Nathan Lane Reveals How Terrence McNally's "Wicked Tongue" Changed His Life

Playbill Pride   Nathan Lane Reveals How Terrence McNally's "Wicked Tongue" Changed His Life Award-winning actor Nathan Lane reflects on his relationship with friend and collaborator Terrence McNally.
Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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I met Terrence McNally in the lobby of the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center in 1987. I was in previews with a farce called Claptrap that was, unfortunately, living up to its title. Terrence saw me sitting there with my head in my hands and approached me and said, "Hi, I'm Terrence McNally. I know you're having a tough time with your show, but you're a wonderful actor, and I hope we get to work together someday." Two years later I was cast in The Lisbon Traviata and my life was changed forever. It was also the beginning of an extraordinary 26-year collaboration in the theatre and a treasured friendship as well.

Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally Photo by Jason Zeren/The Creative Faces Project

When I first started working with Terrence he had told me about the devastating loss of two of his best collaborators, James "Jimmy" Coco and Robert Drivas, and that he somehow felt I had been sent to take their place in his theatrical life. He said he wrote better when he knew whom he was writing for and that he wanted to create plays with me in mind. An unbelievably generous and monumental gift for a young actor, especially coming from a writer of his caliber and stature.

I must say there is no better collaborator in the world than Terrence McNally. No one is happier to be in a rehearsal room with a new play and a group of people bringing his story and characters to life. He still has a very pure, genuine, childlike excitement about the whole process. I say childlike, but I mean an extremely sophisticated child with a wicked tongue.

The amazing thing about him is that he is as prolific now as when I first met him. He is also an incredibly loyal and loving friend, someone you can really count on in a pinch, and a great dinner companion, because as much as he loves it all, no one is more hilarious about the indignities of show business or the craziness of the theatre. He is also happily married to a wonderful man and producer, Tom Kirdahy, and their marriage has been an inspiration to us all. He cares deeply and profoundly about the theatre and how meaningful an artist's contribution to society can be. What can I say? He's like the love child from a wild night between [Lynne and Alfred] Lunt and Noël Coward, with Ethel Merman as the midwife. After all these years he's still my favorite writer, and he is very much like his plays: sharply intelligent, witty, heartfelt, passionate and full of surprises. Like a great actor, his writing can turn on a dime. You're laughing hysterically one minute and the next thing you know, tears are running down your face. He has certainly given me some of the best roles of my career, and the plays we have done together are some of my proudest moments in the theatre. He is a unique and original voice in the American theatre, and they come along so rarely they should be celebrated and cherished.

I was also asked to discuss how Terrence's commitment to equality has bettered the gay community. That's a tall order for this amount of space, and I'm not quite sure how something like that can be measured. I would say his influence has been felt by example, personally and professionally, and just by being a visible and viable presence in his field. Oh, and very often being ahead of his time. Who else would write a farce set in a gay bathhouse in the '70s? Corpus Christi, anyone?

But I think I'll let the man speak for himself: "I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don't think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to… plays don't do that, people do. But plays can provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself." As usual, he has found the perfect words to express his feelings. And that’s art, folks.

Nathan Lane and Terrence McNally
Nathan Lane and Terrence McNally Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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