Theater scribes collaborate on 'Better Late'

CHICAGO — The setting was right for a pitch: an eatery in Beverly Hills. But in this case, writer-producer Larry Gelbart wasn’t pitching. He was kvetching. In other words, he was telling his friend and fellow scribe Craig Wright about an all-too-true experience in his life.

When Wright suggested Gelbart turn the story into a play, Gelbart did the emotional equivalent of a spit-take. “No!,” he recalls saying. “It was enough to have lived it! Why would I want to watch the rerun?”

A pause. Perhaps apocryphal. “Mind if I write it?” asked Wright.

Fast forward to today, and the show, in the end written by both men as a collaboration, is set to open April 9 at the Northlight Theater in suburban Skokie, Ill. And with the possible exception of Tracy Letts’ upcoming follow-up to “August: Osage County,” it’s the most anticipated preem of the Chicago legit season, selling so well in advance that the theater has added extra previews at the front end.

Titled “Better Late,” starring John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum, the romantic comedy tells the story of an aging man forced by circumstances to move in with his ex-wife and her new husband.

While Gelbart doesn’t delve into the details of its true-life origins, he does describe his own experience of hosting a guest as “Sort of ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ … and then breakfast … and lunch … and Christmas. It lasted about nine months.”

Gelbart’s history with Wright and the play is certainly less painful.

The two met about five years ago when Gelbart, an indefatigable 80, interviewed Wright for a potential writing gig on an ABC series. The project never went past the pilot stage, but the two struck up a friendship.

“In Beverly Hills,” says Gelbart, “friendship means meals.”

At first glance, they seem an unlikely pair to collaborate. Gelbart has a fabled history in comedy, from Sid Caesar through “MASH” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and has a political, even satirical, bent (as seen in his two plays, “Mastergate” and “Sly Fox”). Wright, in his 40s, has gained a reputation for work both lyrical (“The Pavilion”) and offbeat (he was on the writing staff for “Six Feet Under” and is now creator, head writer and exec producer of “Dirty Sexy Money”).

But both have moved between theater and television seamlessly, and their work in the latter meant they fundamentally knew how to team.

After premiering one of his plays in each of Northlight’s last two seasons, it was Wright’s relationship with the theater’s artistic director, BJ Jones, who helms “Better Late,” that ended up putting the play on the fast track when the theater’s plans to stage Tom Stoppard’s “Heroes” with Nussbaum and Mahoney fell through just over a year ago.

According to Wright, Gelbart and he “kicked it into high gear, knowing we had an opening night looming. We met every week or so and wrote together, or traded off scenes and then gave each other notes. It was very collaborative.”

They were both sensitive to the fact that the premise has the ring of a sitcom. “We knew this demanded more than frothy, inconsequential comedy,” says Gelbart. “It’s about late-life thoughts, late-life regrets. And that maybe we really do get better later in life.”

The generational difference between the writers never became an impediment, although that doesn’t mean they weren’t aware of it while discussing the universal vagaries of life.

“For Craig, it was a preview of coming attractions,” says Gelbart of working on the play. “For me, it was a retrospective.”

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