Even at the age of 69, Alfred Uhry has a slight lilt in his voice over the phone. It does not cover up his gravelly timbre, but one can detect the hidden mirthfulness of a former drama teacher.
During the 1970s, Uhry taught drama for seven years at an experimental Manhattan high school that featured the progressive open classroom environment, then in vogue. Students called him Alfred, just as the two students in "Without Walls," now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, call Laurence Fishburne's drama teacher by his first name, Morocco.
Although Fishburne's Morocco is African American while Uhry is Jewish, Uhry has always understood what it is like to be an outsider. He grew up in the South in a German Jewish household nearly devoid of Judaism, so much so that he famously participated in Easter egg hunts and Christmas tree celebrations (much like the family in his Tony Award-winning 1996 play, "Last Night at Ballyhoo"). He points out that while he felt like a "minority in the South, there was a bigger minority than me."
This is not Uhry's first play about race. In "Driving Miss Daisy," his best known work, Uhry explored the relationship between a black chauffeur and an aging Jewish matriarch, played in the 1989 film adaptation by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.
However, in "Without Walls," Uhry deals not only with race but also sexuality. Fishburne's drama teacher is a somewhat flamboyant gay man. When Anton, a young hunk played by newcomer Matt Lanter, arrives full of energy and attitude at Morocco's apartment, he disdainfully notes his teacher's sexuality, then cozies up to him by reciting with much bravado and emotion one of Lysander's speeches from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." We sense that the homoerotic bond between this teenage male and his father figure will ripen by act three.
Uhry says his play "is not about gay and straight. It's about limits."
He echoes what Morocco says late in the play to Anton: "We were never friends. We were needy."
Given the play's setting, Manhattan, 1976, such neediness knows no restraints. After all, this was the time, Uhry says, "after the advent of the pill and before AIDS, when pot was looked at as being good for you and sex was everywhere."
"The '70s are what the '60s were supposed to have been," he adds, which means that "it was perfectly OK for a kid to live with a teacher," as he says occurred on several occasions at the high school where he taught.
Although comparisons might be made to "Welcome Back, Kotter" or "Fame," both of which take place at Manhattan high schools during the free-love era, Uhry says he did not think about either when writing his play. Instead, the playwright conspicuously pays homage to "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Muriel Spark's novel, later adapted for the stage and the screen, about a teacher plagued by scandal over an alleged affair.
"Without Walls" lacks the tragedy of "Brodie." There is too much humor, good will and idealism in "Without Walls," which cleverly plays upon its title, as all the actors break the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience on numerous occasions. Sometimes, we are not sure if we are witnessing a play within a play as Anton and Lexy, another student played by Amanda MacDonald, might or might not be rehearsing scenes from "Brodie." Other times, when Morocco talks to us, we don't know if he is talking to a room full of students in his class or to an audience of theatergoers.
When Fishburne, looking bulkier than ever before, stands at the back of the set observing his two pupils, we don't know if he is stage-directing them, spying on them, or orchestrating their love lives -- like Oberon and Puck do to Titania, Bottom, Lysander and their cohorts in the Athenian forest in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Uhry says that he directed "Dream" when he was a high school teacher. He spent years behind the scenes in the world of theater, writing lyrics for Frank Loesser among others, doing regional musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House, teaching drama.
His first play wasn't staged until 1987, when he was 50. But that play, "Driving Miss Daisy," won Uhry the Pulitzer Prize and later an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Since then, he has won two Tony Awards (best play for "Ballyhoo" and best book of a musical for 1998's "Parade").
He now lives with his Episcopalian wife on the Upper West Side, where he says that his four children are "half and half of something like every other kid on the Upper West Side."
For a man who as a teacher used to say, "What's going on in the home [of the students], you can't fix," Uhry now knows what it's like to be a parent. Just as he now knows what it's like to be Jewish. At his wife's encouragement, the family began having seders. Still, he wishes he had had a stronger Jewish upbringing: "I regret that I don't have a foundation there."
"Without Walls" runs Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. through July 16 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 628-2772.