By Robert Simonson
01 May 2014
|Photo by Walter McBride|
Following decades of steady, but uncelebrated work as both a performer and a director, Mr. Martin burst forth as a creative force in the late 1990s on the strength of several successive Off-Broadway successes. First came Full Gallop, a wry, comic solo piece featuring a bravura turn by Mary Louise Wilson as fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland. It ran a year after opening to raves at the Westside Theatre in 1996. An electric, crackling revival of John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect, at Signature Theatre Company, impressed critics in 1998.
The year 1999 brought the double triumphs of Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation, at Playwrights Horizons—where he was for years an associate artistic director under Don Scardino—and Mode's Fully Committed at Vineyard Theatre. The former, a biting, breakneck, borderline shocking satire of American cultural mores, brought Durang his best reviews in a decade; the production won several awards, made a stage star out of the manic Kristine Nielsen and nearly transferred to Broadway. The latter, a witty, fast-paced comedy starring Mark Setlock as a harried, but resourceful reservationist manning the phones at an uber-trendy New York restaurant, became one of the biggest hits in Vineyard history. It transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre, where it ran for two years.
Thereafter, Mr. Martin never lacked for work, though his critical track record would prove spotty over the next decade or so. Lincoln Center Theater used him often. There, he staged a revival of Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo, the New York premiere of Guare's Chaucer in Rome, Paul Rudnick's The New Century and Noah Haidle's Saturn Returns. In 2000 he was hired by Boston's Huntington Theatre Company as its artistic director. He stayed for eight years.Andre Bishop, Producing Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater, said in a statement, "Nicky Martin was a great director, a great man of the theatre, and a funny, literate, affectionate, elegant guy. He had more friends than most people have had hot suppers, and he will be missed by us all."
Mr. Martin frequently returned to the work of Durang, and typically enjoyed great success with it. He directed the premiere of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at the Public Theater in 2009, and enjoyed what was arguably the crowning achievement of his directing career with the Tony-winning Broadway production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a Chekhov-flavored comedy of tortured relationships and frustrated dreams in rural Pennsylvania. The show ran more than a year.
As was the case with many Martin productions, Vanya "popped" on many levels—in comic pacing, in its design elements and, in particular, in the vibrancy of its performances.
Nicholas Martin was born June 10, 1938, in New York, and grew up in New Jersey. "I was one of those Jewish kids who was taken to plays from the time I could walk, probably," he told Playbill. "The first time I remember being electrified in the theatre was seeing Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. From that moment on all I wanted to do was get out there and act."
He studied at Carnegie Mellon, where top students spent summers at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre performing Shakespeare. His first role, in 1957, was as the Fool in King Lear.
He began his career as an actor, first appearing on the Broadway stage in an APA-Phoenix Repertory Company production of The School for Scandal, directed by Elias Rabb. With the same troupe, he acted in Pirandello's Right You Are (If You Think You Are) that same year; Ibsen's The Wild Duck, Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You, Pantagleize and Ionesco's Exit the King, all in 1967. He returned to Broadway in 1980 in The Man Who Came to Dinner, at Circle in the Square, and in 1982 in Eva Le Gallienne's Alice in Wonderland.
Following his association with APA-Phoenix, he fell into bad habits. "I did some work on Broadway, then spent the next ten years devoting myself to serious alcoholism," he said. But "I got some help and sobered up."
Nothing he did as an actor, however, brought him the notoriety he would achieve with his second career as a director. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2013 for Vanya and Sonia…; for a Drama Desk Award in 1999 for Betty's Summer Vacation; for a Lucille Lortel Award for the Lincoln Center Theater production of Frank McGuinness' WWI play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme. He won an Obie Award for Betty's Summer Vacation.
He served as artistic director of the Huntington from 2000 through 2008, where he directed many plays, including Bus Stop, The Corn Is Green, She Loves Me, Present Laughter, Persephone, The Cherry Orchard, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Sisters Rosensweig. He followed that with a three-year stint as the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival."Partnering with Nicky was a great treat," Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso, who worked with Martin from 2000 to 2008, said in a statement. "He was a brilliant director of classics and new plays alike, and was a wonderful collaborator. What I most remember is the joy with which Nicky infused a room, whether it was a rehearsal hall or a dinner table."
Martin had been slated to direct a January 2015 production at the Huntington of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Several months ago, he had to withdraw from the Huntington’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, citing personal reasons.