Nicholas Martin, who staged Paul Rudnick's "The New Century," has directed several productions at Lincoln Center Theater, including "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme," "Chaucer in Rome," and "The Time of the Cuckoo." He is finishing an eight-year stint as artistic director of Boston's Huntington Theater Company, and in June he will become the artistic director of Williamstown Theater Festival.
Brendan Lemon: How would you characterize the main characters in "A New Century" -- the Long Island Jewish matron played by Linda Lavin, the flamboyant gay man played by Peter Bartlett, and the Midwestern craftswoman played by Jayne Houdyshell?
Nicholas Martin: I think they are survivors. When the play begins, even though they think they've solved their problems, they're still lonely. What's touching about the play for me is that they find themselves together somewhere and create a new family.
In the last 20 years or more since AIDS has been raging, both the parents of gays and gays themselves found new ways to have families and to have support for each other.
For me, I think our very survival -- and certainly the survival of these characters -- is based on humor, sometimes to a fault. But it's not a bad fault. Deep down, it represents a very serious attitude toward life and living.
BL: What was your first encounter with this play?
NM: Paul Rudnick and I have the same agent, who sent the play to me. The minute I read it I wanted to do it. It is the funniest play I've ever directed, and I've directed some funny plays.
BL: How long ago did you read it?
NM: I read it last fall.
BL: Do you generally enjoy working with a playwright you've never worked with before, as you have here?
NM: Yes. When I was a younger director, I felt that I had to work with exactly the same people each time. The first time I couldn't work with a couple of designers, I was in despair. But in fact it really does help you to work with different people.
BL: The Mr. Charles playlet had been done before, as a one-act. What about the others?
NM: The first one, the Linda Lavin section, was written for Jackie Hoffman. She did it as an evening at the Public Theater. The other two plays are new. The biggest writing changes were all in the last play, because it's very tricky to make anyone believe that those people could arrive at the same place. We had a lot of clarifying to do there. We took a lot of our cues from the actors -- these are smart actors.
We didn't change the ladies' parts much at all. We changed Mr. Charles' part somewhat. Paul and Peter had got used to an audience for Mr. Charles different from that of Lincoln Center Theater. It's good to have a wider group see it.
BL: Many of us have seen the Mr. Charles character -- a flamboyant gay type -- in real life.
NM: Yes, but it is a disappearing species. When we were looking for understudies for Peter it was not that easy to make a list. Twenty years ago, that would have been quite a long group of names.
BL: The Jayne Houdyshell piece is deceptive. She plays a Midwestern craftswoman and it would be very easy to patronize that character. Which would have been a disaster.
NM: Sometimes the audience brings the condescension into the theater. I was doubtful at first as to whether the character should actually show her crafts pieces, which we have onstage -- whether she should pick them up and present them to the audience. I thought: I don't want these audiences making fun of her too much.
BL: I grew up in a small Midwestern town, so I may be especially sensitive that this character not be made fun of. I know from experience that those ladies are much sharper than you might imagine. They can be very good at seeing right through urban sophistication.
NM: I'm sure.
BL: A lot of the audience laughs for this play are coming from lines that have no obvious jokes attached to them.
NM: Yes, from character lines that advance the plot. That's another reason I was so attracted to this play. Paul never stops working on those kinds of lines. He's at every rehearsal. He's very willing to discuss changes. He's one of the most enjoyable writers I've ever worked with.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.