In addition to navigating original material as the director of Curtains, The Little Dog Laughed and John Kander and Fred Ebb's Steel Pier, Scott Ellis has also stepped into the wake of heady predecessors for the first New York revivals of classic plays and musicals: The Boys from Syracuse, originally directed by George Abbott; 1776, Peter Hunt; Company (1995), Harold Prince; Picnic, Joshua Logan; and She Loves Me, Prince again. And for the 2004 stage adaptation of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, he stepped into the shoes of Sidney Lumet, who directed the film.
No stranger to challenges since literally skating his way to directing from the other side of the stage lights, Ellis is doing it again with the revival of David Rabe's Streamers, now at the Laura Pels Theatre and presented by Roundabout Theatre Company (where Ellis is the associate artistic director). The show was directed by Mike Nichols more than 30 years ago and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
"The challenge of a revival is how to bring something fresh," says Ellis. "The reward is the opportunity to add different flourishes. You're dealing with different actors, designers and a different time."
Ellis originally studied acting. "And I loved it. However, I had control issues. As an actor, you don't have control over what you do, whom you work with. I needed that." Kander and Ebb gave him the chance. He befriended them while skating in various roles opposite Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in The Rink, the team's 1984 musical with book by Terrence McNally. "I approached John and Fred about directing a revival of Flora, the Red Menace, their first collaboration. They trusted me. It was successful and that opened the doors. My acting experience has been a benefit. What I learned from directors is how to listen to and talk with actors. I know how they think and what they need."
Streamers, Rabe's term for soldiers falling through the air when their parachutes don't open, is the blistering story of four soldiers in 1965, fresh from boot camp and waiting to be deployed to Vietnam. As they struggle with the senselessness of war, tensions rise over race, sexuality and class, culminating in an explosive act that changes them forever.
Ellis became a Rabe fan seven years ago, directing the playwright's The Dog Problem for Atlantic Theater Company. "I wanted to work with David again and felt that Streamers was perfect for now." He notes it's a period piece, "but the basic truth of guys going off to war and not knowing the outcome hasn't changed. There are things that are different now, but much is the same — especially that emotional free fall of going into battle."
Rabe served in Vietnam. "He knows his subject," says Ellis. "That's why the writing's sharp and the characters jump off the page."
But it's what Rabe doesn't say that makes Streamers a classic. "Once the fuse is lit and the violence is out of the bottle, there's no pushing it back in. The undercurrent that leads to that point needs no dialogue."