As Light as Eyre

As Light as Eyre RACING DEMON" DIRECTOR IS WELL-NAMED

RACING DEMON" DIRECTOR IS WELL-NAMED

As a director‹and, doubtlessly, as an administrator (he's head of London's Royal National Theatre)--Richard Eyre is well named. It's pronounced "air," and this he breathes onto a potentially static stage, bringing it vibrantly to life.

Consider David Hare's "Racing Demon," a drama dogma-thick with ideas and ideals. True to Bob Crowley's grand (and subliminally telling) design, the massive Vivian Beaumont stage has been turned into a squat cross, and for nigh on to three hours, actors rush on and off of it, spilling (in some cases, spieling) doctrine as they go, forming their respective Anglican angles. In Hare's gray-grim view, the contemporary Church of England is a vacant lot, its lectured-to flock having lost interest and strayed to drugs, cults and the nightly telly.

At the throbbing heart of this matter is a burned-out inner-city priest (Josef Sommer) who puts ministering to the practical needs of his parishioners ahead of administering them the sacraments. Such a stance puts him in conflict not only with his ritual-clanging bishop (George N. Martin) but also with his own curate (Michael Cumpsty), a firebrand who, grieving for parents lost in a car crash, applies fundamentalism like salve to his psychic scars. Struggling to keep the peace, or at least the status quo, are a pair of priest pals--one (Brian Murray), a discreet gay forced to a crisis of conscience by the tabloid press; the other (Paul Giamatti), a game player skilled at staying afloat.

Setting this up requires a longish Act I, which Eyre readily defends. "Part of the joy of this play," he says, "is that it pursues these stories in parallel throughout. Yes, it demands concentration, but so did those old Kaufman-and-Hart comedies. Kaufman always used to say he never, ever, wanted an audience to laugh in the first act. He said, ŒIt's all exposition. All I want is for people to concentrate. It'll all pay off later on.' With 'Racing Demon' it's like some detonation occurs of things laid in the first part of the play." "Detonation" is a good word for what sends these various worlds reeling like tops through the second act--arguably, the most involving second act since "Oleanna." It helps, too, to have at the top of that act a hilarious scene in which lots of tequila sunrises are sloshed around the Savoy by the priests. Soon characters start shedding their symbols, and human beings begin emerging.

The actors making the metamorphosis are as mystified as the next guy about how it happens, but every one of them suspects it's something in the, er, Eyre.

*"He told us at the first rehearsal about how he needed to be seamless--and he was," recalls Cumpsty. "He seemed to be doing nothing, to be letting everybody do their own work, then he'll just nudge. It seemed effortless. He gave us the tiniest adjustments, and the whole thing would shift. It was extraordinary."

*Giamatti, who handles what passes for comic relief among the priests, says "Amen!" to that. "It was amazing how he knew the right thing to say that would be able to bump me up and, at the same time, pull me back. I don't know how he did it, but he really knew how to talk to me, to shape the whole thing."

*"My new favorite director" is all Sommer can come up with. "It's actually hard to think of the words that I could say in praise of him. He's the most intelligent, most humane, most actor-supportive director I ever worked with."

*Murray, himself a Broadway director of note ("Blithe Spirit"), doesn't stint on superlatives either. "The most relaxed presence of any director I've ever worked with," he calls Eyre. "There's never any anxiety about what he does. He'll say, ŒThat was really good--that was a personal best,' or, every now and then, ŒThat was a personal, and Olympic, best.' And then, he'll tell you why. He's a man of few words, but somehow his knowledge of the play exudes."

*Martin remembers, with a laugh, how Eyre tactfully helped him through a tough scene where he has to fly into a rage. "One of my assistants interrupts me during the scene, so I said to Richard, ŒWell, if he really interrupted me, that would get me there.' Richard said, ŒYes, we could do that. I could let you do that--but it would be wrong.' Then he showed me a better way to do it. He's very laid back, but he controls you--without you ever even knowing it."

Score five-for-five for Eyre-brushed performances! (It's his third set, too: He staged "Racing Demon" at the Doolittle Theatre in L.A. last year, plus the original production at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1990.) "It's curious how in some respects this cast, without knowing it, almost mimicked their counterparts in the other productions--in gestures and body language--so I guess the specific points in these characters are built into their roles.

"What's original about this play is that it's mostly about good people. Usually, plays have evil machinations, villains, people who are not well-intentioned to each other, but here are people who are trying to make the world a better place. That gives the play a quality that touches audiences. I want audiences to ask themselves the same questions that the characters ask themselves. ŒHow do you do good in the world?' ŒShould we not try to love one another here on earth first rather than trying to love some abstract being?'"

Back home in Britain, the 52-year-old Eyre wears two hats: Director and (duties relenting) just plain director. The latter is where his heart lies, and the time he spent mounting "Racing Demon" here--being responsible solely for directing--amounted to something of an autumn vacation for him. To bring this off took tenacious cajoling from Lincoln Center producers Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten--and some mammoth "shedyule shuffling" in London.

During the two months he spent fine-tuning this production, he ran the National by phone, keeping in touch with the theatre daily, making major programming decisions for the future (like, say, a Mary Stuart revival in the spring). The morning after "Racing Demon" was installed at the Beaumont, he was Britain-bound again, hoping folks wouldn't think he was fleeing bad notices.

Some chance of that. Although Eyre is only now getting around his Broadway-directing debut, he has for decades been a prolific producer here. "In the past two years," he notes with justified pride, "six shows that were created at the National Theatre have come to New York--"Carousel," "Arcadia," "An Inspector Calls," "Indiscretions," and, at BAM, "Richard III" and "The Madness of King George III"--so our presence has been quite conspicuous here. It has been a very hospitable situation. I love it. It gives me an excuse to come regularly to New York."

He has been sending hits our way since "Comedians" in 1977. "I commissioned and directed that play when I was running a regional theatre and took it to London. Then Alex Cohen was going to bring it to New York, but we couldn't get Equity permission to bring the whole production, so Mike Nichols directed it with an American cast." Jonathan Pryce was, however, allowed to come over to reprise his performance here, and it got him the Tony, but Stephen Rea didn't achieve Broadway stardom till "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" in 1992, and the only visibility Anthony Sher and Tom Wilkinson have had in this country has been in films. Now comes Eyre. "I wish there was more free exchange in this," he says. "I don't think it's in anybody's interest to restrict the exchange."

But now that Eyre has debuted here, he won't be a stranger. Next fall, or soon thereafter, he'll direct another Hare here--"Skylight"--this time on Broadway and, Equity permitting, starring the London originals: Michael Gambon and Lea Williams. After 1997 his professional visits here should become far more frequent. That's the year he'll round off his first decade as the National's director--and turn in his badge, about the same time the British will be pulling out of Hong Kong. He laughs at this link. "I have to search hard to find a connection between those two events," he says sheepishly, overlooking the obvious fact that, to many minds, he's something of a National treasure.