Vivian Matalon, Tony-Winning Director, Is Dead at 88

Vivian Matalon, right, accepting the award for outstanding direction of a play from Richard Kiley at the 1980 Tony Awards. He won for the revival of the 1939 play “Morning’s at Seven.”

Vivian Matalon, who after directing Noël Coward in London in his final stage appearance became a regular on Broadway, where his biggest success was a Tony Award-winning revival of “Morning’s at Seven” in 1980, died on Aug. 15 at his home in Glenford, N.Y. He was 88.

His spouse, the playwright and actor Stephen Temperley, said the cause was complications of diabetes.

Mr. Matalon’s directing career was defined by versatility. He was as comfortable with dramas like William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” which he directed in 1970 in London with a cast that included Keir Dullea and Lee Remick, as he was with a musical like “The Tap Dance Kid,” whose 1983 Broadway production earned him a nomination for best direction of a musical.

Though he worked with many stars over the years, he had special memories of directing Coward late in his career, by which time Coward was a legend as both a writer and a performer. The production, staged at the Queen’s Theater in London in 1966, was “Suite in Three Keys,” a trilogy of Coward plays set in the same hotel room. Coward starred in all three.

“I can state categorically that he was the easiest, least defensive writer I ever worked with,” Mr. Matalon wrote in The New York Times in a reminiscence in 1974, a year after Coward’s death. “He was jealous of nothing in his writing.”

But then there was Coward the actor.

“To work with him as an actor was more complicated,” Mr. Matalon wrote. “He had a natural resistance to being told what to do, but a strong professional instinct made him listen. If I asked him to do something, the response would be something like, ‘I don’t agree, dear — let me try it,’ as one sentence.”

Mr. Matalon directed a version of that show, “Noël Coward in Two Keys,” on Broadway in 1974, with a cast that included Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. His greatest Broadway triumph, though, was the 1980 revival of Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven.”

That play, a comic drama about four aging sisters in the Midwest, full of idiosyncrasies, secrets and words unsaid, had first been seen on Broadway in 1939, when it was something of a flop, running only 44 performances. Mr. Matalon, though, found the quirky beauty in the work; his version ran for more than a year.

Directing, though, was not his first career.

“I stumbled into directing,” he said in a 1999 panel discussion for the American Theater Wing series “Working in the Theater.” “It couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was really, on the whole, a successful actor. When I acted on television in England, my name was above the title.”

But while performing in “The Iceman Cometh” in 1958 — playing the part of Donald Parritt, a teenager, although he was in his late 20s — he had a revelation.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t grow up, I am going to die,’ ” he said. “ ‘And I will never grow up if I remain in acting.’ ”

He began teaching at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where the school insisted that he also direct something. So he did.

“And I went from being a very driven, very ambitious actor to a very, very unambitious director,” he said. “And the work fell into my lap for many, many years.”

Vivian Matalon was born on Oct. 11, 1929, in Manchester, England. His father, Moses, was a dry-goods merchant, and his mother, Rose (Tawil) Matalon, was a homemaker. He spent much of his childhood in Jamaica and attended Munro College there before studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York in the early 1950s with Sanford Meisner.

“Then I went back to England for a 10-day visit in 1955 and stayed for 22 years,” he told The Times in 1980. “I spent my time playing Americans in American plays, because my American accent was pretty good and I didn’t need a work permit.”

Once he veered into directing, he worked regularly, directing not only stage productions but also series and movies for British television.

In 1966, just after directing the Coward play, he directed “After the Rain,” John Bowen’s play about survivors of a flood. It came to New York the next year, and Mr. Matalon had his first Broadway credit.

His busiest year on Broadway was 1980, when he briefly had three plays running at once — “Morning’s at Seven,” a well-regarded revival of “Brigadoon” and an Arthur Miller play called “The American Clock.”

He had been brought in to take over direction of the Miller play during its troubled tryout in Baltimore only weeks before it opened in New York. Apparently that wasn’t enough time to save it; it closed after 11 previews and 12 regular performances.

His other Broadway credits included a 1983 revival of “The Corn Is Green” starring Cicely Tyson. He also directed regionally all over the United States, as well as at the Stratford Festival in Canada.

He and Mr. Temperley, whose relationship began in 1970, married in 2003 in Canada. Mr. Matalon is also survived by a sister, Lili Matalon.

Mr. Matalon’s last Broadway credit was Mr. Temperley’s play “Souvenir,” with Judy Kaye and Donald Corren, in 2005. The play is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman with a terrible singing voice who ended up performing in Carnegie Hall. (Meryl Streep starred in a 2016 movie about her.)

Mr. Temperley, who collaborated with Mr. Matalon on several other productions over the years, recalled an anecdote from rehearsals for a pre-Broadway engagement at the York Theater when Mr. Matalon had a eureka moment.

“He began to tell me excitedly about a scene that he’d been working on in which the accompanist insults the singer and has to find a way to make things right,” he said by email. “I’d thought of it as a comic scene of a young man trying to hang on to a job that was quickly resolved with a song. What he showed me was a scene of agonized emotion as the man realized how much he’d hurt the singer and how he then slowly and tenderly brings them together again with music.

“It ends the first act,” he added, “and in his severe, daring, hilarious and heartbreaking production, performed by two actors at the top of their game, it was luminous with emotional truth. Yes, the words and situation were on the page, but Vivian’s great gift — one of his great gifts — was his ability to show the playwright what he’d written.”

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