Gerald Gutierrez, Acclaimed Director of Broadway Plays, Is Dead

Obituaries   Gerald Gutierrez, Acclaimed Director of Broadway Plays, Is Dead
Tony Award-winning director Gerald Gutierrez, who helmed Lincoln Center Theater productions of Dinner at Eight, The Most Happy Fella, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Heiress, A Delicate Balance and more, has died, a spokesperson for Lincoln Center Theater confirmed Dec. 30.

Gerald Gutierrez.
Gerald Gutierrez.

He died in his sleep of respitory failure as a result of the flu. They exact date of death is not known. He lived in Brooklyn, where he was born. He was 53.

Mr. Gutierrez, known for getting to the emotional root of plays no matter how large or small the cast, recently returned to the theatre, after taking a break of several years to attend law school. During the 1990s, however, he was one of Lincoln Center's directors of choice and his touch seemed infallible. His crisp, expertly acted Broadway productions of The Heiress (in 1995) and A Delicate Balance (1996) were regarded are near perfect representations of those plays. And his dramatic restructuring of Frank Loesser's musical The Most Happy Fella, done with a two piano orchestra, proved popular with critics. All three shows won their category for Tony Award for Best Revival.

Subsequent Lincoln Center efforts proved less popular, however, including a staging of Chekhov's Ivanov with Kevin Kline (in 1997) and a Broadway revival of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon (in 1999). In 2000, he was replaced by Daniel Sullivan as the director of a Broadway-bound revival of O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring Cherry Jones. He did not return to the Broadway stage until last year's lavish LCT revival of Kaufman and Ferber's Dinner at Eight, a production which smacked of his usual sharp, elegant style.

His set designer on all of the above productions was John Lee Beatty, whose rich, detailed visions were a good match to the precise, professional work of the director. Actors who worked with Mr. Gutierrez, meanwhile, often found themselves later making an acceptance speech. Cherry Jones, once an exclusively Off-Broadway figure, became a full-fledged star after winning a Tony Award for her performance in The Heiress. Her co-star, Frances Sternhagen, was also honored that year. George Grizzard received late career accolades, including the Tony, for his turn in A Delicate Balance. Also a Tony winner was Scott Waara of The Most Happy Fella.

"I don't believe anyone has one way of" directing actors, he told the New York Times. "I work with every actor in a different way. When you work with lions you're a lion tamer. I do believe it all comes from the page. I found it ironic that the reaction to The Heiress was 'how bold and brave to do it as written.' It's sort of nuts. When I leave the theatre I never remember blocking. I remember the performance. It's all about showcasing the actor, which in recent years has sort of been ignored." Other actors Mr. Gutierrez directed to Tony nominations included Christine Ebersole (for Dinner at Eight), Marian Seldes, whom he used many times (Dinner at Eight, Ring Round the Moon), Sophie Hayden (The Most Happy Fella), Liz Larsen (The Most Happy Fella), Sam Waterston (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Max Wright (Ivanov), Jane Alexander (Honour), Enid Graham (Honour) and Nancy Marchand (White Liars and Black Comedy).

Mr. Gutierrez, an eccentric and effusive man, was an easily recognizable figure in the New York theatre community, primarily due to Phyllis, a Yorkshire terrier he carried everywhere he went, and whom he stroked as his name was called at the 1995 Tony Award ceremony. He told the New York Times, of his behavior on that program, "I'm smart enough to know it was deflective behavior. If you look at the dog, you're not looking at the scars."

The scars came from surgery for cancer of the tongue, which he underwent in 1992 and included the removal of lymph nodes on both sides of his neck. After that operation, he often wore turtleneck sweaters.

"I am very proud of how I behaved," he told the Times. "I always knew I was strong, but I didn't know how strong. When they said they didn't know if I could speak, I thought I'll be damned if I can't because I have to talk to work. I did every tongue exercise I ever learned at Juilliard to be an actor. I learned everything there is to know about the disease. It gives you empowerment."

Gerald Gutierrez was born in the Marine Park of Brooklyn, where he lived at the time of his death. His father was a New York City police detective, according to the Times. He died in 1974. His mother died in 1993, soon after her son recovered from cancer surgery. After she passed away, Gerald moved back into her house. His younger brother became a Secret Service Agent.

As a teenager, he studied piano while attending Midwood High School. A graduate of Juilliard who studied under John Houseman, Mr. Gutierrez began his career in the theatre as a performer, acting in Edward II and The Time of Your Life on Broadway in the '70s. He later switched to directing, staging Off-Broadway successes like David Mamet's Life in the Theater, Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic, Peter Parnell's Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket and Jonathan Reynolds's Geniuses. Most were at Playwrights Horizons, where he found a friend and supporter in artistic director Andre Bishop. When Bishop went to Lincoln Center, Mr. Gutierrez followed.

His Broadway debut was not auspicious. The Curse of the Aching Heart ran a handful of performances in 1982. The follow-up, Little Johnny Jones, ran for one performance.

The detour into law school wasn't the first time he had comtemplated leaving the theatre. During the mid-80s, he apprenticed himself to Edna Lewis at Gage & Tollner, the landmark restaurant in Brooklyn, and considered entering the Culinary Institute of America.

He recently directed Tom Donaghy's Boys and Girls for Playwrights Horizons. The director's death leaves a creative hole in the schedules of many nonprofit theatre companies. He was scheduled to stage Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in summer 2004 as part of the Kennedy Center's retrospective of work by Tennessee Williams in Washington, DC. Also on his schedule in 2004 were productions of Engaged by W.S. Gilbert at Theatre for a New Audience (for which he had already begun auditions); Bridget Carpenter's play Fall at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company; and a revival of Odet's Awake and Sing at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Gutierrez was also known for his playful sense of humor. In a recent e-mail exchange, a reporter at Playbill On-Line inquired who would star in his upcoming production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "Now, now," he scolded, "you know how it works. When we know, there will be an official press release." When the reporter suggested that, if journalists sat around waiting for press releases to tell him them what was going on, they'd still be wondering about the fate of the Lindbergh baby, Mr. Gutierrez replied: "Whatever happened to that baby?"

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn. He is survived by his brother, two nieces and a nephew.

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