NEW YORK — María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-born American playwright whose spare, poetic, and emotionally forceful works were hallmarks of experimental theater for four decades, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 88.
Her death, at the Amsterdam Nursing Home, was confirmed by playwright Migdalia Cruz, a friend and former student of Ms. Fornés’. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
A favorite of many critics, theater scholars, and fellow playwrights, who often declared that her achievements far outstripped her fame, Ms. Fornés came to playwriting relatively late — her first artistic pursuit was painting — and never earned the popular regard of such contemporaries as Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, John Guare, and Lanford Wilson.
Her plays earned eight Obie awards, the off-Broadway equivalent of the Tonys, and she was given an Obie for lifetime achievement in 1982. But her only work to appear on Broadway, a 1966 comedy called “The Office,” directed by Jerome Robbins, closed in previews.
Still, over a long career during which she wrote dozens of plays, many of which she directed, and fostered the high-minded idea of the sovereign playwright by producing experimental plays and teaching a generation of younger playwrights, Ms. Fornés gained a reputation within the theater world as an underrecognized genius.
“She’s not spoken of as an important American playwright, and she should be,” playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview for this obituary in 2013, adding: “She had terrifyingly high standards and was terribly blunt about what others did with her work. Her productions were unforgettable. She was really a magical maker of theater.”
Ms. Fornés (pronounced for-NESS) made a name for herself early in her career with antic and allusive work that drew on the renegade, absurdist spirit of the 1960s and helped define off-off-Broadway and the American avant-garde.
Later, as her work became less surreal and more resonant, she became known for her sparse dialogue; brief, seemingly disjointed scenes; emotionally fraught, often threatening circumstances; and her use of strikingly suggestive set designs and choreography.
“It’s hard to separate Fornés the writer from Fornés the director,” Marc Robinson, a Yale professor who edited a collection of essays about her work, said in 2013. “For her there was no division between writing dialogue for a character and thinking how the actor playing that character would hold her hands onstage, or where the chair would be placed, or how the light would fall at the end of the scene. She was also a master of stage silence.”
In 1965, collaborating with composer Al Carmines, Ms. Fornés wrote the book and lyrics for “Promenade,” a wry, elliptical musical about two honest convicts who have escaped into a corrupt world. The show made its debut at the Judson Poets Theater in Greenwich Village and had a successful off-Broadway run in 1969 as well as a well-received revival in 1983.
“Miss Fornés’s lyrics, like her book, seem to have a sweetly irrelevant relevance,” Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the 1969 production. “There is a Dada zaniness here that creeps up on you where you least expect it, and a topsy-turvy Brechtian morality that is most attractive.”
Though Ms. Fornés never entirely eschewed allegory and elaborate metaphor, her work became more realistic and psychologically probing. Like Chekhov, whom she acknowledged as a chief influence, she concentrated on characters, some more astute than others, who are bent on self-examination, seeking to confirm their dignity.
Perhaps her best-known play was “Fefu and Her Friends,” a 1977 drama first presented by New York Theater Strategy, a company she helped found.
A signature work of feminist theater set in the 1930s, the play portrayed eight women who, gathered in the home of their friend Fefu (“middle-aged, loving, brilliant, and tormented,” as one reviewer described her), reveal their rivalries, anxieties, and sympathies amid the unfolding of multiple conflicts. “The dramatic equivalent of a collection of poems,” Richard Eder of the Times called it when it was presented off-Broadway in 1978.
As directed by Ms. Fornés, four of the play’s second-act scenes are performed simultaneously in different parts of the theater, standing in for the rooms of Fefu’s house, and the audience, divided into four groups, leaves its seats and makes the rounds of the locations.
Her other later plays included “Mud” (1983), about a woman whose attempt to escape her life amid stifling ignorance on a remote farm is violently derailed; “The Danube,” an early-1980s story of a sweet romance that shrivels, as if by a poisoned world; “The Conduct of Life” (1985), about the savage home life of a Latin American soldier whose job is torturing prisoners; “Abingdon Square” (1987), about a young woman’s emerging self-awareness, both sexual and spiritual; “Enter the Night” (1993), a play about mortality and personal responsibility set in Manhattan during the AIDS plague; and “Letters From Cuba” (2000), a sweet-tempered autobiographical play based on decades of letters Ms. Fornés had received from a brother who never left Havana.
In that play, the character who stands in for Ms. Fornés is a dancer who is given few lines but expresses herself in eloquent movement, practicing balletic moves in her Manhattan apartment. The play, Ms. Fornés’ final one, was given its premiere by the Signature Theater Company in Manhattan, culminating an entire season devoted to her work.