Michael Mayer's Double Play
Leslie (Hoban) Blake lunches with the director of After the Fall and A Home at the End of the World.
"Early on, I found that I was very good at multitasking... it keeps me on my toes and seems to have a positive impact on my creative work," the boyish Mayer recently tells me over lunch at the trendy midtown restaurant Beacon. "I'm constantly engaging different sets of artistic muscles. To be talking about this film at this point is a very different emotional language than what comes to me when I'm watching previews of the Arthur Miller play, so I can be fresh for each one," Mayer says. Then he pauses slightly, mugs, and says: "Unless I'm kidding myself!
"I think all directors -- both in theater and film -- are always planting seeds for future projects and then hoping they'll flourish," he continues. Following up on his gardening metaphors, I ask if he does any real gardening. "I kill everything," he laughs. "But I've got one orchid that I have high hopes for. And I have a dog, a Kerry Blue Terrier, who's in the movie [as is Mayer himself]." Mayer's current schedule may pose threats to the orchid's longevity; promotional tours for A Home at the End of the World have had him hopping back and forth to L.A., Washington, etc.
His multitasking skills really came in handy earlier this June: "I was in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks, editing the film, so I was also able to work on and off with Peter [Krause] and Carla [Gugino] on After the Fall. You really learn to budget your time when you have so little. I was also overseeing the London production of [Thoroughly Modern] Millie as well as the tour." The bad news, Mayer admits, "is that, in the last two years, I gained forty pounds. Between Millie Broadway, Millie London, Millie tour, and the movie, I had no time to do anything else but eat. It's tragic, but it's true!" (Regardless, he appears reasonably trim and very happy.)
Why After the Fall, and why now? "I had such a great time working with Arthur on A View from the Bridge," Mayer says. "I reread After the Fall, and, to me, it seemed very timely and very misunderstood as a play. A View from the Bridge has always historically been sort of kitchen-sink-drama realism but I wanted to bust it open and take all the walls away. [After the Fall] is so abstract in its design that I wanted to give it walls. The play is about a moment in Quentin's life when he has to make a decision, so I decided to set it in the airport while he's waiting for Holga to arrive. In the 10 minutes before she gets there, he's rushing through all of his memories trying to figure out what the hell he's going to do. Does he dare give himself over to love again, knowing what he knows about both love and the horrors of the 20th century?"
It's hard to believe that Mayer didn't plan to be a director. "I've never had a career plan," he claims. "I'm more of an English Garden than a French one. It was always about what happened next." What happened first was the dream of being an actor. After seeing The Wizard of Oz at age three, Mayer recalls, "I knew even then that the girl on the screen and I were the same person. I memorized the whole movie and I performed it morning, noon, and night, playing both Dorothy and the Scarecrow. I acted in a few real shows but I was a poor dancer. Some of my most favorite roles were Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance and The Boy in The Fantasticks.
His acting career ended early. "I couldn't get a job!" he says. "No one would hire me. When I got out of NYU [in 1983], I was an adorable 23 year old Jewish boy who could act and was funny and had a kind of sly sense of humor. [Casting directors] Meg Simon and Fran Kumin -- who are good friends now but I didn't now them then -- thought I'd be a shoo-in for Eugene Morris Jerome and they would bring me in for all the Neil Simon plays -- Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound. But when I realized that I wasn't getting cast as the third replacement for the understudy in the second national tour of Broadway Bound, I had to face the music."
So Mayer began to write his own performance art material and presented something called The KatatonicKabaret. "It was silly stuff," he says, "but John Leguizamo and I performed on the same bill. We opened the Café Bustelo at Dixon Place and I also performed at The Club at LaMaMa and a lot of other places in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Then I started directing other people's 'acts.' Tony Kushner, who was a classmate of mine at NYU and a dear friend, came to see something and said, 'Wow, this is beautifully staged. You should direct.'"
In 1993, during the Broadway run of Angels in America, Mayer would direct an NYU student production of Kushner's Perestroika that received great critical acclaim for its low-tech ingenuity (the Angel arrived on a rolling step ladder). "There've been occasional magical moments for me in each of my shows, but I'll always keep Perestroika in my heart," Mayer tells me. "Somehow, the whole where, when, how -- even the timing of it -- gave rise to unexpected revelations that blossomed so surprisingly and yet felt so right."
Along with Jack O'Brien (Hairspray,Henry IV) and now Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Wicked), Mayer is notable for his ability to direct both musicals and dramas with such apparent ease. "I may be alone in this and it may be a problem with my work on musicals, but I really don't see much of a difference in the approach," he remarks. "I just feel that, with a musical, I have more tools to use and more collaborators. I'm not a musician and I can't choreograph. But musicals are harder than straight plays. I want to live to a ripe old age, and directing a lot of musicals would kill me!
"I've been really lucky in my directing career," he says. "I didn't make this movie happen; it came to me. But I really wanted to do After the Fall and I'm doing it. I made A View from the Bridge happen, and I made Stupid Kids happen and Triumph of Love and ...Charlie Brown. Now, there's a bit of Shakespeare that he'd like to make happen. "I've talked with Fred Molina and Allison Janney about Much Ado... and with Camryn Manheim [who was in Mayer's non-musical adaptation of Triumph of Love] about The Taming of the Shrew. And, someday, I'd like to do As You Like It; there's something about it that always works."