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Stage Struck

A funny thing happened on Tony winner Jerry Zak's way to med school: he became a Broadway director.

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One thing he loves to do on a golf course is smoke a cigar. "It probably ruins my game," he says. "I'm more worried about losing my cigar than about hitting the ball properly. Which is not good. But there's something about being on a golf course with a couple of friends and lighting up a cigar that can't be beat."

He is a recent but enthusiastic convert to the world of the big smoke. "It gives me so much comfort," he says. "It started barely six months ago. I was in London directing Smokey Joe's Cafe, and I was wandering through a fashionable department store with a friend when I came upon the cigar department. I tried one--a Romeo y Julieta--and really enjoyed it. From that moment on I became a regular at the London cigar shops and began trying all their Cuban cigars."

Havanas are his cigar of choice. "I don't enjoy smoking anything that isn't a Cuban; there's just something heavier, more substantial, about the way they taste, the way they burn. The intense flavor, the spices, the hint of coffee or chocolate or whatever, just comes through better. You really feel like you're smoking a cigar. And I think there's a psychological lift in knowing you're smoking something that comes from the place that does it best."

Among the Havanas, he prefers Cohiba Robustos. "I love the robusto shape. And they're really the state of the art. Though I also enjoy the H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 and the Bolivar Royal Corona, and lately I've been trying and liking the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, which is a little fuller."

For Zaks, smoking a cigar is "like being with a friend. I love one at the end of the day, about 10:30 at night, when the kids are asleep. I just go outside my building and wander up and down the block." He and his wife, Jill, live on Manhattan's Upper West Side with their daughters, Emma, 15, and Hannah, 9. "And I enjoy having a cigar in my hand when I'm sitting here in my office reading a script. And letting it go out and then relighting it. I smoke them right down to the end. They've become a part of me."

The scripts he is reading include his next planned sojourn on Broadway--a musical version of George S. Kaufman's and Edna Ferber's renowned play The Royal Family, a 1927 paean to the Barrymore family and the glorious life of the theater and theater folk. The composer is William Finn, whose credits include the hit musical Falsettos; the librettist is Richard Greenberg, whose play Eastern Standard was an off-Broadway success several years ago. The production is scheduled to open this fall. In the meantime, Zaks is getting ready to direct the American premiere of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play by Martin McDonagh, which will debut this spring at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

Regardless of the project, he always seems to have his hands full. The theater, after all, is what Jerry Zaks does, what he loves, what he is all about.

"It has just given me such joy," he says. "I'm talking about palpable happiness. I love a good story. I love when time stops. When a play is good, that's what happens--you lose all sense of time, of it endlessly speeding by. Your attention is taken off yourself and put onto something else; you get lost in the reality of what is happening on-stage."

He ponders. "And I guess that for me it's also the idea of having an effect on people. When you grow up, as many of us do, wondering whether you have an effect or not, questioning your own sense of self-worth, and you see that by virtue of the theater you do have an effect on people, it makes you feel...well, I once said that it makes you feel like the world's greatest lover. And it does. That roar of the audience--when it happens it's like 1,200 people saying to you simultaneously, 'Thank you, we needed that.'"

But, he says, it's even more than that. "The great director George Abbott lived to 107," Zaks says. "And I can see why he lived a long life. Because what he did--and what I do--when it comes down to it, is just a lot of fun."

Mervyn Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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