Jonathan Reynolds, Playwright and Food Columnist, Dies at 79
His plays tended to parody American institutions. His food writing tended to be full of humor.,
Jonathan Reynolds, who in a wide-ranging career wrote some successful plays, helped write a famously bad movie and turned out lively articles on how to cook the perfect turkey and all manner of other food-related subjects — and who memorably combined his love of food and his way with words in an unusual stage show — died on Oct. 27 at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J. He was 79.
His family said in a statement that the cause was organ failure.
After Mr. Reynolds tried — but disliked — acting (“I had less influence than the stage manager and most of the stagehands,” he once complained), he turned to playwriting and had quick success. A pair of his one-act comedies — “Rubbers,” satirizing the New York state legislative process, and “Yanks 3, Detroit 0, Top of the Seventh,” about an over-the-hill pitcher — ran for months in 1975 when they were staged at the American Place Theater in New York, directed by Alan Arkin. Demand was high enough that the theater, a subscription-only house, opened sales up to single-ticket buyers for the first time in its 11-year history.
Mr. Reynolds’s plays tended to lampoon American institutions, whether government or the national pastime or, as in “Tunnel Fever” in 1979, academia.
“I don’t think of my plays as comedies,” he told The New York Times when that play was about to open at American Place. “I think about what characters would do in a situation, and I don’t try to make it funny. It just comes out that way.”
His biggest success as a playwright may have been “Geniuses,” a satire on the movie business that was staged at Playwrights Horizons in 1982. It was inspired by the three months he spent on location in the Philippines with the director Francis Ford Coppola while Mr. Coppola was shooting “Apocalypse Now.” Mr. Reynolds was there taking notes for a possible book about the making of the movie, and possibly to contribute to the script. The book never came about, and his contribution to the script ended up being a single line of dialogue. But the play, riding rave reviews, was a hit.
“The author speaks with an authority to match his acerbity,” Mel Gussow wrote in his review in The New York Times, comparing him to the humorist S.J. Perelman.
“Among other things,” Mr. Gussow added, “‘Geniuses’ is an insidious act of movie criticism. Make no mistake: Beneath the japery, there is a warning: Movies can be injurious to your health; keep them out of the reach of children-directors.”
Mr. Reynolds would soon have his first film credit, for writing “Micki + Maude,” a 1984 comedy that was directed by Blake Edwards and starred Dudley Moore as a man with two wives, played by Amy Irving and Ann Reinking. Vincent Canby, reviewing the film in The Times, said that it was “never less than a delight” and that Mr. Reynolds “has an ear for ultra-high-frequency lunacies that escape the rest of us.”
His next Hollywood experience, though, was not received so warmly. He was the screenwriter who adapted a story by Bill Cosby into a secret-agent comedy starring Mr. Cosby called “Leonard Part 6.” The movie, released in 1987, came out so poorly that Mr. Cosby himself denounced it. In The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel called it “the year’s worst film involving a major star.” Others have put it on lists of the worst movies ever made.
His screenplay for the comedy “Switching Channels” (1988) also drew some less-than-rave reviews. But Mr. Reynolds, who would earn only two more writing credits for movies (“My Stepmother Is an Alien” in 1988 and “The Distinguished Gentleman” in 1992) and considered himself more playwright than screenwriter, shrugged off the criticism of those two films.
“It hurt for about a day,” he told Newsday in 1988. “And then I thought, ‘Well, I’m not really part of it so it doesn’t really bother me.'”
Mr. Reynolds continued to write plays, several of which, like “Stonewall Jackson’s House” (1997) and “Girls in Trouble” (2010), took on the liberal biases of the theater world and much of the theater audience. But at one point he tried something completely different: He began writing a column on food for The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
His column first appeared in 2000, and he continued to write it for about five years. It was a job that, as he put it, just “fell from the sky” (aided by a recommendation from his friend Frank Rich, the newspaper’s drama critic).
“I didn’t go to any cooking school,” he told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2002, “and I didn’t spend time with a great chef in his kitchen for years in France.”
But he did enjoy cooking, and for years he had been making diary entries about meals he had prepared or eaten, menus he had perused, and so on. He filled his columns not just with recipes and cooking tips but with anecdotes and humor. For instance, in March 2000 he offered a solution of sorts to the age-old problem with turkeys: that cooking the bird’s drumsticks and thighs thoroughly enough tended to leave the white meat dry.
“For those with successful Nasdaq portfolios,” he wrote, “it’s simple: Buy two turkeys and cook one for the white meat and the other for the dark, then discard the overcooked white of one and the undercooked dark of the other.”
For everyone else, he offered a solution that involved basting and assorted dos and don’ts. In 2006 he collected his cooking observations in a book, “Wrestling With Gravy: A Life, With Food.”
Jonathan Randolph Reynolds was born on Feb. 13, 1942, in Fort Smith, Ark., to Donald Worthington Reynolds, founder of the Donrey Media Group, and Edith (Remick) Reynolds.
He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at Denison University in Ohio in 1965 and studied for a time at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. Back in New York, he was the understudy for the Rosencrantz role in the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in 1967 before embarking on his writing career. Before his 1975 playwriting breakthrough, he was on the staffs of David Frost’s and Dick Cavett’s television shows.
At his death Mr. Reynolds lived in Manhattan and in Garrison, N.Y.
His marriage in 1978 to Charlotte Kirk ended in divorce in 1998. In 2004 he married the Tony Award-winning set designer Heidi Ettinger, who survives him, along with two sons from his marriage to Ms. Kirk, Edward and Frank Reynolds; three stepsons, North, Nash and Dodge Landesman; and two grandchildren.
In 2003 Ms. Ettinger had the challenge of creating the set for a one-man show that marked Mr. Reynolds’s return to acting after a lengthy layoff. It was called “Dinner With Demons,” and in it Mr. Reynolds cooked a full dinner, including deep-frying a turkey, while relating assorted anecdotes. That required putting a functioning kitchen onstage at the Second Stage Theater in Midtown.
Legal restrictions meant the audience did not get to eat the meal; the backstage crew was the beneficiary. Mr. Reynolds told The Times that the hardest part of executing the show was making sure the dialogue and the cooking ended at the same time.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “In rehearsals, the apple pancake got burned every other time.”