David Mamet is not generally a madcap, although a certain menopausal giddiness seems to be guiding his pen of late. He has met his match in Nathan Lane, a well-known manic for all seasons, and, between the two of them, they put on a two-hour Oval Office-set rant mined with comic explosions that had the audience in a commendably constant state of uproar. Protracted applause at the end of the evening forced the cast of five back on stage for an extra bow on opening.
Mamet only recently revealed his funny side with the Off-Broadway antic, Romance. Now he is armed with deep-seated political rage, disguised as outrageous comedy, and Lane runs with this combustible combo like a star-quarterback on fire. Ordinarily, given Mamet's heavy-duty history, you would not expect them on common ground — but here they are, and the common ground is the White House, where Lane resides for the moment as Charles Smith, a profoundly unpopular Republican president on the eve of his non-reelection. He is trailing so far behind in the polls his staff might profitably form a search party. His Chief of Staff (Dylan Baker) spells it out for him: "People hate you."
It's not quite "Mr. Smith Goes to Wackoland," and it's not quite as funny as the current comedy playing the White House, but the notion of Lane as a Chief Executive on a rapidly sinking ship is a direct attack on the funnybone. And he brings out the jackhammer, spewing political incorrectness in all directions, alienating a powerful Native American figurehead (Michael Nichols), double-dealmaking with a turkey-industry spokesman (Ethan Phillips) and badgering golden prose out of his speech writer (Laurie Metcalf).
On stage, Lane was a tsunami of hilarity. Off stage, afterward at the opening-night party at Bond 45, he was subdued, soft-spoken and, to the chagrin of the press, parsimonious.
"I don't know what rage has to do with it," said the man who had made all the furious fun, "but I do think that Mamet and I are kindred sprits. We're both men of the theatre, and we love words. When I first read the script, I thought it was hilarious — a great role — and, yes, I wanted to be the first guy to say some of those things on stage." Joe Mantello, who has directed both Mamet (the Tony-winning revival of Glengarry Glen Ross) and Lane (five times, from the Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! to The Odd Couple), said it another way: "Nathan is a great musician, and Mamet is a great composer. That's a great collaboration, to have someone who plays music the way Nathan plays music and someone who writes music the way Mamet writes music."
Which makes Mantello, November's helmsman, something of a conductor. "It was a complete collaboration among all of us every day. Mamet was here for the first five days, then he went away and let us find our way through it, and then he came back right before the first preview and stayed with us a few days, went away and came back. We did some rewriting on the play. We changed where the intermission was. We used previews the way you use previews." [Mamet spent the opening in California, with severe bronchitis.]
Next for Mantello is 9 to 5. Dolly Parton has expanded her Oscar-nominated title tune into an entire score, and Patricia Resnick has written the book. Stephanie J. Bloch, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty have the roles Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Parton did in the 1980 film, and Marc Kudish has Dabney Coleman's role of their sexist boss. "We go into rehearsal in early July in New York," said Mantello, "and then we do it at the Ahmanson [in Los Angeles] August-September, September-October, somewhere along there."
Metcalf, in her second Broadway performance (her debut in My Thing of Love lasted 12 performances 12 years ago), had no problem explaining what lured her back. "What brought me to the play was working with Mamet and Joe Mantello and Nathan. I was so happy to work with those guys." And what did she learn about Nathan? "Nothing I didn't already know — his approach to the work and his generosity as an actor. I knew that about him from before, so I have been dying to share a stage with Nathan for a very long time."
Similar sentiments were echoed by Baker, who has shared a stage with Nathan before.
"I got to work with Nathan back in '86 in a little drawing room sort of comedy by Simon Gray, The Common Pursuit, and I didn't know what it would be like working with him again. I've been in the audience watching Nathan all these years, and I kinda wondered what the years have done to him. He is the most generous, most giving actor that you could ever wish for. He is absolutely the guy who wants to give other actors space. Plus, he's so much fun. Rehearsals right through till performance were a riot."
Baker was relieved to learn The Broadway Dress Code had relaxed a lot since his last Broadway gig, playing the heavily powdered, popinjay prince of 1991's La Bete.
