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Nathan's Famous (Almost) : Nathan Lane won fame playing an opera queen and then Damon Runyon's Nathan Detroit. Now he reprises a 'painful role' in Terrence McNally's 'Lips Together, Teeth Apart.' ( Psssst ! Hollywood.)

August 01, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Nathan Lane could blame his fame on "Claptrap."

It was 1987 when the depressed actor stumbled from yet another frustrating performance in the Manhattan Theatre Club's dying farce. Why couldn't "Claptrap," he asked the theatrical gods, be as funny as the theater's other comedy?

A man passing through the lobby paused, disturbed by Lane's forlorn face. "Hi," he said, extending a hand, "I'm Terrence McNally. You seem a little down, but you're very good in 'Claptrap,' and you shouldn't worry. Your career won't suffer as long as the work is good."

"So why don't you write a play for me?" thought the actor, as playwright McNally continued into the theater to observe his own hit, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

But McNally, the writer of that season's most popular Off Broadway comedy, had resurrected the actor's spirits. Two years later, McNally rocketed Lane's career by casting him as the opera queen in "The Lisbon Traviata." Today, Lane is proud to be known as "a McNally actor," working in a role the playwright did write specifically for him--a role that earned Lane the 1992 Obie for sustained excellence.

"Every once in a while they rediscover you," Lane says while seated outside the Mark Taper Forum. The actor stares at the theater where he opens on Thursday in McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," reprising "the most painful role" of his career. "So I thought it would be good to do it again out here where they have very short memories and need to be reminded what it is you can do."

Of course, the "they" he is referring to work in Hollywood and may or may not remember Lane's previous appearance at the Taper in 1990. Then, during a box-office record-breaking run of "The Lisbon Traviata," Lane achieved cult celebrity as McNally's Mendy, the flamboyant, petulant Maria Callas fanatic. That role made Lane a local party diva and led to lucrative cameos in films like the forthcoming "Addams Family Values" and to dialogue work in Disney's next animated feature, "The Lion King."

This time he's Mendy's polar opposite: Sam Truman, a troubled New Jersey construction company owner. Described by critics as "Chekhov on the beach," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" portrays two married couples on a brief Fourth of July vacation at a Fire Island beach house. Lane's character is a middle-class New Jersey suburbanite, terrified of fatherhood and fearful of intimacy.

"I am a grown man with my own business, two mortgages and a hernia operation next month," Lane's character confesses. "I hate waves. I hate the beach. I hate nature. I like New Jersey."

Sam's pervasive anxiety makes him grind his teeth at night--hence the title, from a dentist's suggestion to sleep with his "lips together, teeth apart."

One reason Sam grinds his teeth might be homosexual panic--a condition exacerbated by gay holiday parties surrounding the beach house. His sister complains that Sam is the opposite of a femme fatale --an homme fatale .

Could any character be more the opposite from Mendy? Lane's fans no doubt assume that in reality, his personality is much more like Mendy's than Sam's. But McNally shaped the construction worker, not the queen, around Lane's personality.

"Certainly getting to play that role in 'Lisbon' changed my life," Lane says. "Every once in a while you're lucky enough to have that kind of larger-than-life, tour-de-force part. But Sam really comes out of my background.

"Terry had met my older brother, Dan, at an opening night," Lane continues, explaining his role's genesis. "My brother got in an argument with a friend of Terrence, and that's the basis of Sam's character. I think Sam's a little bit of my brother and whatever I told Terrence about my New Jersey history."

"I wrote 'Lips' with Nathan in mind," McNally agrees. "Nathan is an example of an actor who really hears the way I write. He also has the same attitude toward life that I do. A good actor in your play is one who thinks the same things are funny and the same things are sad, just like you. They get the joke. We've never had a discussion about what a line means. What do we talk about? We talk about what movie we saw, where we're going to have dinner, how crowded the subway was. We never talk about the play. They just get it. It's an unspoken kinship."

McNally refers to Lane's "pathos," then adds, "It's like having Jimmy Coco back in my life," referring to the late comic actor who starred in several McNally plays.

During most of Lane's early career, critics compared him to Jackie Gleason and Lou Costello. It wasn't simply the bulk, now fallen from his diminutive 5-foot, 6-inch frame, that journalists noticed--it was the ironic, deadpan double takes that marked Lane as heir apparent to those classic comedians.

"Being funny was a defense mechanism," Lane remembers. "I was overweight as a kid. Before they make fun of you, you make the jokes."

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