’t control. Everybody has a history that follows them around. You can’t deny that history. Why would anybody want to? It’s exciting.”

Susan Miller’s history and extinctions are gathered together on stage in coherent disorder. “It’s the way my plays are what they are about,” she has said, correctly.

Example. A piece of stage direction in Nasty Rumors and Final Remarks: “LIGHT CHANGE. The following is a kind of fugue. People may be spcaking from wherever they happen to be on the stage fron the previous scene . . . each line follows directly upon the one before. The characters speak, almost as if to themselves.”

Another example. A part of an author’s note at the beginning of the text of Cross Country, a play that made its debut at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and that was empathetically directed by Elinor Renfield in workshop in New York: “Cross Country was performed in its entirety, including prose and dialogue. In some instances, therefore, actors spoke in the third person, talked directly to the audience, and commented on their own actions, i.e., ‘she said.'”

Nothing new, really. I’ve seen dozens of little plays built with the same bricks. Except: Susan Miller moves me. Though she says “fugue” and asks the actors occasionally “to talk directly to the audience.” she is not oblique. Even I, usually restless in a theatre, am stilled.

Joe Papp: “It’s sophisticated writing that bares extraordinary wounds.”

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper: “Susan is experimenting with dramatic interiors in a nonlinear way. She’s not drawing my picture, but she doesn’t alienate men at all. And she has her own voice. Only a handful of writers have it. John Guare has it. Harvey Perr has it.”

In Nasty Rumors and Final Remarks a woman, Raleigh, falls into a coma. Her friends gather in the waiting room of the hospital to raleigh-round. A doctor acts as a kind of master of ceremonies. A rebellious daughter named Catlin is called long distance by her brother, T. K.:

T.K.

Catlin, she’s unconscious. And the doctor needs to tell you a couple of things, and you better come now because he doesn’t think . . . Cat? Who is this? Help her, then, help her back to the goddamn phone. Don’t you have any respect for someone who’s about to be a fuckin’ orphan? Help her, man!

“Help her, man!” is chilling in its evocation. What more need we hear?

Also, what Susan Miller has done is to install Raleigh herself, from within her coma, into that very phone call. “All is forgiven,” Raleigh tells Catlin from her darkness. And I, a linear fellow if ever there was one, believe it all.

Especially what Raleigh has to say earlier in the play about the coma itself: “It has its advantages,” she observes. “For one thing, it’s got a certain color. Really. And a whirring sound, not unpleasant. The only drawback is not knowing exactly whether you’ll have it entirely or whether you’ll have to come out of it . . . the coma has deep possibilities.”

That’s good stuff. I imagine coming across it in a novel, not on a stage.

Joe Papp: “There’s a novelist lurking in Susan. Her plays move in that direction.”

Susan Miller: “In a play you have to worry about an intermission. You have to deal with people’s physical comfort. You don’t have to do that as a novelist. I’ve been influenced by novelists, in the long run, more so than by playwrights. But there’s a shenanigans going on in a play. The sound of the human voice.”

Lenny Bruce would have caught on quickly to what Susan Miller is really up to. She is up to writing about love with an open heart and a clear mind. She has a developed sense of articulated dialogue and the theatrical vision necessary to bring it off. Though she may struggle occasionally for a dramatic spine, she is a playwright who is telling us the truth.

“How’s this for a title?” she asked one time. “ ‘Nab Him.’ ”
“How’s this for a title?” I asked. “ ‘Nab Her.’”
“That, too,” Susan said.

Fact: What this particular playwright is trying for is “Nab Them.” And that’s decidedly worth hanging in there for.