Why Mike Nichols Is Working Without A Net

MIKE NICHOLS'S MOVIE "THE BIRDCAGE" is the biggest hit of the year, with a gross of more than $106 million. He's set to film "Primary Colors," the sensation-making anonymous novel about the '92 Clinton campaign, with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. He's back working with his longtime partner Elaine Maya PBS documentary about them will air on May 22, two weeks after a CD of their classic comedy routines comes out. It's a high point in the career of the Oscar-winning, six-time Tony-winning director. So why is he up there onstage at the Cottesloe, the smallest of the spaces at London's National Theatre, as an actorand performing in "The Designated Mourner," a difficult, disturbing play by a difficult, disturbing writer, Wallace Shawn?

"I wanted to do something scary," says Nichols. "Something that can't do me any possible good. I can't go skydiving or climb Annapurna, but I can do this. It's not a career move." It's a gutsy, audacious move. Nichols's performance is a revelation in its unnerving mix of anger, despair, perverse wit and emotional force. He is Jack, the self-designated mourner for the high culture represented by Howard (David de Keyser), a dissident intellectual, and his daughter Judy (Miranda Richardson), Jack's wife. Seated at a long trestle table, the three engage in a two-hour crescendo of interweaving monologues that evoke the apocalyptic events in an unnamed country with an oppressive regime that crushes both the masses and the cultural elite. (London critics have gleefully assumed the country is America. Bloody cheeky, mates.)

Shawn, who writes dark, profane plays and acts in cuddlesome movie roles (he's the voice of Rex the dinosaur in "Toy Story" and the teen-baffled teacher in "Clueless"), worked on the play for five years with Nichols in mindor rather in ear. "For some uncanny reason," says Shawn, "I'd lie in bed at night and read it to myself in his voice." When Shawn and English playwright-director David Hare invited Nichols to do the play, he consulted with his wife, Diane Sawyer, and with Elaine May, who both advised him to do it. "I always ask Elaine to read stuff I'm going to do," says Nichols. "I once asked her opinion of a certain script. We went to an Italian restaurant, and before she told me what she thought I told her I was doing the movie. "You've accepted it?' she said. "Well, yes,' I said. And she fainted, right there in the restaurant. I had to take her home and put cold compresses on her forehead. She helped me to get out of the movie."

The only other time he acted in a play was with May in a 1980 production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. "I never liked acting because I preferred being a daddy to being a baby," says Nichols. "But with Wally's play I liked being a baby. I just did what David told me. I trust him absolutely." For his part, Hare says that Nichols was "amazing, natural and nervous. He made that work for him. You could ask him to do anything and he'd do it." The brilliant and beautiful Miranda Richardson (who is herself amazing in Robert Altman's upcoming "Kansas City") recalls Nichols saying, ""I don't know what I'm doing.' But his mind is so sharp, you'd see it mesh perfectly with the character of Jack."

That character is one of the most unsettling created by an American dramatist in a long time. Jack scorns the elitist aura of Howard and his circle, despite their stand against oppression that earns them a horrible fate. A self-proclaimed "lowbrow" who prefers sex magazines to poetry, he still mourns the bloodbath that sends "John Donne falling into hell, all his rememberers gone." Nichols plays this role with scary, piercing insight. "All my life," he says, "I refused to use the word 'art' because it had been so degraded, because people in theater who talked about art were usually schmucks. Now that art is in danger, things are different. A little respect is necessary. You can make the case that the death of the 6 million was the first blow to art, to metaphor. Now metaphor has moved from art to 'current events.' The Bobbitts and the Menendezes are living metaphors. How can you compete with them?"

"The 6 million" loom large in Nichols's sense of himself. Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, he and his parents fled from the Holocaust, arriving in the United States when he was 7. "It's just a fact that I'm living on borrowed time," he says. "I wasn't meant to be here living and making movies and being in plays." But he is, and this moment is probably the brightest in his career since 1966, when he had four shows running on Broadway. A youthful 64, he wonders "whether being young for your age has partly to do with wasting the middle of your life. Among other things, I stopped making movies for seven years. I don't know what I was doing. Dante says there is a dark forest in the middle of your life. You don't know it's coming, then you're in it, then you're out of it. The secret of these later years is that you finally give yourself a break, so you give other people a break. Your body gives you a break. You're not following your d--- everywhere."

His life, says Nichols, has come full circle. He's back working with Elaine May. She wrote the screenplay for "The Birdcage," will write the script for "Primary Colors" and is writing an original called "Side Effect" that Nichols will film. "Certainly rejoining Elaine has been terribly important. Any small differences between us have burned away. We have only pleasure. What I don't think, she thinks of; what she doesn't think of, I think of." Nichols will also film Ted Tally's screenplay based on Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel "All the Pretty Horses." "The Designated Mourner" plays until June 1. A New York production may happen, but without Nichols. He's got all those movies to do, but besides that, "I'm not interested in being in a play in New York. It's a whole other game. Everyone writes about theater and movies in terms of money. They're market reports. But people here in England are used to a living theater. I do see interesting things in America every year. But for me it's more personal. I wanted to do this one, at this time and in this place. And go back to my real job and my real life." If this is to be Nichols's one contribution to acting, it's a tremendous one. Nichols teaches an acting class in New York. He should ship his students to London to see him work. That "master class" deserves its name.