Good Old Reliable Nathan

Three-time Tony Award winner Nathan Lane is back on Broadway.

Nathan Lane, as we all know, is an actor with many moving and amusing parts, but it wasn’t until Howard Kissel, the Daily News’ late theater critic, pointed it out 30 years ago that I realized these parts also included a derriere that did double takes. 

“Early in Terrence McNally’s ‘The Lisbon Traviata,’” wrote Kissel, “occurs what may be a breakthrough in the history of acting: a double take executed by an actor’s rear end. The rear is draped in an elegant red dressing gown and it is positioned at a fairly sharp angle while the head that belongs to it searches for something on the other side of a sofa … When the buried head hears of the existence of a new record by Maria Callas, the whole body freezes. The ample, grandly draped rear achieves a rigidity, an intensity that speaks volumes. Here is a body in the grip of obsession.”

Obsession is the essential motor driving most of Lane’s characters toward comedy or drama and sometimes, simultaneously, to both. He brings all of himself to his roles—even the personal contradictions, which are not only compatible but useful in shaping the human dimensions of the person he is playing. 

When he was 21, he told his mother he was gay. Her response: “I would rather you were dead.” His response to her response: “I knew you’d understand.” The hurt and the humor in that are something he carries around with him from part to part.

Nathan Lane in “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” on Broadway. (Julieta Cervantes)

Those two components are profoundly in play in Lane’s current Broadway endeavor, Taylor Mac’s “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” in which he plays a street clown whose streets are cluttered with cadavers—the bloody and unfortunate consequences of some Shakespearean power-playing.

Ordinarily, Lane doesn’t like being lumped in that clown car. He thinks that people don’t see the real actor in there trying to climb out, that a real actor was the reason they got the laugh. Comedy, when one is super-successful at it as he is, can be a curse.

This is why Lane has been known to take to the Letters-to-the-Editor portion of publications to wave furiously his “Actor First! Comedian Second!” banner—like the time he took umbrage at a road-company Bialystock and Bloom for saying of his and Matthew Broderick’s acclaimed turns in the 2001 Broadway musical “The Producers”: “When you go to see Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick, you go to see those guys, their personas, and you sort of miss the show.” Lane promptly came down from On High and corrected their vision: “As the man who created [Max Bialystock] on Broadway, as an actor and uncredited co-writer, let me just say that is pure crap. I was not applying a so-called persona to the character. I wasn’t making a personal appearance. I was acting a role and telling the story to the best of my ability.” He then ran through his award bric-a-brac inventory and deduced, “I must have some credibility as an actor.”

In the beginning, he was Joe Lane, the youngest son of three in an Irish Catholic family in Jersey City, New Jersey. But, after a brush with “Guys and Dolls,” he anointed himself Nathan Lane (after Nathan Detroit, a character in that musical) and has been such ever since, earning his first Tony nomination in that role on Broadway.

With an alcoholic father and a bipolar mother, his was a childhood that invited diversion. Privately, he did a 360-degree turn to comedy, majoring in the works (and the working parts) of Jackie Gleason and Lou Costello, one has come to suspect. Even more privately, he seeped deeper into theater arts the old-fashioned way—by joining the Fireside Theatre book club that distributed a play a month to its members.

His first from Fireside was Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and, when he did it on Broadway decades later with his “Producers” co-star, Matthew Broderick, they opened with a $20 million advance. Comic chemistry came easy for them, and they often tried to break each other up onstage. On learning “Oklahoma!” bowed in 1943 at the St. James Theatre, where “The Producers” was playing, they started throwing lines with a bucolic spin at each other like laughing lightning bolts.

Through the Fireside series, he also struck up an infinity for Theodore Hickman—“Hickey,” the hardware peddler who brings false hope to fellow barflies of Harry Hope’s saloon in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”—and acted it out pretty much to perfection in Chicago and Brooklyn. His darkness was drowned in the brightest light. 

Lane made his Broadway debut in 1982 in Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter,” playing the talent-free, lavishly ardent playwright who was all over leading man George C. Scott like an ant farm, and he ran right into a stop sign from New Yorker critic Brendan Gill.

He can still quote that negative notice verbatim—and did on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in April: “[Gill] said, ‘Although he garners much laughter and applause, Nathan Lane is a rank amateur who should never be allowed on the stage.’ And then, I met [Gill] at an American Theatre Wing seminar, and he told me he was a big fan.” 

Happily—for us as well as for Lane—he didn’t heed the Gill ban and has bounded back to Broadway 23 times, in between appearances Off-Broadway and on screens large and small, amassing three Tony Awards. In addition, he has won six Drama Desk Awards, six Outer Critics Circle Awards, two Obies, one Lortel, an Olivier and the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award, which can be won only once in a performer’s lifetime. Yes, he seems to have acquired “some credibility as an actor.”

“Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., 212.239.6200,