Jerry Zaks has directed many well-loved productions at Lincoln Center Theater: Anything Goes, Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves. But our conversation in the rehearsal room the other day centered squarely on what he is staging now: Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days, the story of an adult writer looking back at the time when he entered the world of the theater.
“For those of us lucky enough to work in a field we enjoy,” Zaks said, “there was that moment when something happened to make us fall in love with it. What was it about that moment that kept us doing what we do? This play is about that moment.” Zaks added: “There is usually a person attached to this time in our lives.”
In Shows for Days, the nascent theater practitioner, called Car, played by Michael Urie, attaches himself to the doyenne of a community theater in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1973. Her name is Irene, and she is played by Patti LuPone, one of whose iconic performances, as Reno Sweeney, was in the Zaks’ production mentioned first in my first sentence above.
As it happens, 1973 was a time when Zaks, who like many fine directors began as an actor, was appearing on Broadway in Grease. “Because I got my start as a performer,” Zaks said, “I have a personal sense of what it’s like to be starting out as an actor. Only looking back from a distance, as Doug does in this play, do you have a deep sense of what you’ve let yourself in for.”
What are some of those professional vulnerabilities? Public scrutiny, for one thing. “In how many professions,” Zaks asked, “do people devote themselves to something that opens them up to such criticism?” He added: “Anyone who says they don’t read their reviews, or at least hear about their reviews, is full of it. The good ones” – and Zaks’s good ones include those for Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, in 1992, and, more recently, for the musical Sister Act, for which Beane wrote the book – “mostly come as a relief, but the bad ones you never forget.”
Even the community-theater players in Shows for Days fret about reviews. “Being noticed means everything to these people,” Zaks said. “It’s a matter of life and death to them. They live to get off work and go to the theater to rehearse.”
While Beane’s play is firmly grounded in reality, Zaks said the production is not naturalistic: “We heighten things a bit.” But not as much as the heightening in that previous Zaks/Beane collaboration, Sister Act, which is having an ebullient after-Broadway life in community theaters across America and in professional productions across the globe.
To what does Zaks attribute Sister Act’s appeal? “We got the story right,” he said. “The score is spectacular. And the central relationship, between an uptight Mother Superior and a free-wheeling singer, is so well-developed.”
As is, I point out, the relationship between Irene and Car in Shows for Days. “That’s all Doug’s doing,” Zaks said. “I’m not just being nice when I say that all of our efforts would mean nothing without Douglas Carter Beane’s incredible words.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.