In 2010, when Nathan Lane starred in the Broadway musical The Addams Family, the New York Times called him the “greatest entertainer” of the decade. From his first Tony Award nomination for Guys & Dolls to Tony-winning roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers, it wasn’t hard to discern why. For Lane, “it was very flattering, but it got stuck in my head and it bothered me.” He wanted to prove he could be more.
After conscious micro-shifts with television roles and mammoth theatrical undertakings like The Iceman Cometh and his Tony-winning turn in last season’s Angels in America, Lane’s established comedic prowess and fresh gravitas converge in his latest Broadway role: the titular character in Taylor Mac’s black comedy Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, now playing at the Booth Theatre.
Directed by Tony winner George C. Wolfe, Gary picks up in ancient Rome after the gruesome ending of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, when the bodies of the Roman general and the casualties of his revenge have piled up and someone has to clean up their mess. Enter Gary.
The Bard mentioned the character in an aside as a “clown” in one Titus scene. “Taylor decided that it was [Gary’s] profession,” Lane explains. “He’s a street clown who comes from a long line of terrible street clowns who are unsuccessful, and he doesn’t really like doing it.”
He enters in full clown regalia, having negotiated his way out of being hanged (as was his sentence in Titus) in exchange for the janitorial position. When he arrives at the banquet hall—the new storage room for the bodies—he encounters Janice, played by Tony nominee Kristine Nielsen, and later, Carol, played by Tony winner Julie White.
“They’re not even onstage characters [in Titus],” says Lane, chuckling, “and [Taylor] made them the stars of this so-called sequel and named them Gary, Janice, and Carol, which makes me laugh.” Mac’s “intelligence and wit” and command of language won over Lane.
“I think we were all drawn in by Taylor’s talent,” says Lane. “I just thought, ‘This is a fresh, bold, and original voice that should be heard.’ Sort of like what Bert Lahr said when he read Waiting for Godot, ‘I don’t know if I understand it all, but I have the nagging suspicion this might be important.’”
Written in a mix of rhymed verse, blank verse, and prose—and performed in East End Cockney accents—Lane relishes the challenge and the fun, but he recognizes audiences don’t know what to expect (“I think there’s also a bit of an expectation that we’re doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Titus Andronicus, and it’s not that,” says Lane) but “I love the fact that I don’t know how people will respond.
“It’s much quirkier and darker. We’re doing a downtown show uptown,” says Lane. “That’s either going to be refreshing to people or bewildering.
“It’s always a gamble on Broadway no matter what. But I think it’s worth it.”