I often feel when I read memoirs or see one-actor shows like “Everything’s Fine” that I’ve led a sheltered life.
In 1971, Doug McGrath was 14. So was I. I was busy following the Yankees, reading Cashbox, the Sporting News, and Rolling Stone, and hoping to survive 8th grade. But Doug? He was being seduced by a 47 year old female teacher. And she was married with adult kids!
You’ve seen Doug McGrath on screen, sometimes in Woody Allen movies (he’s been a frequent collaborator). He’s appeared in other great films like “The Insider,” “Quiz Show,” and “Michael Clayton.” He won a Tony Award for writing the Carole King musical, “Beautiful,” on Broadway. He’s a mild mannered guy who went to Princeton and is always comes off as agreeable and understated — in other words, a gentleman.
So what happened? As he explains it eloquently on stage, directed by none other than John Lithgow, this teacher — whom he calls Mrs. Malinkoff — was just “bat shit crazy.” She slipped notes into his locker every day. They were written on robin’s egg blue paper, sometimes poems, often invitations. She invited him to her home after school, or hung out with him in her classroom. They didn’t have sex, but the heaviness of it wafter in the humid, windr, dusty filled air over Midland, Texas where this all took place in secret.
These days what Mrs. Malinkoff did would be called “grooming.” She’d be arrested. But in 1971, no one talked about these things. McGrath never told his parents or siblings. His parents died never knowing about it. He only told his wife during the pandemic, when she encouraged him to write about it. He simply dealt with it using his childhood pal, “Eddie,” who was a practical observer and years beyond himself with dry wisdom, as a sounding board.
The play takes 90 minutes, has no intermission, and is utterly riveting. Lithgow masterfully moves McGrath through a simple set of a classroom, desk chairs, a small desk, to recreate all the scenarios needed. McGrath’s writing is so evocative that you feel like you’re in all these places with him, on his bike with Eddie, fearing and then dealing with the teacher, keeping his family out of it. He is utterly mortified when the teacher, acting like a spurned lover, calls him at dinner time at home. “It’s not like our house was Downton Abbey,” McGrath says, his eyes panicking like Charlie Brown in a “Peanuts” cartoon. “The phone was right there! It was a few feet away!”
Still, the family does not catch on. But in the process of the 90 minutes, we learn a lot about his parents. They are from New York and Connecticut, but the father sees oil as his future and moves them to Midland, Texas for perceived opportunity. This idea doesn’t pay off, and ultimately McGrath — who’s obviously gifted — is sent back East to boarding school. All the while, he keeps this secret.
“Everything’s Fine” is one of the most satisfying evenings in theater this season. Already plenty of celebrities have trooped down to Union Square’s DR2 Theater to see it including Michelle Pfeiffer and David Kelley, Bernadette Peters and Nathan Lane, Nicholas Hytner, Joanna Gleason, Blythe Danner, Graydon and Anna Carter, writers Lawrence Wright and Adam Gopnik, actors like John Benjamin Hickey, Danny Burstein, Isabella Rosellini. Woody Allen loved the script, and promises to take a seat when he returns from shooting his new movie in Paris.
I do hope someone films “Everything’s Fine” for posterity and maybe a showing on HBO or Netflix. McGrath plans to keep performing it through January. What an utterly brave thing to strip oneself naked, metaphorically, seven times a week in front of strangers. McGrath told me after the show that it’s not exactly cathartic for him, but it sure is for the audience. Bravo!