Nicholas Martin is spending showtimes for Fully Committed in the green room at the Vineyard Theatre. It’s a bleak basement room with a table, a few chairs and fewer amenities, but his presence is part of the “benevolent stroking” he provides when directing a one-person show, because the performer “has no one there.” Although 40-odd characters appear in Becky Mode’s 70-minute play about a struggling actor employed by a tony restaurant, Mark Setlock portrays them all, slipping from one voice and deportment to another as he becomes the actor’s father, brother, a variety of egotistic callers wanting reservations, fellow actors reporting on their latest auditions, and the kinds of bosses you’d like to put through a Cuisinart.
“I’ve loved working on this,” says Martin, “because I think the piece is enchanting and because Mark and Becky are such great collaborators.” Mode and Setlock developed the play shortly after leaving Bouley, also a tony restaurant where lots of possibly egotistic callers may have wanted reservations. “Mark got into Rent,” Martin says, “and Becky got married and left her job [at Bouley] and started writing. This is the first fruit of their labors, and it’s very sophisticated in the best sense of the word.”
The director is no stranger to one-person shows -- Full Gallop ran two years Off-Broadway -- but he almost missed out on Fully Committed. He was taken to a reading shortly after Full Gallop opened, and he wasn’t in a receptive mood. “Mark was just doing a reading, literally sitting at a table reading it, at the Atlantic Theater Company,” he recalls. “And I was 12 hours away from a cataract operation, in a filthy temper -- I had to put in a rehearsal for an understudy for Full Gallop at the last minute -- and the last thing in the world I wanted to see was a one-man show about the restaurant business being read to me. But I loved it. I couldn’t resist doing it.”
Solo shows are no longer on Martin’s mind, though. Certainly he’ll have to find larger-cast plays to fill the stage of Boston’s Huntington Theatre, where he has just been appointed artistic director. No stranger to crowds on stage, Martin wants to begin his tenure next season with Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, a play with more than 40 characters -- and a bit of the East River -- that he directed in 1998 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Hope Davis, Marian Seldes, Campbell Scott, and Robert Sean Leonard have been invited to recreate the roles they played.
Martin’s agreement with the Huntington is that he direct two shows there each season, and two shows away, “which means New York, and I could conceivably still work at Williamstown, which is my great love,” he says. “And then, I might have a show in Williamstown that we could move to Boston.” He’d like a second crack at Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, another Williamstown show, “for Andrea Martin, who’s a great friend of mine.” Those are impressive marquee names for a theatre not known for star power. “I want to say this gently,” Martin says, “but I think the Huntington could benefit from a higher-profile director and actor in general.” He intends to draw on his friendships with “Ethan, Calista, Hope Davis, Bobby [Robert Sean] Leonard” because they are part of a generation of actors that “is really serious about the theatre and makes movies because they enjoy them, but mostly to pay the rent, and they always want to come back to the theater.”
Shakespeare, “my favorite,” is high on his list -- the former actor has appeared in 33 productions of the plays. In addition to Richard II, which Robert Sean Leonard wants to play, Martin is considering Macbeth with Victor Garber. Although he directed Garber in the role at the Old Globe, “I would like to do it again, and give him a really great Lady Macbeth -- Blair Brown or Debbie Monk or Kate Burton,” he says. “I don’t want to recycle work, but there’s something exciting about rethinking your work.”
It was on a trip to the Huntington with Garber in 1996 that running the Boston theatre first crossed Martin’s mind. They had gone to see Campbell Scott do Hamlet. “When I walked into the Huntington, I said, ‘You know, I said I’d never want to be an artistic director again [after Playwrights Horizons], but there’s a buzz in the theatre, and Boston audiences, I remember from my acting days, are so great. And there’s just a feeling in this old, old theatre that I like. If it ever becomes available...’ And somebody said to me, ‘It will never become available, because the producer there has been there for 18 years and he’ll never let it go.’ But it did, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to put myself forward for it.’ ”
One strong attraction for Martin is a proposal that Boston University, which owns the Huntington, has made to build two new theaters in the South End, in addition to the current, 890-seat venue. One would be a 350-seat black box; the other, a 199-seat theater to be shared with dance or theater groups in the city. “Not since the beginning of Off-Broadway have the theatres ever been really where the audience is any more,” Martin says excitedly. “They’re in malls or they’re far from residential areas, and this would be the right place for a newer play. I got very excited about it, because the South End is such a hot place now.”
Martin will be taking up residence in Boston in the spring, but meanwhile the 61-year-old director has five shows he’s attached to. Next up is The Rivals for The Acting Company, “because I believe in the Acting Company.” Betty’s Summer Vacation, by Christopher Durang, which Martin directed in the spring at Playwrights Horizons, is awaiting a theatre in which to reopen - ideally the Minetta Lane, he says, if The Umbilical Brothers in Thwak closes there.
“Then The Time of the Cuckoo at Lincoln Center for Debbie Monk,” he continues. “It’s an ideal part for her, and a real star part that she deserves. I’m just beginning casting now. It’s never been revived since the first production with Shirley Booth [in 1952]. I think that Arthur [Laurents, the playwright] felt that until the right actress came along to do it, he didn’t want it distorted. I feel very honored to be working on it.” The show will start previews in January for an early February opening.
“Then I’m going to California to do Robbie Baitz’ play Mizlansky/Zilinsky at the Geffen,” he says. “Then I’m doing You Can’t Take It With You at the Roundabout next summer.” Martin has a long association with the Kaufman & Hart work. “That’s the play that made the APA Repertory Company on Broadway in the late ‘60s,” he explains. “Ellis Rabb directed, and I was in it then with Rosemary Harris, Helen Hayes and Donald Moffat, so I’m going to try to replicate as much as possible Ellis’ production, because it was absolutely definitive.”
He also hopes to do a play at Williamstown, but says, “I may have to cancel one of these. I have two months off, and I have to go to Boston and get started.” In addition, Chaucer in Rome, a new John Guare play he directed at the Williamstown Festival’s smaller Nikos Stage this summer, has been picked up for a production at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre next year. “John is working on it as we speak,” he says. Another large-cast Williamstown production that he’d like New York to see is Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which opened this summer’s mainstage season. Ethan Hawke starred as Kilroy, and both Hawke and Martin have had talks with Andre Bishop about a New York remounting.
Directing a large-cast show is no less arduous than mounting a solo show, he adds. “The problems are different. But every theatre assumes that if it’s a one-person show, it will be inexpensive. In fact, with a one-person show, everything has to be perfect -- every prop, everything that’s worn, every part of the set. With a bigger show you can allow a thing or two to slide.
“I think this will be my last one-man show,” he says of Fully Committed. Then, he adds, breaking into laughter, “But whenever I say ‘This is my last’ about anything, I’m heading up a theater somewhere, so I’m not to be trusted!”
-- Edward Karam