EXCLUSIVE: Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus opened on Broadway April 21, and to say it divided critics would be to employ an understatement neither Mac nor Gary would tolerate. “Weird,” “tragic” and “bloody awful” said one side (the wrong side, I think: read my review here). “A defiant and beautiful mess,” said The New York Times, finding the sublime in Gary‘s chaos.
Until the reviews were published, though, audiences knew little about the play besides its one very public story: Andrea Martin, who had been cast opposite Nathan Lane in the three-person play, had withdrawn from the production just more than a week before the first preview. She’d hurt herself in an accident – ribs were broken – though details were few.
“I am heartbroken to have to leave the production,” said Martin in a statement at the time, “and have tried to convince the doctor that my funny bone is stronger than my broken ribs. But regretfully I must follow the doctor’s orders. I love everyone involved in this beautiful play and will miss them profoundly. I will be cheering them on from the audience at the Booth Theatre.”
Producer Scott Rudin then announced that Martin would be replaced by cast member Kristine Nielsen (Tony-nominated for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) and actress Julie White (A Doll’s House, Part 2) would sign on in Nielsen’s previous role.
Set during the fall of the Roman Empire, just after the blood-soaked conclusion of William Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, Gary would now star Lane and Nielsen as Gary and Janice, “two lowly servants tasked with the job of cleaning up the bodies left over from the battle,” with White as Carol, a midwife who has escaped horrendous violence, believes she failed to save the infant in her care, and is spurting blood from her neck like a Monty Python character. She is on the verge of death. This will be a comedy.
In a recent series of exclusive interviews, the current cast, along with director George C. Wolfe, gave Deadline an inside look at what happened after Martin had to bow out, and what it takes to stage a Broadway production when a third of the cast needs replacing mere days before audiences take their seats.
Keep in mind these dates:
- First rehearsal (with Andrea Martin): January 10, 2019
- The date that Andrea Martin left: March 3
- Kristine Nielsen’s first rehearsal in her new role of Janice: March 4
- Julie White’s first rehearsal: March 5
- First preview performance: March 11
- Opening Night: April 21
Gary, Lane told Deadline, “is harder than Angels in America.”
The following has been edited and condensed from four interviews.
George C. Wolfe: Nathan and I first talked about the play last year on the night of the Tonys. I saw him at one of the parties and I’d just finished Iceman and he said I hope you’ll do this. And I said I’d just finished a four hour play. I need to catch up on my brain. But I did get involved, and Andrea’s name had been floating around and I love her, and Kristine was one of the names that was mentioned, so it was all good. We would get together in October to do a lab and talk about the material, then get together sometime in December and start rehearsals in January.
Julie White: Scott Rudin had mentioned Gary to me in an email back in September, but then I never heard anything else, and I saw the cast announced and I was like well, I guess they didn’t want me. Then I went off and did a season of Designated Survivor on Netflix.
Nathan Lane: We had a three-week lab where we talked a lot about the play and the characters. Initially when I read it I’d said, Don’t you want to take this somewhere quietly and work on this and figure it out? Because there’s a lot here and it’s not quite a fully formed play and you certainly see the intelligence and the grit of it and you know it’s outrageous but it should probably go somewhere and find its voice. And Scott [Rudin] was very much ‘No, let’s just do it.’
What did Elaine May say about the safest thing you can do is take a risk? I think Scott Rudin and George Wolfe and I have earned the right to take a big swing and also to give a new fresh, original, bold voice a chance, give someone else a chance. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
Kristine Nielsen: I was playing the part of Carol. We’d done a workshop of it in December, and then we’d been rehearsing for about five weeks. Then Andrea fell in her bathroom.
Lane: She had slipped in the tub at home and went for an x-ray and they though it was just one or two ribs. We were just finishing the week of rehearsal in the rehearsal room and she was…she, you know…obviously she went home that day, stayed home and rested, and then she came in and we did a run-through. She’s a trouper.
