The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 7, 2013

Nichols returns to adultery

MARK KENNEDY AP Drama Writer
The Clinton Herald

---- — NEW YORK — 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.”