Jeff Weiss, a playwright and actor known for innovative, offbeat shows in out-of-the-way New York theaters as well as for roles in mainstream productions, including more than a dozen on Broadway, died Sept. 18 in Macungie, Pa., near Allentown. He was 82.
His brother, Steve, said the cause was metastasized prostate cancer.
Mr. Weiss was an important figure in the experimental theater scene in New York, beginning in the 1960s. His plays were seen at Caffe Cino in the West Village, La MaMa on the Lower East Side, and other Manhattan spots known for the provocative and the outlandish. Those include his own Good Medicine and Company, a Lower East Side storefront theater that he ran with his partner in theater and in life, Carlos Ricardo Martinez. His plays were also sometimes staged in Allentown, where he grew up.
The works he wrote were impossible to classify and did not lend themselves to conventional plot description. In “F.O.B.” (1972), Mr. Weiss spent much of his onstage time immersed in a bathtub full of cold water. “Hot Keys” (1992), Mr. Weiss’s response to the AIDS crisis, was a late-night serial about a serial killer.
Some of his performances lasted four hours, five hours, even eight hours. His best-known and most ambitious work could be said to have lasted decades. It was called “… And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” Part I was first staged in 1966. Part IV appeared in 1984.
In some of his works, including “… And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, Part III,” Mr. Weiss played all the characters — and there could be a lot. In others, he made roles for other actors and could place extraordinary demands on them. “… And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, Part IV,” for instance, consisted of dozens of scenes, with more added as the run went along, and they could be presented in any order.
“Jeff would post the order for a particular evening an hour before the show,” Nicky Paraiso, an actor and musician who worked with him for decades, said by phone.
Actress Kate Valk was part of the grueling adventure that was “Part IV,” which was subtitled “The Confessions of Conrad Gehrhardt,” with Weiss playing the title character.
“Was Conrad a maniac?” Valk said by e-mail. “Or an actor who played a maniac? That was the edge Jeff walked in his work. It always felt a little dangerous.”
“To perform onstage with him,” she added, “was to be right there inside his glorious mania, virile and vibrant.”
The goings-on could be tough sledding for anyone expecting a conventional play. In 1982, when Charles Richter, then chairman of the theater department at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, brought to the school a Weiss play called “Last Gasps,” he was blunt in describing its appeal to The Morning Call in Allentown.
“I wouldn’t consider the play avant-garde,” he told the newspaper. “I think it defies categorization. It’s part vaudeville, part intellectual, part blatant sensationalism. I think a large part of the audience won’t get it.”
Yet enough people got Mr. Weiss that he developed a following,. Part IV of his “Rent” opus drew a favorable notice from Mel Gussow in The New York Times during a production with members of the Wooster Group in SoHo.
“As the play entered its fourth hour in the un-air-conditioned Performing Garage,” Gussow wrote, “one had long ago accepted discomfort as a way of Weiss life. Though the evening had its excesses, it also had a visceral investiture of theatrical imagination.”
One whose attention Mr. Weiss caught was actor Kevin Kline, who became a fan and friend and in 1986 was preparing to play Hamlet for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.
“During the casting process I was trying to think what actor could play the Player King,” Kline said by e-mail, “one who could both inspire and confound Hamlet, someone as humane as he was unabashedly histrionic. To me Jeff was the man.”
He left a note at Mr. Weiss’s theater asking if he’d consider auditioning, though that prospect seemed unlikely; some years earlier, Mr. Weiss had been cast in a Public show but had withdrawn, unable to handle the demands of conventional theater.
“To my surprise, he responded favorably,” Kline said. “He came in and auditioned for the director, Liviu Ciulei, who was so knocked out that he asked him to play not only the Player King but also the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as well as Osric. He couldn’t get enough of him.”
Mr. Weiss acknowledged that casting him was a risk.
“They took bets at the theater on whether I would show up for rehearsal, and how long I would last,” he told the Times in 1986. “I do have a reputation for fleeing in the face of possible success.”
Succeed he did.
“Next to Mr. Kline, the most intriguing acting comes from Jeff Weiss, an idiosyncratic actor and playwright in the experimental theater,” Gussow wrote in his review. Mr. Weiss, he wrote, “reveals a hitherto concealed talent for the classics.”
That performance started a run of more conventional acting jobs. Those included Broadway appearances in “Macbeth” in 1988 with Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer, an “Our Town” revival later that year, “Present Laughter” in 1996, “The Invention of Love” in 2001, and “Henry IV” in 2003, with a cast that included Kline.
Mr. Weiss worked in high-profile off-Broadway productions as well, including as a drag queen in “Flesh and Blood,” Peter Gaitens’ stage adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel, at New York Theater Workshop in 2003. “Mr. Weiss is terrific,” Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, “trilling the expected, crowd-pleasing notes while providing a darker, more intricate bass line.”
Mr. Weiss found himself in demand elsewhere. He turned up as a judge in multiple episodes of the television series “Law & Order.” In 1990, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., he took on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the seasonal production of “A Christmas Carol,” to much acclaim.
“A professional actor with no headshot, Jeff was described to me as a downtown theater ‘outlaw,’” the show’s director, Francis X. Kuhn, said by e-mail. “But he proved to be a generous and exhilarating collaborator.”
“He was deeply and absolutely committed to exploring and sharing Scrooge’s spiritual journey,” Kuhn added. “That’s what he cared about, and what he made the audience care about.”
Jeffrey George Weiss was born on April 30, 1940, in Reading, Pa. His father, Benjamin, was an executive at a cement company, and his mother, Helen (Eagle) Weiss, was a homemaker.
Mr. Weiss wrote his first plays before he was a teenager. Formal education, though, was not for him.
“I was kicked out of school pretty regularly, because I was a cutup and kind of neurotic,” he said in 1986, “so I left when I was 16.”
Soon he was in New York and had met Martinez. Their Good Medicine and Company theater had 10 seats and, in the early years, no electricity.
“People would learn to bring flashlights to a Jeff Weiss show,” using them to help illuminate the stage, said Paraiso, a longtime collaborator.
Mr. Weiss moved back to Allentown in 1997, though he continued to appear in New York productions. His brother said that Mr. Weiss had wanted to be near their aging mother. Martinez joined him, and when Martinez developed Parkinson’s disease, Mr. Weiss cared for him, Paraiso said.
Martinez died in 2017. The brother of Mr. Weiss is his only survivor.
Kline recalled a vibrant personality offstage as well as on.
“Jeff loved to laugh,” he said. “Being with him, just like watching his plays, could make you giddy. There was no one like him.”