But she overdid it a little and then that evening we went into the theater and she was in excruciating pain and crying and it was just awful. So she went home and…essentially she wanted to continue and we were hoping that it would all work out. So we literally staged the show around her injury so that I would do the more physical things for her, even though it didn’t make a lot of sense for the characters. But it was helping us get through it.
Nielsen: George and Nathan jumped right in. Nathan was like, Well, I’ll do all the physical stuff. But as they were doing that, they realized that the character of Janice is the worker bee, and the [restaging] was not getting the full scope of Janice, and that Gary was now actually participating in something that Gary does not want to do.
But it became an issue. Andrea’s so strong, and she was lovely in the part and was doing great, and was in a great deal of pain. She soldiered through. But those [stuffed] bodies have to be lifted and the blood has to be…it just became all kinds of crazy.
Lane: Finally Andrea had an MRI and they told her it was actually four ribs. I knew the doctor, he had done my knee surgery years ago and her physical therapist was also my physical therapist. There was no way for her to heal. So she decided, and she and Scott Rudin talked and obviously it was the best thing for her to protect herself.
Wolfe: I got the call about Andrea. You’re always worried about the person, are they okay? And she had worked very hard – we all worked very hard, and you’re bonding and questioning and challenging each other all the time, and you want to make sure she’s safe. And now how do you protect the journey that everyone’s gone on?
Andrea is a formidable human being so she was pushing through. One can will oneself to health…and then there is the body. And then there is the body. There’s all the things that can make one strong and formidable, and then there is the body.
Nielsen: What was so courageous and great about Andrea is that she tried so hard to do it, and you know, ribs are so hard to heal. I think in her exuberance she was aggravating it, and then she was grieving, it was just hard. It was just a very hard situation, and I think heartbreaking. I wish her a huge movie or a big TV show or something, because she has been so classy to me about this whole process, that I just really appreciate that so much.
Lane: Because Kristine was already in the show and had been in all the rehearsals, it seemed to make the most sense that she take over the role of Janice. It was easier to get someone to play Carol because it was a smaller role. We shut down for a week and Kristine and Julie learned the parts and they were super-human, and the following Monday we did a preview. Quite honestly they saved the show.
White: I had just gotten back from almost five months in Toronto, and I was tired. I felt like, I’m going to retire now because I just want to hang out at home. I had a benefit reading of Camelot at Lincoln Center Theater for their gala on a Monday and we’d been rehearsing – you know, you rehearse those things a little bit – and I finally had Sunday off so I was just puttering around when my phone rang a few times. I was like, I’m just not going to mess with it today. Finally I went and looked [at the text message] and it was my agent, like, “You have to listen to your voice message, you have to pick up your email!”
They had made the decision that Andrea just could not continue. I love Andrea personally and as a fan, and I know that she’s such a trouper that it would have to be pretty bad or she would go on.
So my first instinct was like what, You’ve got to be kidding me, you want me to start this on Tuesday? I can’t rehearse tomorrow because I’m doing the benefit for Lincoln Center all day. So I would rehearse for Gary on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and originally they wanted me to start performances on Saturday. I was like, No. That’s ridiculous.
But my agent – Tim Sage, he’s darling – he’s like, “Now, Julie, think about this. This feels like serendipity that this has come back around to you. You know how much you loved it when you first read it.” And I do. I loved it and I was afraid of it and I thought it was unbelievable.
So I just did a deep dive into all things Taylor Mac and watched everything that’s on YouTube that he’s done and was like, holy cow, this is insane that this play is going to go on to Broadway, where Mamma Mia thrives and we’re just going to do a dead penis number. Oh, my. Oh, brother. Taylor in the script it says things like, “There are piles of corpses, at least a thousand of them.” I’m like what? What?
Nielsen: I thought, okay, I’ve done Taylor Mac before, I think I know his themes, but I have to give Nathan Lane so much credit for those first few days – if he saw my crazy eyes that were looking at him, he knew to help in some way. I think anybody probably can do this in life, when you’re given a deadline and you’re given a task you just sort of shut everything else out and do it, and that’s what I think happened in this instance. I tried to not get overwhelmed, I tried to take 20 pages a night, and drill, drill, drill, and George, very smartly, always ended the rehearsal with a run-through from where the play started to where we had got to, so I was constantly going back over the things we had done. That cemented it all in a great way, and that’s really it. And my husband was up until 2 AM running lines with me. But I mean, you just do it. I felt like Shirley MacLaine.
