Nathan Lane walked into Bubby’s in Tribeca with a sweaty brow, wearing small tortoise-shell glasses, a blue button-down shirt and a closely groomed beard. He looked around royally, noticing that the entire waitstaff had recognized him and jumped into action. “They don’t have to get all up in a row,” said Mr. Lane. “I just came to eat.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Lane has achieved a regal place in theater culture in New York, hosting the Tony Awards this year with Rosie O’Donnell and getting pasted in the tabloids for his floridly biting wit and for piping up with generally impolitic opinions about big movie stars. And now he is playing the acidic prince of impolitic wits–spoiled, sentimental, epithet-spouting Sheridan Whiteside in a new production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s The Man Who Came to Dinner .
Back at Bubby’s, a giddy admirer overcome by the sight of Mr. Lane spilled her drink onto his shoes, then let her plate of food drop to the floor. The maitre d’ apologized, then the fan apologized. It was a setup ready-made for Sheridan Whiteside, but rather than eviscerate his admirer, the actor looked up, looked down, then suddenly opened up his Nathan Lane lungs and yelled, “Food fight!”
Silence followed. “And mad high jinks ensue!” Mr. Lane erupted once again.
In the 1939 version of The Man Who Came to Dinner , the role of Sheridan Whiteside was virtually trademarked by Monty Woolley, the bearded Yale professor-cum-actor and Cole Porter buddy. The part was written by Kaufman and Hart as a caricature of their friend Alexander Woollcott, the asp-tongued critic, columnist, lecturer, founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, beloved friend of Harpo Marx and, until his death in 1943, host of The Town Crier , a wildly popular radio program on which–with his shrill, mousy voice–he expounded his views as one of America’s chief cultural guides.
“He had this little nelly voice that sounded like the Wizard of Oz after the curtain is drawn back,” Mr. Lane said. “He sounded like a little girl. And he seemed like a lonely man. I found a picture of him in a dress while acting out a play he’d written for himself when he was young. He had a lot of … things he didn’t want to deal with.”
Mr. Lane has picked up star-trademarked roles before, most notably when he undertook the Zero Mostel-originated role of Pseudolus in the hit 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum , for which he won a Tony under the direction of Jerry Zaks, who also directs The Man Who Came to Dinner . “There’s a danger in playing Whiteside,” said Mr. Lane. “In the movie, Monty Woolley’s portrayal at times came across as mean for mean’s sake. It’s when it gets nasty or bitchy that it goes off in the wrong direction.”
Mr. Lane has a lot riding on his new production. His NBC sitcom Encore! Encore! (in which he played a retired opera star in the Napa Valley) bit the dust halfway through the 1998 season, and still rankles the memory of anyone who saw it. And his last three released films have been Paul Rudnick and Andrew Bergman’s bumpy homage to Jacqueline Susann, Isn’t She Great? ; Kenneth Branagh’s almost unspeakably bad musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost ; and Alan Rudolph’s disastrous Trixie , with Nick Nolte and Emily Watson. And then his stint as Rosie O’Donnell’s co-host of the Tony Awards was creamed by the critics and cited in the New York Post as one reason that CBS won’t ask Ms. O’Donnell to do the awards next year.
“Critics are just doing their job,” Mr. Lane said, smiling. “It just seems that whatever you do, you get beaten up by the end of it.”
But it’s clear that he is still smarting after last month’s Tony Awards telecast. “As far as doing it on commercial television, it went as well as it possibly could have gone. Take it off CBS and do the whole thing on PBS. Even with Rosie back, it still didn’t get ratings. Makes you not want to not be the emcee anymore. I believe the basis for all of this is that [the critics] have very small penises. And no one has ever laughed at anything they’ve said. That combined can make someone a little crazy. In fact, the only way they would get a laugh is if they showed someone their very small penis.”
Mr. Lane’s chicken Caesar salad showed up.
“The worst review I ever got,” he said, “was by Brendan Gill of The New Yorker who wrote, ‘Nathan Lane is a rank amateur who should never be allowed on the stage.’ The second-worst notice came from that barrel of fun, Bob Brustein.” Mr. Brustein wrote for The New Republic . Mr. Lane paused to remember the quote. “‘Nathan Lane is an irrepressible actor who should be forcibly repressed,’” he recalled.
