“Did we first meet at a rehearsal of Love! Valour! Compassion!?” Nathan Lane asks director Joe Mantello. “Or was it when you called to tell me there was going to be a nudity clause in my contract?” Lane, Mantello, and playwright Jon Robin Baitz reminiscing with Judith Stone about past collaborations as they gear up for their latest – Baitz’s new play Mizlansky/Zilinsky or “schmucks.” The history is rich: Baitz and Mantello have been a couple for eight years, and worked together on Baitz’s Three Hotels. A decade ago, Lane starred in Baitz’s first hit, The Film Society. Mantello, himself an actor, directed Lane in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, a show that occasionally called for some exuberant exhibitionism. Recalls Lane, “I said to Terrence, ‘I cannot appear naked onstage. The Manhattan Theatre Club can’t afford to lose more subscribers, children will weep, it’s just going to be upsetting for everyone all around. Give me an apron and high heels!’ And that’s what he did.”

Baitz’s dark comedy, on the other hand, requires the baring of only the soul. “Two low-budget Hollywood producers are now selling tax shelters. It sounds – hey! Wacky!” says Lane. “But my character is more serious than that.” How serious? Says Baitz , “I think it’s useful to think of him as a sort of Richard Nixon with Jewish timing.”

New York Magazine: Nathan, do you remember the first time you met Robbie?

Nathan Lane: I read his play The Film Society, thought it was an amazing play, and imagined the playwright to be a 50-year-old college professor. Then I met him, and he was, what, 22?

Jon Robin Baitz: Twenty-four.

Lane: I read some scenes, and he said, “I’d very much like you to do the play.” And I said, “Shouldn’t we ask your parents first?”

Joe, how did you and Robbie meet?

Joe Mantello: I went to see a play at Naked Angels called Chelsea Walls. Robbie had a little role at the end.

Baitz: A literary editor.

Mantello: And he was wearing a purple suit –

Baitz: The store called it periwinkle. It made up for my lack of both acting ability and pheromonal heat.

Lane: To Mantello How could you help yourself? “Check out the guy in the periwinkle!”

Robbie, Mizlansky/Zilinsky was your first play. Have you ever before gone back to an earlier work?

Baitz: Never anything so cryogenically frozen.

What sent you back to the freezer?

Baitz: Last fall, the original producers of Mizlansky/Zilinsky wanted to do a radio version. It’s easier to do radio than theater in L.A. – people are in the cars, and you have an audience actually. The old version of the play seemed somehow inadequate, so I rewrote it a bit. I missed the old L.A; all the old schleppers are going out like the dinosaurs. It drew me back in.

Nathan, how have people responded to the news that you’re going to be doing a TV series, playing an opera singer turned vintner?

Lane: When I say I’m looking forward to it, they look at me like I’ve suggested I’m going on a killing spree. But these are writers and producers I’ve wanted to work with for a very long time. They do these little Noël Coward plays every week on Frasier. People want to categorize you. If you’re doing a movie, people say, “Have you abandoned the theater?” I say no, I just happen to be doing a movie right now. I could be home reading a book. Would that mean I’ve become … A Reader? That I’ve abandoned Going Out to Dinner?

Would you two work in TV?

Baitz: Absolutely. I’ve seen more intelligent writing and acting and directing on television than in most other places in the last year.

Mantello: I think people in New York have to underestimate TV to justify staying here. But I’m really interested in it now because I’m so tired of doing three months of work for one night. During the past couple of shows that I’ve done, I’ve thought, Why am I doing all of this work? I’m trying to grow, trying to work on things that are really challenging, but you really don’t get any points for that. You don’t. It’s pass-fail.

Was it the product that made you unhappy, or its reception by critics and audiences?

Mantello: Probably all of the above. It’s so tired to talk about the critics, but given the amount of time they have to write about a given project, there’s no way it’s going to equal the amount of energy and passion that has gone into it. It’s always disappointing – it’s a rave, and you think, That’s all they have to say?

Baitz: I think there’s a kind of tribalism at work in the New York theater, where one of the medicine men in the tribe comes to the top of the mountain, holds up the chicken, and if the entrails fall one way, people will dive into the ocean and drown themselves before the volcano comes up. That is an incredibly mixed metaphor.

Lane: I give that a 9.0. That was a beautiful thing! Ben Brantley with entrails flowing down.

Baitz: There’s no one person – it’s sort of a systemic weirdness.

Mantello: I think all three of us are theater addicts, or we wouldn’t be here working for a buck-fifty. There’s something so great about the tightrope act of having to go out and talk to those people in the dark every night.

Mantello: The people who are great are the people who keep going. Look at someone legendary like Julie Harris – I imagine that even she has experienced despair or felt, What I do is not interesting to people.

Lane: I just read an interview with Cherry Jones, and she said she’d told Julie Harris she was tired of theater and Julie Harris said, “You must never say that.” And slapped her or something. I love that kind of passion. “You must never say that.” Of course, Julie Harris was on Knots Landing; she must have gotten a little tired of theater. Deep down, she’s right. We mustn’t say that – otherwise they’re going to close us down.
There’s another reason that we do it – it is spiritual, it does fill the soul. Or fuel the soul. I don’t know what I’m talking about now. Just slap me. Where’s Julie Harris when you need her?