White: Once I was like, Well, I’m doing this, then I just threw myself into it, like in the spirit of the anarchy and craziness of the play I will just do the best I can. And for some reason it was really fun. I’ve worked with Kristine before. I just love being on stage with her and I wish that we could do Halloween as Lucy and Ethel.
There’s that great book on writing that starts with the premise of a kid having to learn all the state birds of every state and the kid’s freaked out about it and asks his mom, how can I do this? And she says, “bird by bird.” So I just had to do it bird by bird.
Lane: Kristine had been Carol, and she was equally hilarious but in a totally different way. Julie has this kind of hilarious restoration comedy type way, this sort of urban angst happening within her, with Carol being on the point of near hysteria. She’s just giving an inspired comic performance and she’s very moving when she needs to be at the end.
I mean, it’s not surprising because they’re two of the best New York theater actors we have, immensely talented. I mean, I knew Kristine and Julie could be funny. Kristine, my God, she’s such an accomplished actress and she’s done so many things and I knew she would be able to handle the antagonistic nature of the character, the unpleasant side of Janice. You know, Janice is not terribly likable at first. She’s the boss and she’s rather harsh with poor Gary. When she lashes out at me it’s really ugly.
Nielsen: Andrea and I are so different that I don’t think I could do Andrea. I wouldn’t do her justice, number one… But I think I’m very different in that I’m an angrier and more dour creation. So I think Nathan and I developed a very different rapport, and Nathan was very open to that and helpful.
Wolfe: My first Broadway show I killed off three characters in previews: In Jelly’s Last Jam there were two or three characters that got killed off, but that’s different. There you’re making an artistic decision. This was a horrible accident that happened, and the week that you’re supposed to be starting previews your reblocking, redirecting and nurturing and supporting and creating as much of a safe environment as you much as you can for someone who is trying to ingest an entire role in one week.
Nielsen: I’m one of those actors who don’t memorize lines before I start rehearsing. I like to get it from being in the room, hold my pages for a very long time – this is a very actor-y thing – because I want to get the right phrasing, and Taylor is so specific and takes expressions that you think you know one way and then twists them, you know? So you could learn a correct way of saying something and then he flips a couple of words to make it Taylor-esque, Mac-ean, and you go, Oh, no, I’m saying it wrong. I held the pages forever. But I must say, we had a very short rehearsal period of, like, three weeks…
But I love Taylor so much that I thought, I can’t see this play stopping in any way, and then the faith that they all had in me. Nathan in particular I think was very brave to just say, you can do it, let’s do it, and they gave me a week.
They were trying to say, well, can you do it with the book in your hand, and we’ll just open, and I was like, oh, no. No. Not with the [stuffed] bodies and all the physical stuff. I think that would not help the play and not help Nathan, who was in sort of a holding pattern this whole time. So I said, let me just go for it, and with George and Nathan, we just did it in a week. Julie was the true outsider who had not been a part of the process at all, and she just came and plunged in, and we held each other, we laughed, we cried, we had breakdowns, we went forward, and then we did it. I don’t remember the first performance, but I’m sure I did it.
White: We did a full dress run-through like where I got that wig on and everything. Oh, my God. Was it Thursday? That can’t be right. I guess it was Friday afternoon or something. And it was really funny. I started laughing, so I was like I was my own Harvey Korman, you know? I just thought the whole thing was fantastic and really moving. Then on the Friday we did a dress, and on the Saturday we did a dress when they canceled the preview and let us use that as a rehearsal day. And on that Saturday I went out there thinking this is going to be great and I was all stumbly and bad because I hadn’t had enough rehearsal to actually put it all together. I mean, Monday was terrifying. I don’t even remember it. That was our first preview, and on Tuesday I was like just double down, tell the story, tell the story, tell the story. And Tuesday went pretty good.
