‘Laughter’ Was Present in Nathan Lane’s Early Stage Career

Nathan Lane has done plenty of TV and film, but he’s a Broadway baby. This season, he’ll star in Eugene O’Neill classic “The Iceman Cometh,” as well raucous comedy “It’s Only a Play” (by frequent collaborator Terrence McNally) — his 20th Broadway show.

But in 1982, he was a theater tyro wading through seedy Times Square to make it to rehearsal for Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” starring and directed by George C. Scott.

How’d you take that mixed Variety review at the time?

I remember thinking I was grateful that at least he said I was funny. In the New Yorker, Brendan Gill wrote, and I’m quoting: “In the role of an aspiring playwright, Nathan Lane gathered up incessant laughter and applause; his performance struck me as grotesquely amateurish.”

Did you just recite that review from memory?

Oh, that’s in the back of my head permanently.

What was it like working on the show?

I was 26 years old, and it was my Broadway debut, and I couldn’t be more excited about working with George Scott. The first piece of direction he ever gave me was, “Do something crazy.” So when we were onstage, I went over and lifted the dressing robe (he had just taken off), and I sniffed it, really inhaled it. Then I started to caress the piano, and then I disappeared under the piano, sort of fondling it — which I thought fulfilled his need for craziness. We knew not everyone would embrace it — the critics certainly didn’t. But the audience loved it.

Do you think of the play as a significant career moment?

It’s the play a lot of people cite as the first time they saw me. Terrence McNally, for one. That show opened a lot of doors for me.

Did you take away anything from the experience?

When the audience is having such a good time, it’s just about working with your fellow actors and passing the ball. I look at (my current co-star) Micah Stock, who’s brilliantly talented and probably about the same age I was then, and I think, “Well, I’m probably somewhere around the age George was.” It’s funny to be the old person!

Do you still read reviews?

As I’ve gotten older, I try not to. It doesn’t do any good. When I was doing “The Nance” on Broadway last season, we had such a great time, the experience was so terrific, that I just couldn’t bear to see someone dismiss it in a paragraph. I won’t read the reviews for “It’s Only a Play,” either. When I was young, I read everything. Now that I’m older, I know what’s going on. They’ll say what they say.

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