On "Charlie Rose" the other night, Nathan Lane said that there's "a kind of gasp that you can only hear in the theater." When that happens, he went on, "it's electrifying, there's nothing like it." Very true, and yet I have to confess that some of my own favorite moments in the theater have been solitary ones: private gasps. I had one last Thursday afternoon, as I walked across the Lyceum stage.
I have long been aware that the Lyceum is most often described with a phrase that is essentially a variation of the crap-game lyric from a show, Guys and Dolls, in which Lane had one of his greatest Broadway triumphs: "the oldest continuously operating legit theater in New York." During its 110 years of operation, the Lyceum has seen the likes of Ethel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Walter Pidgeon, and Uta Hagen stride its stage. In all my time hanging around the place with LCT productions, however (the four previous here have been In the Next Room, Morning's at Seven, Rose, and The Invention of Love), I had never felt one of its ghosts palpably present. So whose specter sat that afternoon on my shoulder?
Not that of Helen Hayes, who starred here in the late 1960s in The Show-Offand who is name-checked every night by Ned in The Nance. Not that of Rosemary Harris, who appeared here around the same time in You Can't Take It With You, whose assistant director was the man who directed The Nance: Jack O'Brien. No, I was visited by Garson Kanin. It was as if Kanin had sailed down from upstairs at the Lyceum, where the invaluable collection known as The Shubert Archive is housed, and commanded me to step on the middle of the stage, take a moment, and inhale the history.
So I did. The sound I heard was not only that of Kanin but of Judy Holiday, who shot to fame as the deceptively ditzy blonde, Billie Dawn, at the center ofBorn Yesterday. Written and directed for the stage by Kanin, Born Yesterday opened at the Lyceum on February 4, 1946, and ran there until November 6, 1948. It remains the longest run in the theater's history. For some reason, the line I heard in my head on that particular afternoon was Billie saying: "Are you one of these talkers or would you be interested in a little action?" In the first scene of The Nance, Lane's character, Chauncey Miles, essentially says the same to Ned. I combed my brain for other "Nance"/"Yesterday" parallels. Not finding any, I left the Lyceum still not completely sure why Kanin's aura had made so emphatic an appearance.
It was only that night, as I was catching up on recent installments of TV's backstage-Broadway drama, "Smash," that a further reason emerged. Buried in each episode's end credits is - ta da! - the name Garson Kanin. His 1980 novel, "Smash," is the very loose basis for the TV program, although no bit of banter in the small-screen version can compare with much of the dialogue in Kanin's book, some of which is quasi-pornographic.
But what does all this "Smash" soapiness have to do with The Nance or at least the Lyceum? Here's what: I discovered as I was playing catch-up that the TV version uses the Lyceum as a location for its centerpiece Broadway musical, Bombshell. Kanin's ghost, in other words, would have had wafted down to the premises for good reason: to inspect what had been made of his fictional creation. I should not have been surprised to sense that, the afternoon I crossed the stage, his ghost had lingered on.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com