Nielsen: I’m was still going back to the script because we did changes up until Tuesday of press week, and that’s a new play, you know? But you have to be prepared for that. You want to give Taylor the play he wants, you know? You want to do whatever that is. Terrifying. But in a crazy sense it’s exciting and sort of the nature of this play, you know? The invention of The Fooling, the invention of genre, the invention of trying to do something. It’s probably less scary than in a traditional play where you have to make more sense of things, where it’s more literal in how it moves. This play just flies all around. It goes back and forth from comedy to sort of a dark world, back to comedy. So it’s strangely probably easier, in a sense, to memorize or give in to “I’m just going to jump off this bridge.”
Wolfe: Andrea was incredibly heroic while being in incredible pain. And then you switch to Kristine learning 20 pages of dialogue a day, and I’m blocking her in those 20 pages and she’s going home at night and learning 20 more pages. And that’s being accomplished in five days. It’s astonishing what she and Julie did, its astonishing the grace that Nathan had during this whole process of being nurturing and supportive.
It was extraordinarily heroic what Kristine and Julie did. And what Nathan did. I was extraordinary! Every one of us was rising to the occasion.
Lane: So that’s what this has all been about and it’s exciting and it’s terrifying because you know if you accept that it’s a risky venture, you have to also accept the fact that some people may not like it. We’re serving a rare brand of caviar and not everybody likes caviar. Some people love it and some people think it’s just fish eggs. And I think that’s a healthy thing for the theater, whether everybody likes it or not doesn’t matter. You know, people hated Waiting for Godot.
Nielsen: Nathan and I laugh every night going in. It’s always anxiety. I mean, it’s such a high voltage play, and it’s such a tightrope, a high wire act, that you can’t really relax yet. I feel much more confident in it now, and I feel that with George’s sublime direction and help, there’s a safety net. I feel that always with Julie and with Nathan. They’re such terrific team players that if any of us every derailed in any kind of major way we would always be there for each other. A show like this you can never take the pedal off the metal, but at the same time I feel excited to tell this story. The first week I was probably just trying to make sure I was saying the right words at the right time and standing in the right place, but now I think I’m really trying to tell the story of Taylor’s, his play.
I had written to Andrea saying, I think this is the strangest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and she was like, “I just want you to know I think you’ll be great, and I just have to get better.” You know, go for it. And then on opening night she sent me beautiful English flowers, for the Cockney, and a nice note saying, I’m sure you’re just going to be great. I can only be in her shoes for a second thinking, oh my God, she worked so hard on this, it has to be a difficult situation, but she was very realistic and I think gracious in letting the play happen. I think it was really, really a lovely thing she did.
On how they imagine they’ll remember Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus:
Wolfe: That we were all part of bringing our passion and our skill and sense of commitment to a startling play that was committed to doing what I think Broadway does: Engaging the audience in a rigorous, emotional thrilling conversation about the world we live in.
Lane: Happy I took a risk, like what Elaine May said. Happy we did something that maybe shook things up a bit and was something we believed in and was smart and funny and original and audacious, which is the kind of stuff we should be doing.
Whether or how the play will live on, I don’t know, I hope many other people will play Gary because it’s a beautiful little piece and so I will look back with pride. It wasn’t easy but right now it feels really good. It’s been a pleasure to work with these two extraordinary women.
Nielsen: It’s been terrifying, but I am remarkably proud of this. There are few things you want to just risk everything for, and this kind of artistic achievement of Taylor’s is something you’re willing to fall flat on your face doing. You know? It’s so unusual that it’s on Broadway. And I’m happy it’s on Broadway.
White: Oh, God, I’m not sure I have the mental capacity to come up with something. I think I’ll just think about that time that thing happened when I did a Broadway show in five days. And I hope that I’ll be able to say it made me stronger and better and faster and more brave because I think that is what Taylor is urging us to do, and what Gary does to Carol: he makes her more brave. I guess I’m saying that is what Nathan and Kristine and George and Taylor did for me. They all made me more brave.