Although he harbors no ill will toward either Mr. Gill or Mr. Brustein, said Mr. Lane, he doesn’t feel quite so forgiving toward Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News : “He used to be sort of a fan, but suddenly he turned against me and started writing these really nasty–and what I thought were downright homophobic–reviews about me.” Mr. Lane, who came out of the closet last year in The Advocate , seemed to get a kick out of thinking about Mr. Kissel. “Have you ever seen him? He looks like the love child of Tiny Tim and Edna May Oliver. If they had a kid, it’d look like Howard Kissel. He looks like an 18th-century fop in a bad suit.”
Mr. Lane grew up less than two miles from Bubby’s, in Jersey City. His father, a heavy drinker, died when he was young, and his mother raised Nathan and his two brothers. “That’s why Kenny Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery really resonated with me this season,” he says. “I had just lost my mother. I cried through the entire second half. Eileen Heckart’s performance was the performance of the year. But then I thought, why isn’t this play on Broadway? I think it’s hard for audiences to go there, into that subject matter. It’s hard to watch a parent disintegrate and die, even if it’s only onstage. But what a great piece of theater.”
Mr. Lane hit his stride in Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata in 1989. For the next several years, he and McNally’s plays were virtually inseparable. He starred in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Bad Habits in 1990, Lips Together, Teeth Apart in 1991, and appeared with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnnny , the film adaptation of Mr. McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune . Then he became a bona fide star in the Zaks-directed 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls as Nathan Detroit–a part so close to his heart that he actually named himself after the character when he was asked to change his name (from Joe Lane) upon entering Actors Equity.
After his success in Guys and Dolls , Mr. Lane started the biggest 24 months of his career. First, he did a vocal star turn in the Disney mega-hit The Lion King , playing Timon the Meerkat and singing the jolly Elton John hit “Hakuna Matata.” He then received big-time star reviews on stage in Mr. McNally’s 1994 hit, Love! Valour! Compassion! Next he went to work as Robin Williams’ co-star in Mike Nichols’ movie The Birdcage , an American adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles . The movie was a huge hit, and Mr. Lane reached the point that Broadway stars often want: He was recognized in, but not dependent on, Hollywood.
Mr. Lane has seen surprisingly little New York theater this season. “But I did see Copenhagen when I was London,” he said. “Tough going, I do have to say. Maybe I was tired. I’m with Simon Gray, his wife, and Alan Bates. And Alan Bates would look over at me, look as his watch, raise his eyebrows, and then look at his watch again. I found that entertaining.”
What about Kelsey Grammer’s Macbeth ? “No, I didn’t see it. Who had time?” he said. “He’s played Frasier for most of his adult life. You can’t just suddenly go, ‘Now I’m MACBETH!’ I wish he’d given me a call before he made that decision. Five minutes with me might have helped.”
Next he weighed in on Patrick Stewart’s choice to complain to the audience that the producers of his play, Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan , didn’t advertise. “Patrick, why didn’t you talk to someone before you did that?” he said to the Bubby’s ceiling. “I’d have talked him out of it. Everybody hates producers. You may not agree with them, but it’s not appropriate to discuss that with the public. I mean, unless someone’s being tortured or held prisoner. Maybe he thought, ‘I should take this to the people !’” Mr. Lane smiled, took a breath through Sheridan Whiteside’s beard and said, “There are a few more important things to worry about than the advertising for The Ride Down Mt. Morgan .”
After he completes The Man Who Came to Dinner –he’s committed until October–Mr. Lane will get into Zero Mostel’s shoes once more, in a musical version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers , written by Mr. Brooks. “Matthew Broderick will hopefully play Leo Bloom,” Mr. Lane said, then added, “Sam Mendes”–the director of American Beauty –”said to me, ‘You know, one day I want you to do a totally serious role for me on film.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m available!’ … Hopefully, he keeps his promises.” But, Mr. Lane acknowledged, it’s a long shot. “The big movies are Scary Movie and The Perfect Storm. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case … I’m just going to stay here in the theater.”