TV or Not TV: Nathan Lane at the Crossroads

TV or Not TV: Nathan Lane at the Crossroads A funny thing happened on the way to the interview. Security was so tight at City Center that the star was stopped at the stage door and asked to identify himself. He removed the green-tinted shades, flashed the punim that should soon be his passport to any theatrical stage in the world and said his name.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the interview. Security was so tight at City Center that the star was stopped at the stage door and asked to identify himself. He removed the green-tinted shades, flashed the punim that should soon be his passport to any theatrical stage in the world and said his name.

Nathan Lane won't endure that indignity much longer. He's on the brink of becoming a household face, soon to be playing on your local television set and at various feature-film palaces around town. In the way that good news travels fast, the rest of the world will be catching up to a fact known by New York playgoers for years: He's one of the funniest people practicing on the planet.

But for now, and through mid-April, Lane is preaching to the converted on one of Manhattan Theatre Club's two stages at City Center‹in the Jon Robin Baitz comedy, Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "schmucks." Kiddingly, he calls it "a surprising career move," after his Tony-winning work in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his dizzying rush of flicks, which tend to strike box-office gold if an animal is in the title (The Lion King, The Birdcage and Mouse Hunt).

The joke is, of course, that this is a smart, strategic career move because Davis Mizlansky, the fast-talking Hollywood huckster he plays, is a role that fits Lane like a Gucci glove. The torrent of words and the rapid-fire delivery‹it's a match, so much so that one suspects Baitz of writing with Lane in mind.

Not so, says Lane. "Mizlansky/Zilinsky is the first thing Robbie ever wrote. It started out as a little one-act play, running about 30 pages. I don't know how much of that survives in this, but essentially it's something he came back to after a long time. When he finished it, he decided to do it at L.A. Theatre Works, where they do plays for radio. He just wanted to hear the play, and since I was out there at the time, I did it. We recorded it over four nights, in front of an audience, and I remember feeling comfortable with this character. Robbie has written a guy who never stops talking, similar to characters I've played in Terrence McNally shows. But I just think it's good writing. Good writing is good writing. If it seems like I'm making it up as it goes along, then that's good. That's something that you always hope for." Still, despite the snug fit, the part went to Ron Leibman. Lane, at this upwardly mobile point in his career, wasn't planning an Off-Broadway comeback‹even at Manhattan Theatre Club, where he had had five or six other successes‹but when Leibman backed out, Lane was quick to heed MTC's S.O.S.

Thanks to black horn-rims and a swirly salt-and-pepper wig, Lane is a little hard to find onstage at first. He credits The New Look to the show's costume designer, Ann Roth. "She said, 'You should do a transformation and not do yourself,' so Paul Huntley came up with this wonderful wig. It's nice to keep changing. That's part of the fun of acting, reinventing yourself each time as somebody different, disappearing into another character, surprising people."

His next scheduled disappearing act occurs the middle of next month when he goes to L.A. to do the pilot of his still-unnamed TV series for the "Frasier" creators. "I have no idea where the plot is going," he confesses. "All I know at this point is I'm an opera singer who has lost his voice and has returned to his home in the Napa Valley to regroup and figure what to do with his life."

Right now he has a day job running alongside his M/Z gig‹a small role in At First Sight, which director Irwin Winkler is filming here with Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino. "It's based on an Oliver Sacks story about a man who has been blind since infancy, then has an operation and regains his sight but is mentally blind and has a great deal of trouble adjusting. I'm the unorthodox doctor/therapist they come to for help." (Translation: a Sacks facsimile not unlike the one his Birdcage partner played in Awakenings, Robin Williams.)

In May, after Episode One of the series is shot, Lane will head for Toronto to play Irving Mansfield to Bette Midler's Jacqueline Susann in Isn't She Great? "An incredibly funny love story" is the way he characterizes it. Paul (Jeffrey) Rudnick has written the script, and Andrew Bergman will direct.

If the series is a go, then you won't be seeing him back to Broadway as one of the Wiseguys, Stephen Sondheim's take on the flamboyant Mizner brothers. Both projects are shooting for a fall liftoff, with the Sondheim show slated to premiere at the Kennedy Center, but a little thing like an obvious scheduling collision didn't stop him from jumping at an opportunity to do the workshop, with Victor Garber as the other brother and Debra Monk as their mother.

"Some of Steve's best work is in this show," he contends. "The opening number is unbelievably fantastic, and there's a song the brothers sing to their mother called 'Next to You' that's one of the most beautiful songs he has ever done. It has my favorite lyric: 'Next to you/the moon is just an accident of lighting.' Isn't that lovely? And John Weidman has written a great book, too."

Garber played Wilson Mizner, the playwright and con man, and Lane was the straighter bro. "Addison was the more uptight one and a sweet character. Steve wrote a song called 'Addison's Journey,' where he goes on this trip around the world, trying different occupations. He can't find what it is he wants to do with his life. It's one of those songs where the character writes a list of things he bought abroad‹he's buying souvenirs from all these different places like Australia and Japan‹and after he makes his last trip, he has this really funny, charming, quite melodic song. Then, at the end of it, he starts to arrange all these things he has collected in his house, and that's when he finally realizes that what he should really do is design, be an architect."

A tempting alternative to TV, to be sure. "I'd love to do it," Lane admits. "We'll see what happens. These things are all subject to change. We'll see."