Jeff Weiss, legend of theater; resident of Allentown, dies
BY PAUL WILLISTEIN
A legend of the American stage has died.
Jeff Weiss, a long-time Allentown resident, achieved his most noteworthy success in New York City, receiving Obie Awards for off-Broadway plays produced with his five decades collaborator and life partner Richard C. Martinez.
The Weiss family, including brother Steve, and nephew, actor Jonathan Taylor-Thomas, announced:
“Jeffrey Weiss, of Allentown, passed away Sept. 18, 2022, at the age of 82.
“Per his wishes, there will be a private internment. A celebration of his life and work will be held at a later date.”
“Jeff was one of the greatest figures in the history of American theater,” says Charles Richter, retired director of theater at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, and co-founder of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.
“He never sold out. He always had enormous integrity. He was always asking profound life questions in shocking and hilariously funny ways,” says Richter in a phone interview with Lehigh Valley Press.
Weiss received an Obie Award for Special Citations for “Hot Keys” (1992); Obie Award for Playwriting for “That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” Part Three, script and direction (1980); Obie Award for Special Citations (Joseph Cino Memorial Award for his plays and his performance), “That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” “A Funny Walk Home” (1967), and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US and Canada, drama and performance (1975).
Richter is believed to have produced Weiss’s first and last Lehigh Valley performances.
Weiss is highly-regarded in the history of the off-off Broadway theater scene in Manhattan.
His plays often included not so veiled Lehigh Valley references. For example, Allentown became Krautstown.
Nicky Paraiso, pianist, and Weiss’s longtime New York City collaborator, recalls Weiss on stage:
“I must say that one of my favorite performances by Jeff Weiss was actually seeing him play Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.,” says Paraiso in an email.
“When Jeff’s Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning, it was literally an explosion of joy and exuberance unlike any performance of Scrooge I’ve witnessed on stage or screen.
“Jeff was literally jumping up and down, having been freed of the weight of Christmas past and living totally and completely, as he did in all his performances, with great passion and commitment and love.”
That commitment was evident in theater productions that Weiss and Martinez presented in their storefront theater, 249 E. 10th St., in the East Village apartment building where they lived in New York City.
“I actually brought one of my classes to see it. He had a huge following in New York as an underground performer. And it was literally underground,“ says Richter.
Weiss’s following at his “underground theater,” where audience members were handed flashlights to train on the actors because there was no electricity for stage lighting, included Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
“That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” Part III, Weiss’s one-man show, presented in 1979, was first presented at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1966, directed by Martinez.
Weiss’s “International Wrestling Match: An Old Testament Morality Play in Two Vengeful Acts” was directed by Martinez at La MaMa in 1969.
Weiss’s serial play, “Hot Keys,” premiered at Naked Angels in New York City in 1992.
Martinez also wrote musicals, including “The Rise and Fall of Louie Bimbo.”
Weiss was old school. Not only did he not have a cell phone. He initially didn’t have a phone in New York City. Kline scribbled a note and stuck it between bricks at the apartment entrance, inviting Weiss to be in a 1986 production of Shakespeare‘s “Hamlet” at The Public Theatre. Weiss’s roles in the play included Player King, Osric and Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost to Kline’s Hamlet.
After he got his Actor’s Equity card, Weiss appeared in some one dozen Broadway productions, including “Carousel” and “The Front Page” at Lincoln Center. He appeared with Willem Dafoe in The Wooster Group. Weiss did national tours and appeared at prestigious United States regional theaters, including the Guthrie Theatre.
Weiss appeared in movies, including “Vanilla Sky” (2001), as Raymond Tooley, and television, including “Law & Order” (1994-2005), as Trial Judge Romney.
After living in cramped quarters on New York City’s Lower East Side, Weiss moved back to the Lehigh Valley where, as a teen, he had first flexed his acting muscles at Guthsville Playhouse, Pennsylvania Playhouse and Civic Theatre of Allentown.
From the porch of his Hamilton Park, Allentown, home, Weiss could see the tower and hear the bells chiming at Muhlenberg College, where he worked with Richter.
Richter’s association with Weiss began with a production of the one-man show, “That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” in Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts. “It was three hours. He did all the parts. Nicky was on piano,” Richter recalls.
“On a certain level, it was very shocking. But it was very well-received by Lehigh Valley audiences,.” says Richter.
Weiss played The Masked Man in Muhlenberg Theater Association’s 1981 production of “Spring Awakening,” a 1906 play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind.
Richter even put a band together for Weiss. That was for “Last Gasps,” which Weiss wrote and directed. The play, which starred then Muhlenberg student Neil Hever, brought together fellow Muhlenberg student Mark Golin, violin; Lehigh Valley composer Mike Krisukas, guitar, and Lehigh Valley musician Pete Fluck, saxophone. The production would spawn Lehigh Valley cabaret rock group Zen for Primates, with T. Roth joining on lead vocals.
Perhaps one of Weiss’s most legendary Lehigh Valley productions was “Calamity Ruth Foose, A Suburban Vaudeville for Divorcees.” The outrageous play, written by Weiss with the memorable line, among others, ”Onward and upward,” was staged in 1981 at TheatreEast, Bethlehem, with Marilyn Roberts, artistic director. Richter directed the one-woman show that starred Donna Kistler, with Kathy Jamison, piano.
”I saw it in New York. I was surprised how local to the Lehigh Valley it was,” remembers Richter, who toured with the “Ruth Foose” production in 1982-83.
“Jeff was doing more and more work of his own down on East 10th Street in New York,” says Richter of the gap between Muhlenberg productions.
Richter saw Weiss perform in his last New York City production at La MaMa, which displayed Martinez paintings in the lobby.
“It was one of the most shocking performances I’ve ever seen,” says Richter.
Weiss’s last Lehigh Valley production was “Spring Offensive” in the mid-2000s at Muhlenberg.
“That was a continuing soap opera that went on for three weekends. That was a massive epic with a huge cast. He performed in that with students and some alumni,” says Richter.
Weiss collaborated on another Lehigh Valley production with actor-playwright Peter Schmidt when Allentown Public Theatre presented “The Teddy Bear Awards (or Better Than Broadway)” at the Red Door at Muhlenberg in 2011.
Weiss was said to inspire the acting career of his nephew Jonathan Taylor-Thomas, a Bethlehem native (TV’s ”Home Improvement,” 1991-98; “Last Man Standing,” 2013-15).
Weiss’s and Martinez’s talent touched many in the Lehigh Valley theater and arts community.
An exhibit of Martinez’s work was held at the State Theatre Gallery, curated by Lehigh Valley artist Berrisford Boothe.
Lehigh Valley film-maker Vincent Mondillo directed a two-part “Valley Arts” TV show about Weiss that included interviews and performances.
Bathsheba Monk curated the publication of three of Weiss’s “That’s How The Rent Gets Paid” plays for her imprint, Blue Heron Book Works:
Says Richter of Weiss: “To the every end, he never lost his sense of humor, which was expansive. When you visited him, you always had a good time. And the folks in the nursing home seemed to like him a lot.”