Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
January 3, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
 Section 2; Page 5; Column 1; Arts and Leisure Desk

A Two-Career Man: Theater Director And Jewish Mother

By STEVEN DRUKMAN; Steven Drukman, a theater critic for Artforum magazine, is an adjunct professor in New York University's drama department.

   SOME encores are more unpredictable than others. Take the case of Michael Mayer, the 38-year-old stage director who had three productions running on Broadway last season. One, "A View From the Bridge" by Arthur Miller, won a Tony Award for best revival; its star, Anthony LaPaglia garnered a Tony for best actor in a play, and Mr. Mayer was nominated for best director. A record of sorts and not likely to be repeated by Mr. Mayer anytime soon.

Yet this season, the director is about to do it again. A new production of the comic-strip musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" opens on Feb. 4; a revival of "The Lion in Winter," with Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing, opens in early March, and "Side Man," which transferred to Broadway from Off Broadway last year, is still running at the John Golden Theater, with Christian Slater heading the cast. In addition, Mr. Mayer is hoping to bring a musical stage adaptation of the 1967 Julie Andrews movie "Thoroughly Modern Millie" to Broadway in the fall of next season.

The director, an admitted theatrical groupie since the age of 3, has had his share of flops, most notably last season's musical version of Marivaux's "Triumph of Love" on Broadway. But his enthusiasm and workaholic habits tend to short-circuit longterm agonizing.

Hardly an overnight sensation, Mr. Mayer's progress since the first time he caught wind of "The Wizard of Oz" on television, looks like a textbook case in the development of an American director.

Arthur Miller offers a professional reference point when he describes Mr. Mayer's production of his play as "wonderfully inventive, free-swinging but very disciplined."

"Compared to the Broadway revival of 15 years ago," Mr. Miller said, "Mayer achieved more of my original intention -- evoking a community and finding the tragic size of this play. I'd trust him with any of my plays."

The recipient of this praise looks out at the world through stylish wire-rimmed glasses, usually wears black and sports a Snoopy wristwatch. Brought up in Bethesda, Md., now living in what he calls "not quite Chelsea," in the West 20's of Manhattan, Mr. Mayer claims to hear an internal musical soundtrack accompaniment to his life and, if you wait long enough, he will sing portions of it for you. A peculiar mix of extrovert-introvert, he likes to say his religion is Judy-ism, as in Judy Garland. And, recalling his start in the theater as a performer, he says, "I still think I have an actor's ego: I need to be liked and its painful when I'm not."

Over a plate of sushi, eaten in haste between replacement auditions for one show and rehearsals for another, Mr. Mayer said: "I'm too old to be a Wunderkind. The fact is, all the seeds I planted long ago sprouted."

Mr. Mayer began working as a performer after graduating from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 1983. Ron Van Lieu, who teaches there, remembers Mr. Mayer as unlike other actors: "Michael was one of the great watchers -- very intense. He'd watch me directing scenes, while most acting students tune out when they're not up there."

Before graduating, Mr. Mayer met "one of the most important people in my life to the present day" -- a first-year directing student named Tony Kushner. "He wasn't writing plays then," Mr. Mayer said, "but putting together these bold theatrical collages. And he was a gay activist. I found a soul mate."

Growing up gay, Mr. Mayer said, fostered his love of performing. "My ability to entertain got me out of a lot of scrapes. If I was funny and self-deprecating, no one slugged me. I'd already slugged myself."

He would later work as an actor in Mr. Kushner's 1985 play "A Bright Room Called Day" and as an assistant director for the author's "Hydriotaphia" in 1987. And he would eventually make his name directing the national tour of Mr. Kushner's prize-winning "Angels in America."

Before that, Mr. Mayer learned by doing. After staging his first play in 1988 -- "A nutty production of 'The Maids' by Genet" -- he presented a brief run of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine" on Theater Row in Manhattan. "The script had everything I loved," he said, "humor, politics and gay sexuality, and I found myself on fire, artistically, for the first time."

IT was with that production that he developed the directing method he still uses and which he describes as "getting out of the way of the play, letting it tell itself and be what it wants to be."

"I suppose I see a dramatic text as a score of music," Mr. Mayer said. "And if I have any sensibility at all, it is a musical one. But other than really listening to the actors, I don't think I try to lay on too much. It's about knowing when a play needs to be underscored and when it needs silence."

David Gallo, the set designer for "A View From the Bridge" as well as "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," has been Mr. Mayer's collaborator on several other productions and has watched him develop as a director. "He has matured, especially in confidence," Mr. Gallo said. "He doesn't scream at tech rehearsals anymore, 'This is a nightmare!' over and over again. He always starts with an idea, based in the text. When he said he wanted a bare set for 'A View From the Bridge,' I said, 'It's your funeral.' " But it didn't turn out that way. The Roundabout Theater Company production was a critical and popular hit.

Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout, where Mr. Mayer is an artistic associate, said: "Mayer is on everyone's A list now. Maybe the name at the top. It may seem sudden, but it's a long time coming."

For Mr. Mayer it's been almost lifelong. "I've been devoted to theater ever since I saw the dancing Scarecrow in 'The Wizard of Oz' at the age of 3," he said.

His mother, Louise, a self-described "62-year-old flaming radical liberal," remembers her son's reaction to the movie: "Michael was soon singing every role, including the barking of Toto."

Though Mr. Mayer sometimes verges on hyperbole, he does say that watching the film as a child, he suddenly understood "qualities like whimsy and theatricality and how these things were connected to something essential in me."

