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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.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

(continued from page 2)

Zaks directed several other Durang plays at Playwrights Horizons--and then in 1985 a call came from Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, who were bringing Lincoln Center Theater back to life after several years of darkness. "They asked me to direct John Guare's House of Blue Leaves, " Zaks recalls. The play--set in Sunnyside, Queens, in 1965, on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York, and featuring a zookeeper and his wife, Bananas--had first been performed in 1971, and by coincidence Zaks had directed it a couple of summers earlier as a guest artist at Dartmouth. "I had fallen in love with the play," he says. "I said 'yes' right away."

The tragi-comedy starred Swoosie Kurtz and John Mahoney (better known now as Frasier's father on the television sit-com of the same name), and it was an immediate hit. The play moved from Lincoln Center to Broadway, and provided Zaks with his first Tony. Then came a successful revival of The Front Page and, also at Lincoln Center, his acclaimed production of Anything Goes, starring Patti LuPone. And the successes kept on coming--both revivals and original plays: Lend Me a Tenor. Six Degrees. Guys and Dolls. Smokey Joe's and Forum.

Such a scorecard is not easy to obtain, especially when many of the entries are revivals of shows whose originals are legends in theatergoers' minds. The pressure of mounting new productions of shows like Guys and Dolls and Forum, with the natural and automatic comparisons to the classic performances of Sam Levene and Zero Mostel, are enormous. But Zaks has done it.

"I try not to think about it," he says. "I guess it's a case on my part of arrogance of the first order, but it's the only way I can do it. I just assume that if I really love what I'm working on, there's no reason I can't make it work. Of course, sometimes I've been proven wrong, but if you don't feel that way you can't attack the work with the kind of gusto it demands."

The difficulties of working with actors are also well known, and theatrical tales of director-actor flare-ups are legion. But, with a few exceptions, Zaks says he has been lucky. With some actors, notably Nathan Lane, the trust and teamwork have been palpable from the start, he says. "I think we have great respect for each other's ability to think funny, to make funny, to craft funny," Zaks says. "We depend on each other and love each other's sensibility and company. Nathan can take a moment and run with it and turn it into a whole comic interlude. He can come in and do something you never expected that's twice as funny as you ever imagined it could be."

Lane's replacement in Forum, Whoopi Goldberg, is the same kind of performer, Zaks says. "First of all, she's the best in terms of her approach to the work, how seriously she takes things, how willing she was to trust me. The audience loves her, and it's easy to understand why. When she came aboard, she would try new things. Some I loved, but some I wasn't sure of. But she really proved me wrong."

With some performers, however, things have not been so pleasurable. Such was the case, he says, in the making of Marvin's Room, his first movie. "I thought I was going to die," he says. "It was really difficult. I was coming from a world where I'm supremely confident, where I can do what I need to do and get it done, and where I feel the trust of practically everyone I work with--or if I'm not getting it right away I get it very quickly. But on Marvin's Room I was thrust into a situation that was brand new, where the vocabulary, the entire language, the process of translating what was on the page into its final form was very different.

"If you are rehearsing a play, the actors and I begin work, we go home, we think about it, you come in the next day, you try something new. Maybe something I said the day before sinks in and works, it's a great idea, and we work on it and make it even better, or we find out it's a terrible idea, and we laugh and throw it out, and we continue in that way until opening night, and we present this finished thing. In the theater, the actors are together all the time, building this team I was talking about. In film, the actors are rarely together at the same time. They come in in the morning, we more or less rehearse the scene, you use stand-ins for lighting, the actors go away to get made up or fitted for costumes, and then you shoot and it's already opening night. The scene is filmed, and that's that. It took a while to get used to that."

It also took a while, he says, "to get used to having to persuade the actors to make adjustments, to letting them do it their way for take after take--and if it was perfect, not saying anything, but if it was not even close to perfect dealing with the fact that sometimes they didn't believe me. And I take it all very personally."

It was particularly hard, he says, with Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton, the co-stars of the movie based on the 1991 off-Broadway play by Scott McPherson about two estranged sisters who are reunited when one finds out she is very sick. "I think it took a while for them to trust me," Zaks says. "I don't blame them. I was not feeling very confident. They're very smart. They're very talented. They're very perceptive. They could feel my uncertainty, and they must have felt, Why should they trust me? It was, after all, my first film. And I guess that made sense--except when it came down to specific decisions about how a scene was being played, when if I didn't have the cooperation of one of them, it made the going really tough. I had to figure out how to get their cooperation, and I did. But I had to do uncharacteristic things, like telling everybody to leave, emptying the set and saying to whoever it was: 'What are we going to do? I will not move on from this unless you do it my way. If you cannot make this scene be about reassuring your sister, in spite of the fact that you just heard the worst news of your life, then we will not cry. And the audience must cry.' That's not the way I usually deal with actors. And that was not the rule on the set. That was just every other day."

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