Nathan Lane UnCaged

Nathan Lane UnCaged COMEDY STAR ARRIVES AT FORUM

COMEDY STAR ARRIVES AT FORUM

A funny thing happened to Joseph Lane on the way to the theatre. Turned out there was already another, older Joseph Lane in Actors' Equity. The rules say only one actor per name, so the young Joe had to change his. He had recently played the high-rolling Nathan Detroit in a small dinner theatre production of Guys and Dolls. So . . .

Enter Nathan Lane.

"They said you could change your first name or your last," Lane recalls, sitting in his dressing room at the St. James Theatre, where he is starring in a revival of Stephen Sondheim, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove's riotously funny 1962 musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. "My decision was really an impulse. I remembered Nathan Detroit. I loved playing the character. I loved the name. So I said Nathan Lane. And it's worked out well."

Indeed. Lane has been rolling very high numbers. He played Nathan Detroit again, this time in the acclaimed 1992 Broadway revival of the Frank Loesser musical. He starred on and Off-Broadway in three Terrence McNally plays: The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; and Love! Valour! Compassion! and in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor. He received raves this winter for his portrayal of a domestically inclined female impersonator opposite Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest in The Birdcage, Mike Nichols's hit comedy remake of La Cage aux Folles. Now he is back on Broadway as the raucously comic slave Pseudolus, yearning to be set "f-r-e-e" in ancient Rome.

Yet again, Lane is treading in the footsteps of theatrical giants: First there was Sam Levene, the original Nathan Detroit; now it's Zero Mostel, whose Pseudolus won him a Best Actor Tony Award. But Lane is not concerned about comparisons.

"My whole life is based on being unfavorably compared to the original," he says with a laugh, his round, rubbery, comedic face briefly moving into a grimace. "But seriously, I don't give it a lot of thought. I think you drive yourself crazy if you worry about things like that. The material has stood the test of time and survived many interpretations. They're wonderful classic roles and should be done again and again. They should be like Shakespeare. There should be many Hamlets and many Pseudoluses." He pauses and smiles. "Or is it Pseudoli?"

Lane says that Forum's Tony-winning director, Jerry Zaks, with whom he worked on Guys and Dolls, is not trying to update the show, to make it politically correct or more relevant to the nineties. "It's a period piece," he says. "We don't have to worry about updating it in any way. It's like getting into a big Rolls-Royce. You just have to drive it well."

Behind the show's humor, he says, is something "very serious -- a man's freedom. There's this scene near the beginning where Pseudolus sings about how much he wants to be free. 'I'll be Pseudolus the founder of a family. I'll be Pseudolus the pillar of society. I'll be Pseudolus the man if I can only be;free.' It's very moving. And then the hijinks begin."

His recent successes, especially The Birdcage, have also been moving, he says. "It's happening at a great time in my life -- I turned 40 in February. If it had happened at 24, I would have gone crazy and been dead in a year. Now I feel I can allow myself to enjoy it. I've been in a lot of movies where nobody called after the opening weekend. It was great to have Mike Nichols call me after the first weekend. He said, 'I guess there's no way out of it. We're just going to have to be happy.' "

Life for Lane has not always been happy. He grew up a chubby kid in Jersey City in a troubled Irish Catholic family, and learned to use humor not for fun but as a defense mechanism. "I was the classic class clown," he says. "I was heavy as a kid, and so before anyone would make fun of me, I would make a joke. And my home life was not easy. My father was an alcoholic. It was very difficult for my mother. She was raising three children essentially on her own, and in a period of two years her mother died and then my father died. She had a breakdown, and it took five years to diagnose it as manic depression. She was given lithium, and she's been fine ever since, but at the time I was going to high school, and I had to grow up very quickly. So performing in school plays, just performing at all, was a form of escape. I think that's really what this whole career came out of."

That career is flourishing now, and Lane is hoping the success will allow him to continue to alternate between stage and screen. He also is interested in doing more serious roles, maybe even something like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

"I'd be game," he says. "I love to keep surprising people." But that's for the future. For Nathan Lane, to quote Sondheim, it's tragedy tomorrow -- comedy tonight. "