AFTER "Cloud Nine," he spent the next few years directing plays by teen-agers with the Young Playwrights Festival and summers at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, N.Y., as a directing intern and later as a director of full-scale productions.

His first major break came in 1994 at N.Y.U., when he directed Mr. Kushner's "Perestroika," Part II of "Angels in America." Mr. Mayer's bare-bones version opened the same night that Part I, "Millennium Approaches" and directed by George C. Wolfe, opened on Broadway.

When it came time for the national tour, Mr. Kushner said, "George Wolfe was busy taking over the Public Theater so I made sure all the Broadway producers, including Margo Lion, went down to N.Y.U. to see Michael's production."

Mr. Kushner attributes Mr. Mayer's success as a director to his background as a performer. "Michael loves actors and understands them," he said. "A director's authority so often comes from being Machiavellian or a thug. Michael has the authority that comes from goodness and skill."

The "Jewish mother" that Mr. Kushner sees in Mr. Mayer is evident at an audition for "Thoroughly Modern Millie." The director offers effusive thank-you's to the actors, even those who turn in less than adequate performances.

"Actors trust Michael," Mr. LaPaglia emphasized. "Some directors cast you and lose faith in you halfway through. Michael was interested in my opinion, not only on my role but on every aspect of the production. And he sees every aspect of a play all the time."

The success of "A View From the Bridge" took some of the sting out of the failure of "Triumph of Love." Ms. Lion, the producer, had talked with Mr. Mayer about directing the Broadway version of the 18th-century play.

"I, of course, suggested it would make a great musical," Mr. Mayer said. The project, developed at the Center Stage in Baltimore and the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, opened on Broadway in October 1997 with the star Betty Buckley.

The negative reviews included Ben Brantley's in The New York Times, who took the production to task for being "largely propelled by a crude, anything-for-a-laugh avidity" and singled out Ms. Buckley for praise.

"Michael was so discouraged," Mr. Haimes, of the Roundabout, recalled. "He said, 'I'll never work again.' But while 'Triumph' was suffering down the street, 'A View From the Bridge' was about to put him on the map."

Mr. Mayer had already directed Mr. Miller's play at the Hangar Theater in 1993. Robert Moss, artistic director of Syracuse Stage who was then artistic chief of the Hangar, said: "Michael mixed the audience with actors in a Greek amphitheater effect, to show that, like Greek tragedy, this tragedy takes place in the larger community."

After "A View From the Bridge" opened in December 1997 at the Roundabout, and subsequently transferred to the Neil Simon Theater, Mr. Mayer began rehearsing "Side Man," Warren Leight's memory play about jazz musicians, for a brief run at the Classic Stage Company. On the strength of excellent reviews at the CSC, "Side Man" reopened at the Roundabout last June, just as Mr. Mayer was rehearsing a play about gay high school students entitled "Stupid Kids" Off Broadway at the WPA Theater.

"People said, 'Enough, already,' but I had to do 'Stupid Kids,' " Mr. Mayer insisted, referring to a promise he had made to the author, John C. Russell, a friend who died of AIDS in 1994. "I said, 'Johnny, I promise your work will be remembered,' " Mr. Mayer said. "He died a few days after."

THE play, popular with some critics and audiences, closed at the WPA and transferred to the Century Theater for a commercial run in August with backing from the Shubert Organization. That the production did not prosper in its new home doesn't faze Mr. Mayer, who expects to direct the movie version -- his film debut -- later this year.

Mr. Haimes noted three styles at work in Mr. Mayer's productions last season: the MTV video effect of "Stupid Kids," the languorous feel of "Side Man" and what Mr. Mayer himself has called "the operatic scope" of "A View From the Bridge." Despite these differences, Mr. Haimes said that with Mayer productions, "You're always aware that Michael has orchestrated it somehow."

Talking about his latest project, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which has been trying out in Detroit and St. Louis before previews begin on Jan. 23 at the Ambassador Theater, Mr. Mayer said he thinks the musical is about inclusion. As a result, he said, "I've done multicultural casting to reflect that."

Anthony Rapp, a white actor who was in "Rent," plays the title character; Stanley Wayne Mathis, a black actor most recently in "The Lion King," plays Schroeder, and B. D. Wong, an Asian-American actor who won a Tony Award for "M. Butterfly" in 1988, portrays the blanket-toting Linus.

To give the show a contemporary feel, Mr. Mayer said he collaborated with Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip on which the 1967 musical is based, to incorporate material from post-1967 strips in this much-revised production. In addition, the musical supervisor Andrew Lippa has provided new compositions to augment Clark Gesner's original score.

On Jan. 19, four days before previews of "Charlie Brown" begin, rehearsals start for the Roundabout production of "The Lion in Winter," which itself begins previews on Feb. 17. It is a pace that Mr. Mayer is familiar with.

Years ago, he and Mr. Kushner formed Three P Productions, a short-lived theater company that Mr. Mayer said stood for the three things they believe theater should be about: poetry, politics and popcorn.

"To this day," Mr. Mayer said, "I try to make theater that is beautiful, relevant and still entertaining -- that's the popcorn part."

GRAPHIC: Photos: The director Michael Mayer auditioning actors for a revival of the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which begins previews on Broadway on Jan. 23. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)(pg. 5); Ilana Levine as Lucy, B. D. Wong (foreground) as Linus, Anthony Rapp (rear) as Charlie Brown and Stanley Wayne Mathis as Schroeder in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." (Carol Rosegg/"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown")(pg. 20)

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