No surprise, then, that rehearsals exposed many points of family convergence, even though Willy is a drawn-out failure while Paul Nichols was a quick success. But like the Loman boys, who discover their dad’s tawdry dalliance with a Boston secretary, Nichols and his brother came to know more than they wanted about their father’s affairs. In a scene Nichols describes as “horrendous but comic,” they intuited that their nanny was one of his girlfriends; they jumped up and down on the bed shouting, “Frieda loves Daddy! Frieda loves Daddy!” And even though his mother also had lovers—Nichols’s earliest memory, at age 4, is of seeing his gym teacher tear a necklace from her neck and throw it out the window—it’s his father’s absence he’s spent a lifetime revisiting.
“Remember, most of my relationship with him happened after he was gone,” he says. “But you have to have those conversations you couldn’t have. Because for an American to live without his father’s okay is very, very painful. It takes half a lifetime to get over.”
In the end, he found his father, as he finds Willy Loman, forgivable. (“Everything is about forgiveness,” he says.) As for his mother, whose neediness and narcissism were nearly toxic, she was something perhaps even better. She was material.
I was playing the Blue Angel with Elaine. I picked up the phone. “Hello, Michael, this is your mother, do you remember me?” I said, “Mom, can I call you right back?” I called Elaine, and I said, “I have a great piece for us.” I gave her the line, and she screamed. We never talked about it, but we did it that night and for the next five years. I told my mother it was Elaine’s mother, and she told her mother it was mine. She had the same mother. Now, this was the end of a story that actually set me free. The beginning of it was that we lived in the West Seventies, in that sort of short, gray-brick building with podiatrists on the first floor. And across the hall from us was another refugee family who had been on the boat with my mother. The daughter, Gaby, was my friend, still is. One day, she and I, we were about 12, were bullshitting in the dining room, and my mother comes in and in ten seconds does her specialty: She makes us both feel bad and then leaves. And Gaby said, “My God, your mother is a difficult woman.” I said, “She is? Tell me more! I thought it was me.” In fairness, my mother was a widow with no money, deeply depressed, not well. I came to have sympathy for her, but … as I learned on that movie, some things are too late.
Another morning, at a restaurant near his Upper East Side home, Nichols asks a waitress if the pancakes are “wet or flannelly.” She’s mystified, which allows him to turn ordering breakfast into a bit. (“You know how pancakes can be?” it starts.) Likewise, post-rehearsal dinners at the Cafe Edison find the Salesman cast hanging on his serpentine stories: “Campfire tales,” as Rudin puts it, “except with borscht.”
In rehearsal, that reflex becomes a technique, allowing Nichols to direct by indirection. It gives the actors room, Hoffman says, “to get at the work without putting too many ideas in the way.” “It’s osmosis, it’s unconscious,” Garfield adds. And open-ended. Today’s theory that the play is about fathers and sons does not obviate tomorrow’s about mothers and marriages. “He’s like a dog with a bone,” Emond says. “But when one bone is done, he happily discards it and picks up another.” Indeed, time permitting, Nichols wants as many ideas in the mix as possible; they deepen the experience. That said, he has asked stage management to keep a timer handy. When he starts a story, he flips it, aiming but often failing to conclude before the sand runs out.
And yet, in the play’s outward expression, he has severely limited his palette. The full text is used, of course; if not, Rebecca Miller, the playwright’s daughter, “would cut my toes off.” But he’s also decided to re-create, along with North’s score, the original set designs by Jo Mielziner. Mielziner’s system of cutaway rooms and semi-translucent scrims allows instantaneous changes of scene and mood through the manipulation of light. The Loman house, cramped among high-rises, becomes, as you watch, the Loman house of memory, nestled among trees. A Boston hotel room appears in an unnoticed corner of the stage, as if a circuit had lit up in Willy’s brain. In fact, until Mielziner showed Miller his scheme, that’s where the play was meant to be set: in Willy’s brain.
Groundbreaking 60 years ago, the Mielziner design, for all its sweep and poetry, gives Nichols few choices of where to put the actors. “I haven’t blocked a thing,” he says. “I couldn’t. Mielziner thought out every friggin’ event of the play. But that’s liberating. Of course, you don’t want to end up like the fifteenth replacement in Phantom, making the moves but not knowing why. You have to change it. But it seems to me that when something is so completely achieved by the people who made it, you better know how they got there. Not to include that in your work is to miss the play.”
For the first time, he’s raised his voice. In moments like this, his fierceness emerges, briefly naked, from behind its curtain of charm, and makes you realize whom you’re dealing with. Rudin used to find him scary. They met when, at 19, Rudin was hired to cast the New York run of Annie. “It was meeting God,” he says now. “I always felt unequal to him and still do. But I also feel that being afraid of him is useless; he’s so munificent with what he knows and what he wants to share. How can you be scared of someone that gifted?”
In his work, Nichols plays on exactly that tension. One of his trademarks is making characters so bright and appealing that when they turn ruthless, you don’t turn on them. This has something to do with magnetism (“When in doubt, seduce”) and something to do with his willingness to understand, and forgive, almost any fault. Maybe these are the same thing. But whether he includes himself in the general amnesty is an open question. Rudin remembers meeting with him and Chris Rock a few months after The Country Girl closed. “We arrive in his living room,” Rudin says. “He’s sitting there with a yellow legal pad, making a list. ‘What’s the list?’ I ask. ‘It’s a list of all the things I did wrong on The Country Girl.’ ”
If anyone could short-circuit that critical impulse, you’d think it would be Sawyer. “My happiness in life really started with seeing my children”—he has three, from his second and third marriages—“become astonishing people. But my ultimate happiness,” he says over one last bite of pancake, “began in 1988 when I married Diane.”
At which point, as if on cue, she pops into the restaurant, even more attractive unmade-up and in mufti than in her anchor drag. They exchange a few words, but there’s no scene to play: no fight, negotiation, contradiction, seduction. As she leaves a moment later, Nichols mouths two small kisses silently toward her. Like everyone, he seems awed by her glamour—and in that awe, all his former incarnations resolve into one. Come quick: Mike has a character.
But when I ask if he ever critiques Sawyers’s performance at the ABC news desk, he nevertheless says, “Of course. Every night.”