NEW YORK (AP) — It’s only 3 p.m. but master director Mike Nichols warns that he’s been through a lot already.
“I’ll be a little slow,” he tells a visitor to his rehearsal room at Lincoln Center, where he is readying his next Broadway play. His assistants have been shooed away and he’s given the actors the afternoon off.
They’ve all been at it since 8 a.m. and it’s not always the easiest work. Nichols is getting his hands dirty in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” a play about a love triangle and the pain of loss that stars real-life couple Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig.
How does Nichols know when to take his foot off the throttle and let the actors enjoy the sunshine? “When amazing things have happened,” he replies. “Everybody’s a little worn out.”
Everyone, it seems, except Nichols himself, who is far from weary despite his assurances. The Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Grammy winner seems energized by being back on Broadway and exploring a familiar, naughty theme.
“I keep coming back to it, over and over — adultery and cheating,” he says. “It’s the most interesting problem in the theater. How else do you get Oedipus? That’s the first cheating in the theater.”
While known as a jack-of-all-trades who can embrace silliness — “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” ”The Birdcage” — as easily as heart-wrenching drama — “Angels in America,” ”Wit” — Nichols is indeed in his element with rocky relationships.
Many of his film and stage projects — “The Real Thing,” ”Carnal Knowledge,” ”Closer,” ”Primary Colors,” ”Heartburn” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — are littered with psychic aches and broken hearts.
“It was the first thing I knew. My first memory in the world is my gym teacher ripping my mother’s necklace off her neck and throwing it out the window and her running downstairs to go after it. I have no memory before that. I was 4,” he says. “My father had a lot of girlfriends and my mother had a lot of boyfriends.”
No wonder then that “Betrayal” — inspired by a Pinter affair — would attract Nichols, who married TV journalist Diane Sawyer in 1988 after three divorces. Nichols was discussing reviving “Betrayal” before he scored a triumph with last year’s revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
Nichols and Pinter were friends and worked together — Nichols directed Pinter in “Wit” as Emma Thompson’s father, and wrote a scene in Pinter’s adaptation of “The Last Tycoon” — but this marks the first time he’ll direct something by the playwright.
Does he feel pressure from his old friend’s ghost? “I feel free. I don’t hear him say, ‘No! You’re not supposed to do that. Do this!’ He’s cool,” Nichols says. “I’m not worried what he’ll think. I’m happy.”
Written in a reverse chronology, “Betrayal” begins with the end of an affair between Emma and Jerry, a book agent who is also the best friend of Robert, Emma’s husband. Craig plays the husband, Weisz the wife, and Rafe Spall makes his Broadway debut as Jerry. It begins performances Oct. 1.
Nichols, who has some experience directing married couples — he led Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to glory in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — says Craig (Mr. James Bond) and Weisz (“Stealing Beauty,” ”The Mummy”) are great.
“They don’t bring their marriage to rehearsal,” he says. “They are two individuals who happen to walk in together. They work wonderfully together but they work wonderfully with the third member of the cast, who is just as astonishing as they are. They’re the dream. They’ll do anything you suggest, they always enjoy it.”
Producer Scott Rudin, who calls Nichols the “best living director in the theater,” says actors gravitate to him because he creates a safe environment for them to create. Then, before they know it, they’re baring their souls.
“What he does is very gentle, imperceptible, nearly invisible nudging in the direction of the play,” says Rudin. “It’s by inference and implication, storytelling and discussion, and gradually, over the course of the workshop and rehearsal, they make their way into the play.”
On this workday, an unmade bed and some comfy chairs are all that are needed to get the juices going in the sanitized rehearsal space. Nichols sits at a foldable table with the tools of his trade: a box of tissues, tiny bottles of hand sanitizer, a packet of cheese crackers, several pens, a laptop, iPad, a bottle of water and plastic glasses full of throat lozenges.
There’s also a paperback copy of Pinter’s play. It’s a slim book and Nichols is still stunned that such a slender book with smallish words can connect. “The play weighs more than the words in them,” he says.
Nichols, 81, fell in love with the stage at age 15 when the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them theater tickets. He saw the second night of the debut of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando in 1947.
“We were poleaxed, stunned. We didn’t speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive. It was so real,” he says. “I’m amazed about our bladders because we never went to the bathroom and it was about 3 1/2 or 4 hours long.”
Nichols says he’s doing with “Betrayal” what he’s always done since that night he saw Tennessee Williams: making the audience recognize that what they’re seeing is about them.
“I think a director can make a play happen before your eyes so that you are part of it and it is part of you,” he says. “If you can get it right, there’s no mystery. It’s not about mystery. It’s not even mysterious. It’s about our lives.”
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