Ex-Faculty Bad Boy Mark Medoff Takes a Tony Home to New Mexico

updated 01/12/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1981 01:00AM

To hear him tell it, playwright Mark Medoff is the social equivalent of an unguided missile. He walks out on boring dinner parties, and when his writing goes badly he rams his fist through the wall or his foot through the TV. "My ego is obnoxious," he says. "I'm just hostile in general." But Medoff doesn't have much to get sore about these days. At 40, he is the winner of the 1980 Tony Award for Best Broadway Play, Children of a Lesser God, the recipient of $1.25 million for movie rights, and the pampered head of the drama department at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces. As if that weren't enough, he has a good marriage (on the second try) and three little girls. "I guess," Medoff admits, a bit reluctantly, "I am happy."

Medoff's caution is understandable. For years he ignored faculty meetings and delegated his administrative duties to others, outraging many of his colleagues. Medoff couldn't have cared less. His first marriage, to an actress, collapsed after three years. "I was terrible to that poor woman," he admits. "I was far too selfish to be married." An antiwar activist during the Vietnam years, he was accused of being a Marxist when he came up for tenure. Even his first success as a playwright, the angry, Obie-winning When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?, about violence and American values in the '60s, won him few friends on campus. "It generated a lot of resentment," Medoff recalls. "It was an unhappy time."

Medoff credits his mellowing to Stephanie Thorne, a former student he married eight years ago. "I've changed a good deal and it shows in my work," he says. "Stephanie is solid, sensitive and very together. I trust her as no one else with my awareness of my own failings and frustrations." "Everyone says he is nicer since he married me," Stephanie, 34, admits. "At first he used to come home and overwhelm me with this 'In-the-theater-the-playwright-is-king' routine, and for a while I went along. Now I see the king cleaning the floor after the baby has puddled on it."

His standing at the university has changed just as dramatically, bringing him affection as well as respect. "I tell my students that I can't teach them a thing," he says. "What I can do is pass on a certain theatrical experience, and if they have any talent I can push them, punish them and, trite though it may sound, perhaps even inspire them. But I don't encourage students to be drama majors. I tell them the likelihood of their ever being on a theater stage is minimal." Still, his office is often filled with students, many of whom he browbeats into joining his drama school football team. Naturally, Medoff is captain and quarterback. "He gives an extraordinary amount and always in a positive way," says one ex-pupil. "But I'd hate to be around him if he ever failed at anything."

Fortunately, his failures are few. Since taking over as head of the drama department two years ago, Medoff has emphasized high-quality student productions, transformed a dispirited two-member department into a first-rate program with 11 teachers, and sold 2,300 season subscriptions—seven times more than two seasons ago.

Medoff was raised in Miami, where his father is a doctor and his mother a therapist. "I've been to a whole flock of therapists myself," he says. "One told me I was the only kid he'd ever seen who was rebelling against a happy home." A star athlete in school, Medoff dreamed of playing professional baseball until an English teacher singled out one of his short stories for praise. "From then on I was a closet writer," he says. "There was something a bit effeminate about writing in those days." After graduating from the University of Miami and earning an M.A. in English at Stanford, he landed a teaching job at New Mexico State. The first time he saw the stark desert campus he was so depressed he drove straight home to Florida, but his parents persuaded him to turn around and go back. "For the first three years I threatened to resign," Medoff recalls. "I knew I was talented and wonderful, but I hadn't been able to convince the rest of the country yet."

The success of Children of a Lesser God laid that frustration to rest. The idea for the play came to Medoff two years ago at a workshop in Rhode Island, where a young deaf actress named Phyllis Frelich complained to him about the dearth of roles for performers without hearing. "Come to New Mexico and I'll write one for you," he told her. Subsequently Frelich and her husband, stage manager Robert Steinberg (who can hear), spent six grueling months allowing Medoff to probe the depths of their emotions and marriage. The result meant not only recognition for Medoff but a Best Actress Tony for Frelich.

Luxuriating in success, Medoff rises early these days and takes a walk before waking the children and fixing them breakfast. He writes from 8 to 11, then jogs three to five miles. "I love the desert," he says. "I love having money to spend. And the older I get the more I'm drawn to a smaller and smaller space—the people I love and work with." Of all the accolades in the past year, he particularly treasures one he overheard a few months ago. "I was sitting in a diner eating Mexican food when a couple of truck drivers came in," Medoff recalls. "One of them asked the waitress if she knew this guy in town who had written a play. He said to his friend, 'I hear he's just a good ol' boy.' Now out here, that's a compliment."

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