Terrence McNally doesn’t stint when it comes to singing the praises of Nathan Lane. “I think he’s an acting genius, a natural creature of the theater,” says the playwright. “He’s certainly the great male star of Broadway who, play after play, can fill a theatre.”
Lane was indeed the biggest marquee draw last fall for It’s Only a Play, McNally’s riotous backstage comedy about a group of theater folk at their opening night party, anxiously awaiting the verdict of the critics; soon after its opening, the play became the megahit of the season.
The Tony-winning actor left the production at the beginning of this year to repeat his lead performance in the revival of Eugene O’Neal’s The Iceman Cometh, which transferred to New York from Chicago. He has now returned to It’s Only a Play for the rest of its limited run through June 7, rejoining a stellar ensemble cast that includes F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Katie Finneran, T.R. Knight, and Micah Stock.
“I first saw Nathan in George C. Scott’s  production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, his first job in New York,” recalls McNally. “The part is very small but Nathan made so much of it. I thought, This is a phenomenally gifted actor, and he’s going to be a big star.”
The playwright and actor first worked together some 25 years ago, when Lane captured the attention of critics and theatergoers alike in McNally’s 1989 tragicomedy The Lisbon Traviata. In the intervening years, Lane performed in several of McNally’s works — including the Tony Award–winning Love! Valour! Compassion! — and the two men have remained good friends. McNally says there’s an even closer bond between them: “He hears the way I write. We have never discussed a script, what it means, or its interpretation. He just gets it.”
Director Jack O’Brien concurs. “There is something in the rhythm of Terrence’s writing and his wit that is second nature to Nathan. In fact,” he notes, “there’s a line in the play where the playwright, Peter [played by Broderick], says to the actor James [Lane’s character], ‘Nobody hears me like you do.’ In opera there is such a thing as a Verdi soprano; there are Wagnerian singers. Their voices or their temperaments are suited to the music that is being made. And that’s the case here with Nathan. And he is also very musical. I think there is something about how he hears Terrence’s wit that he knows how to launch it. It’s amazing.”
O’Brien’s relationship with McNally also goes way back, beginning with a production of McNally’s Up in Saratoga at San Diego’s Old Globe in 1989 and continuing over two Broadway musicals, The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can. But it wasn’t until two years ago, when he directed Lane in Douglas Carter Beane’s vaudeville comedy The Nance on Broadway, that he actually got to know the actor. The director contends that scaling the heights of O’Neal’s Iceman in Chicago just prior to doing The Nance helped to strengthen Lane’s prowess as an actor. “I was almost mystically aware that something had happened, that he had gone through a kind of sea change. His work on The Nance — his selflessness, his ability to go into a very dark, personal place so generously — showed that. We had a great time together. We laugh a lot. What can I tell you — we’re both Irish!”
“Nathan is at the top of his power right now,” the director continues. “His technique, his vocal range, the clarity of that voice is astonishing in the theatre. Let’s just talk about the noise he makes on the stage: You hear everything effortlessly, in a kind of freak way, the way Merman was or Jolson was. You hear all of the color, and the humor is available to him. And he is not a casual man,” O’Brien adds. “He takes the craft very seriously and he does an extraordinary amount of homework. Honest to God, he came to the first day of rehearsal for The Nance — a new play — and he’d learned the part and was off the book. That sets an extraordinary bar, and everybody has to hurry to catch up.”
It’s Only a Play also taps into the very special stage partnership of Lane and Broderick, which has proven to be a gold mine at the box office ever since the duo performed together in the 2001 smash hit The Producers. “There is an interesting chemistry between them, not unlike siblings,” the director observes. “And I don’t mean siblings who constantly adore one another. There is a frisson between them that is quite exciting — they irritate each other and they adore one another. So there is a leap of real chemistry that the audience understands. I think they interlock in some wonderful way — the sort of implacable, almost stoic coolness of Matthew, which is offset with the peppery combustibility of Nathan.”
Where there is laughter, there is also pain. O’Brien says that Lane is “one of the great clowns of his time,” adding, “A clown is a very rare animal who is universally funny, but somebody who markets a kind of pain. They find in adversity a spark of humanity that makes us giggle or laugh.” The director relates that playwright John Guare had referred to McNally’s comedy as one of the saddest plays he had seen. “I love that, because for those us in the business, we rarely share with an audience what happens when it goes wrong,” he explains.
You could just say it’s only a play, but for O’Brien there’s more. “Even though there are silly topical references — because Terrence is a wicked boy and peppers the flavoring with them — it’s a very truthful play,” says the director. “Everybody on that stage, everybody in the play, and everybody I know, has been devastated by cruel, awful reviews that may be valid, but it was for something that you believed in and thought was good. And that is, frankly, soul-searing. So the longer we play the play, the more truth has emerged. It’s a very life-affirming theater valentine.”