Obituary: Robert Marasco

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ONE OF the most exciting things that can occur in the theatre is the unexpected triumph of a new play by an unknown author, and that happened on the night of 17 November 1970 when Robert Marasco's chilling Child's Play opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway. The story of demonically sinister doings at a Catholic boys' school, it had the first-night audience calling for the author at its finish, received a rave review in The New York Times, and went on to win Tonys for its director, its designer and two of its actors, Fritz Weaver and Ken Howard. Its success enabled Marasco to give up his job as a classics teacher to concentrate on writing, though none of his subsequent work enjoyed as much success as Child's Play.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1936, Marasco was educated at Regis High School and Fordham University. A classical scholar, he became a teacher of languages at Regis, but was anxious to make clear that his play was not based on reality, naming as his inspiration two sources - a newspaper clipping about "a teacher who gave his kids some work to do and then jumped out of a window" and the Swedish film Hets (Frenzy, 1944), written by Ingmar Bergman, which featured "a sadistic Latin teacher".

Originally entitled The Dark, the play was produced by David Merrick, at the time the most powerful and prolific producer on Broadway, and directed by Joseph Hardy, whose imaginative staging, with several well-paced shock effects, was generally regarded as a key factor in the play's success, along with Joe Mielziner's superb scenery and lighting - the play was set in a starkly Gothic faculty room with dark wood and mullion windows.

When Hardy and the author had first met, Hardy asked Marasco what his aim was in writing the play. "To scare the hell out of everybody" was the reply, to which Hardy responded, "You're on." Hardy then suggested extensive rewriting, including a new ending, and guided by the experienced director the author rewrote nearly half the play. The work paid off with the triumphant first night and reviews which, though mixed, included a rave from the New York Times critic Clive Barnes who described it as "genuine Grand Guignol theatre" that "will thrill audiences for a long time to come". John J. O'Connor in The Wall Street Journal countered by commenting,

Instead of building to a suspenseful breaking point, it runs disastrously downhill with a conclusion that attempts to be profound but is virtually meaningless.

Though audiences enjoyed the play, the most often-heard comment as they left the theatre afterwards was "Did I miss something?", and the play's weaknesses were seemingly more apparent when it opened in London, where, directed by Hardy, it had only a brief run at the Queen's Theatre in 1971.

Paramount, who only two years earlier had made huge profits with the diabolically themed Rosemary's Baby, acquired the film rights and agreed to let Merrick make his debut as a movie producer on the film.

It was a troubled production from the start. Both Alfred Hitchcock and Joe Mankiewicz were interested in directing it, but the studio's production chief Robert Evans vetoed them as "over the hill". Merrick then suggested William Friedkin, also vetoed by Evans (Friedkin instead accepted Fox's offer to direct The French Connection). With the strong pairing of Marlon Brando and James Mason cast in the leads, Sidney Lumet was signed as director, in part because he had established a good rapport with Brando while filming The Fugitive Kind. But when Brando asked for script revisions ("he saw the holes in the story and lack of logic," said Lumet) the cost-conscious Merrick objected and Brando withdrew from the film to be replaced by Robert Preston.

Lumet said of the temperamental Merrick, "David thrives on conflict, but I do not feel as he does that tension is a spur to creativity." Merrick also clashed with Evans, who was unhappy that the film's fidelity to the original had kept it stuffily stagebound, and when the film was finished it was, according to James Mason, "trickled out on release". Lumet commented, "It was a shame the film was given such scant distribution because it carried with it a great performance by Mason as the persecuted Latin master suspected of paranoia."

In 1973 Marasco published his first novel, Burnt Offerings, another sinister tale of a family who find that the house they have rented for the summer is haunted. The author later stated that he originally had thought of himself as a comedy writer, and said of Burnt Offerings, "I thought it would be a black comedy, but it just came out black." In 1976 it was filmed with Bette Davis and Oliver Reed in the cast but was considered a turgid example of an overworked genre. "I said I'd never do another horror film after Baby Jane," commented Davis, "and here I am in the biggest horror of them all!"

Marasco also wrote a novel, Parlor Games (1979), and several unproduced screenplays. Before his death, he had completed a new play, Our Sally.

Tom Vallance

Robert Marasco, playwright: born New York 22 September 1936; died Manhasset, New York 6 December 1998.