In ‘Jack Be Nimble’ Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien describes his apprenticeship under Ellis Rabb

July 26, 2013

The title of this book is misleading. Jack O’Brien, an almost unbelievably versatile director — everything from the cheerfully camp “Hairspray” to Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” — certainly has enough show-business cred to be the center of his own memoir. But this first volume of his reminiscences is largely a portrait of Ellis Rabb. Who?

Performance isn’t the only evanescent element of the theater. Fifty years ago, Rabb was establishing his repertory company, the Association of Producing Artists, around the same time Tyrone Guthrie founded his venerated theater in Minneapolis. But Guthrie’s theater is named after him, and that name and his reputation survive. John Houseman called Rabb the only genius aside from Orson Welles he’d ever known. But Welles made “Citizen Kane,” starred in “The Third Man,” hawked wine with that magnificent voice. All Rabb did was direct brilliantly, act extremely well and generate anecdotes about his flamboyant, histrionic behavior: the tantrums, the resignations, the badly handled affairs, the personal viciousness, the irresistible charm. “When they’re geniuses,” Houseman said, “it’s worth it!”

It was more than worth it to O’Brien, who fell under Rabb’s spell while the APA was in residence at the University of Michigan in 1962, where O’Brien was a graduate student with a national award for Best Collegiate Musical behind him and a casual idea that he was headed for a life in musical theater. That path took a sharp turn when he saw Rabb’s production of “A School For Scandal” in which the director’s mastery of space, light, abstraction and acting was on splendid show. In his confessedly random way, O’Brien was so smitten that he impulsively decided that he had to be part of this brilliant theater company, and he boldly went to join it. Rabb’s initial rudeness and indifference hardly fazed him; O’Brien had hold of an important truth about working with artists: “I knew . . . that my survival depended upon making myself indispensable, and I [went] about it with a driving passion.”

In fact, despite the book’s focus on the dazzling Rabb, O’Brien is the fascinating character here. A self-described directionless “dreamer,” he presents himself as a “pinball,” propelled randomly through life to career heights that elude striv­ing thousands. This is probably a shade disingenuous, but I think not much.

O’Brien is apparently that rare theater type, the man of talent who doesn’t have an artist’s overheated personality. He describes himself as naturally happy. “Making enemies,” he says, “was not in the cards for me.” Where others exasperate, O’Brien soothes. When they lose their heads, he is calm; when they throw fits, he is patient. He genuinely adores brilliance in others.


"Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director" by Jack O'Brien (FSG)

Cheerful and witty, fun-loving and non-judgmental, he’s the guy everyone likes to have around. He’s also tough, smart and impressively self-disciplined, with the shrewdness to appreciate how fortunate he is. For years, he was more or less Rabb’s personal servant (“sherpa” is the word he uses, chauffeuring him, packing and unpacking for him, acting as a shield, an explainer, a conciliating buffer between Rabb and his long-suffering wife, Rosemary Harris). O’Brien understands that he put up with all this for “the single greatest postgraduate course in directing of anyone of my generation.”

Not that he realized this at the time, he claims. Rabb, knowing talent was thick on the ground but good servants rare as four-leaf clovers, didn’t encourage him to direct. As late as 1972, O’Brien was still dreaming of making it on Broadway as lyricist for the show “The Selling of the President” — a belly-flop disaster. O’Brien was in shock: “From childhood on, my determination to contribute somehow to the writing of musical theater . . . was the driving force in my life, brought to a shuddering stop after the closing Saturday might performance of March 25, 1972.” But then . . . .

He was offered a chance to direct “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at The Old Globe in San Diego.

O’Brien had directed a little, including a play on Broadway, but his ambition had always been elsewhere. Even while working for Rabb, “I had held the belief that one day the mantle of Alan Jay Lerner would drop as lightly as cashmere onto my shoulders.” Apparently not. A light dawns. “I was not needed, scheduled, or sought as a lyricist . . . for Broadway. But there might just be a market for my accumulated skills as a director.” Yes, there might just, as his subsequent Tony nominations (and three wins) suggest.

It was Craig Noel, an old colleague, who gave him the job at the Globe. As Arthur Miller has told us, the important thing is not just to be liked but well-liked.

Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.

JACK BE NIMBLE

The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director

By Jack O’Brien

Farrar Straus Giroux. 352 pp. $35

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