I first met Nathan in 1984 when he auditioned for my play Isn’t It Romantic at Playwrights Horizons. He was up for the part of Dr. Marty Sterling, the smug Mount Sinai kidney man. He wasn’t right for the role, but I’ve been a groupie ever since. Who can forget Nathan as Buzz Hauser with the encyclopedic musical-comedy knowledge in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!? Or Mendy, the Maria Callas devotee in Terrence’s The Lisbon Traviata? Nathan was funny, sad, moving, over-the-top, in the heart. He was Anton Chekhovian, Zero Mostelian, and Jimmy Cocoian.
You haven’t lived till you’ve driven back on the L.I.E. on a summer night in packed traffic with Nathan in the backseat and Terrence at the wheel. Terrence is doing calming exercises while Nathan is commenting on every driver. Terrence continues to breathe deeply while Nathan does his opening monologue for the L.I.E. Tony Awards.
For many years in the late eighties and nineties, Nathan and I were in the same benefit circuit. At least two nights a week, Nathan would host a fund-raiser for this or that worthy cause and I’d be there accepting an award for someone I didn’t know. Susan Stroman believes Nathan always shows up because he knows who he is when he’s performing. But I also know it’s because he has an extraordinarily generous heart.
“Good old reliable Nathan,” the estimable floating-crap-game host whom he played in Guys and Dolls, was, of course, Nathan Detroit. At that point in his career, Nathan was a two-name Broadway star. But in the past year, Lane eclipsed Detroit: Simply say it’s starring Nathan and everyone knows who you’re talking about. And everyone shows up, even at $480 a ticket.
I went back to see The Producers in October for my birthday. Only now his performance as Max Bialystock seemed to be a metaphor for our city: Our toughness. Our insanity. Our overwhelming humanity. He was more than just “Nathan.” He was Nathan New York.