His role in Mauritius earlier this season and now as Lane's chief political advisor in November mercifully required conventional business-suit attire. Not so with La Bete: "The first day of rehearsal," he recalled, "the director, Richard Jones, whom I had met only once when I auditioned for him, pulled me aside and said, 'You're going to have a black wig that will go up eight inches and then flop down in black curls, and you're going to have shoes with six-inch heels and big pink bows, and you're going to have a 40-foot cape carried by attendants, and you're going to have a staff that's six feet tall — and a live cockatoo.' I had no idea if he was telling the truth or if he was just setting me up. He was telling exactly the truth. Almost for the second day, I had a big old robe tied to my back.
"It took me 45 minutes to get ready each night. I couldn't have done it alone. I had the greatest dressers in the world, who'd wrap me around. To tie a cape that heavy, you've got to wrap around. They'd be hugging me and pulling me — then they'd hand me the bird.
"There were actually two different birds, and I got along with them great. But, every now and then — especially Bird B — he'd get a suicide urge and would climb up my arm and tuck his head into my wig. It wasn't normal straight hair. It had netting in it, and he'd get his head stuck in there. In the middle of the show, I'd have to get his head out of the wig, and he'd go, 'What the hell was that?' The birds were great. There was only one performance when the bird squealed when I was talking to Tom McGowen, and it forced us both to stop and look at the bird. He squawked one more time, then we went back to the scene."
As the towering Indian on the warpath in the Oval Office, Nichols struck quite a commanding, even intimidating figure. "Six-foot-four," he replied to the first question.
His was the last role to be cast, and it's the first role that he has ever done on Broadway after 27 years in the business. "Mostly I worked regionally and Off-Broadway," he explained, "but I've been out of the business for about three years — in Florida, tending to family business, taking care of my father and mother who passed. I moved back to New York in August because I'm an actor at heart and got this job shortly thereafter." Phillips is a familiar face making an unexpected reentry into New York theatre in the role of the turkey titan. "I got a television series that ran forever — "Star Trek: Voyager" — and I was covered in rubber for, like, seven years," he explained. "Then I fell in love with L.A., stayed there and did a lot theatre out there at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Geffen and the Mark Taper. I kinda flew in on my own nickel to audition for this, and I bagged it."
The sleet/rain/snow of the evening made pre-show sound-bites impossible. Everybody scurried into the theatre with minimum verbiage and stayed there — in a happy huddle — during the intermission, save for the most die-hard smokers who are used to braving the elements.
The quickly-passing parade included Josh Lucas (quite comfortable with the "Poseidon" setting), Jason Butler Harner, film director Sidney Lumet (enjoying an octogenarian's renaissance with the prized and praised "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Kristen Johnston, Met mezzo Susan Graham, celebrity lawyer Benjamin Brafman, Cabaret's Tony- and Oscar-winning Joel Grey, "Mad Men" star John Slattery and wife Talia Balsam (he has a Lisbon Traviata connection with Lane), Joy Behar, Anthony Edwards, Michael Mastro, Ann Hohn, Stephen Bogardus (Baltimore-bound to do A Little Night Music with his Falsettos co-star, Barbara Walsh and Polly Bergen), John Benjamin Hickey (expecting to be back on Broadway in the fall in a reunion of last summer's Williamstown revival of Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden) and a Juno-is-bustin'-out-all-over Victoria Clark.
Lead producer Jeffrey Richards — a producer-plus-publicist, likes to star-light his opening nights with personnel from his previous shows — hence, Talk Radio's Eric Bogosian (with wife-director Jo Bonney), Stephanie March (with hubby-chef Bobby Flay) and Peter Hermann (with wife Mariska Hargitay), Glengarry Glen Ross' Tom Wopat (returning to Broadway in A Catered Affair this spring), The Best Man's Christine Ebersole, August: Osage County's Tracy Letts, Enchanted April's Molly Ringwald, Spring Awakening's producing partner Tom Hulce; The Pajama Game's Kelli O'Hara (with new groom Greg Naughton) and The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged's Peter Ackerman.
Pretty much everyone was singing Lane's praises. Jerry Seinfeld arrived with a late chorus.
Matthew Broderick, Lane's other half in The Odd Couple as well as The Producers, was awed at the way Lane owned Mamet's words. "That's his genius. I'm sure they're all written down and word perfect. Nathan always stays right on it until he learns something exactly right."
Amen to that, said Neil Simon, who's pretty particular about words. "I've worked with Nathan four times. He's the best."