Playwright Beth Henley's Only Crime Is Stealing the Hearts of Broadway Critics
That Southern gothic tableau from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart is scarcely autobiographical, assures playwright Beth Henley, though she comes from Jackson, Miss, and has three sisters. Henley does allow "almost everything in my plays is something I've heard of, seen or known about. I don't think of my characters as wacky, I just think they're vivid." Indeed, they are so well drawn that Henley, at 29, won her Pulitzer at an earlier age than Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Crimes, her first full-length work, is packing Manhattan's Golden Theater and has been bought by the movies for about $1 million. A second Henley play, The Miss Firecracker Contest, has won praise in tryouts in Buffalo, and a third, The Wake of Jamey Foster, will premiere next month in Hartford. Might Henley, a nobody just a year ago, have her name on three Broadway marquees before long? "That," she laughs, "would be overkill."
Beth is all easygoing modesty. "My kind of writing just happens to be salable these days," she says. That wasn't always the case. After her 1974 graduation from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she and her boyfriend, fellow drama student Steve Tobolowsky, spent a year at graduate school in Illinois, then headed for Hollywood. She was offered only "sleaze-ball" jobs—including nude modeling roles she considered pornographic. Instead she turned to the typewriter. When a movie she wrote went nowhere, she started on Crimes, figuring a play would be easier to get produced. A friend peddled her script, and performances in Louisville, St. Louis and Baltimore followed; then last winter came an off-Broadway opening—and, by spring, the Pulitzer.
Some critics have described Henley's work as soap opera for the stage, and she makes no pretense of dealing with great themes. "I couldn't write a novel to save my life," she concedes. "But I can do dialogue and character." Her sense of the absurd is sharp and she has a penchant for arresting lines and events. "I want to scare people," Beth says, smiling. "It's so nice to throw them off balance."
Her eccentric eye developed in her lonely childhood. The daughter of a lawyer and an amateur actress, Beth was a fat kid with asthma and allergies so bad she was always "kind of drugged out" on antihistamines. While other children were joining the Brownies, she became enamored of her mother's acting at Jackson's New Stage Theatre and started to read Albee, Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare. Her self-isolation deepened in her high school years, when her parents separated and Beth "went underground," as she puts it. She also began acting and discovered she had talent.
Henley and Tobolowsky live simply in a rented furnished L.A. home. "I hate to fool with house stuff," Beth explains. However, now that she's flush, she has acquired a red Rabbit convertible and a habit of grabbing checks. "Beth's like Elvis, wanting to help friends," says Steve. Four dozen relatives and friends flew in from Mississippi for Crimes' opening at the Golden last month and Beth took them on the town. "I like spending my money on things like champagne," she says. Such expensive tastes seem fitting now that Beth Henley is the toast of Broadway.