NEW YORK -- Jerry Zaks wants to make you laugh.
He wants to make you laugh when he describes how much weight he gained after the birth of his first child. When, posing for a photographer, he has to try sitting on different combinations of books to look tall enough. ("You see, you're laughing," he says with delight. "And you're feeling sorry for me at the same time. It's a perfect response.")
And most of all, he wants to make you laugh when you see any of the plays he directs.
Zaks, New York's current king of comedy, is a Tony Award-winning director (for "Lend Me a Tenor") and the only director who was ever able to come up with a steady string of hits for the historically beleaguered Lincoln Center Theater in Manhattan. Somebody with enough clout to turn down an offer to direct "Miss Saigon." A man whose commercial successes off-Broadway led to a job created just for him with the Jujamcyn group to develop plays and musicals for its five theaters, with access to the Shubert Organization's 16 theaters as well.
Zaks is so hot that when Washington playwright Ken Ludwig and producer Martin Starger were looking for a director for the Broadway production of "Lend Me a Tenor," their short list was Zaks and Mike Nichols. Imagine, a short list of one 5-foot-7 former actor in thick glasses, jeans and a flak jacket -- and Mike Nichols. How does that make him feel? "It's nice, it's nice," says Zaks, looking down at his sneakers.
"You know," he says with more gusto, happy to deflect the attention away from himself, "if that list were Yanik Pochech and Mike Nichols, I would say, 'Good God, that Yanik Pochech must feel great.' But being that guy, it's not real to me."
Instead, what's real to Zaks these days is finding time to tune up the touring company of "Tenor" (it opens at the Eisenhower Theater tonight); transferring his most recent smash, John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," from a small stage at Lincoln Center to a much larger one there; getting Stephen Sondheim's newest work, "Assassins," up and running; and somehow dealing with the scripts and "requests for my availability" that come into his hectic new theater district office -- where he hasn't yet had time to finish unpacking -- at the rate of two a day.
The award-winning credits that have attracted all the attention (and include "Anything Goes," "The House of Blue Leaves," "Wenceslas Square" and "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You") are characterized by a funny offbeat realism applied to implausible situations.
So too, "Lend Me a Tenor," a farce that revolves around the mishap-laden visit of a world-famous tenor to a Cleveland opera company in 1934 (and is reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the '30s), is not inherently realistic.
But somehow it seems real -- or at least believable. And that of course is Zaks's intention. "The only way it's really funny is if you imagine real people really investing the situation with life and death stakes," says the director. "The behavior has to be grounded in some reality, which can then be heightened."
Making people laugh. Life and death stakes. Not odd preoccupations, really, for the firstborn child of Polish survivors of the Holocaust -- Zaks's mother was liberated from Auschwitz; his father lived through World War II on the run. His parents wanted him to be a doctor. "They never pressured me," he says protectively. "They were too sensitive to do that. But the idea that I might pursue a profession like medicine filled them with great happiness, because then I would have really been secure."
Instead, at Dartmouth, where he headed in 1963 as a pre-med student, Zaks fell in love with the theater in the form of a production of "Wonderful Town" seen over a long, cold Winter Carnival weekend. "I couldn't believe how great it was," he says. "I'd never seen Broadway shows."
In high school in New Jersey his cultural heroes had been the Drifters, the Everly Brothers, the Coasters, the Shirelles. "I would go down to the basement by myself and sing along to the music. It was ecstatic. Religious.
"And there I was in the theater at Dartmouth with those same feelings. I kept wanting to turn to everyone and say, 'Can you believe this?' "
At first he resisted the pull. "I did not make a conscious decision to get into the theater. It was a decision that sort of evolved," he says. First to go into acting (in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Tintypes," "Grease"). And then later into directing (where he could have more control) and into the business of making people laugh.
Is there a connection between how he was raised and what he's doing now?
"Sure," says Zaks, who has given the matter considerable thought over the years and doesn't want to make the connection too pat. "Sure.
"One could trace a connection between an upbringing influenced by parents that came this close to being killed. And the impact that had on them. And however that translated into a world view that made us all a little more careful, because who knew what lurked out there. And my response to joy in the theater and my desire to have plays exude joy.
"But the connection is very complicated."
What is simpler -- and more comfortable -- for him to explain is his approach to his work now, work that is described in reviews as "masterful," "stylish, symmetrical direction," "timed like a perfect egg." And it turns out that the path to laughter is paved with his own meticulous planning.
Initially there is his own private reaction to a prospective script. "Lend Me a Tenor," for example, made him laugh out loud. "It's a very primitive response when I read a play, but I loved those people," he recalls. "And I got very excited about the comic skill that the situations were invested with."
Then there is the carefully structured rehearsal environment he creates for his actors, a place that stresses safety, security, protection, a setting where actors can find that credibility Zaks is seeking.
"I try to make the rehearsal experience as painless and un-barbaric as possible," he says. "It's got to be a place where if you're going to take a chance on making yourself look silly, you'll do it there, where the worst that can happen is that you'll be laughed at."
Says Ron Holgate, who plays the tenor in "Tenor" and is called upon to do some hilariously silly things in the role, "All of us have had experiences with directors who will use you as a joke. But actors are very sensitive and want to do their job as well as possible. Jerry makes you feel that you will not be threatened or exposed in any way during the rehearsal process. He's on your side. It makes you take a lot more chances because you know he won't make fun of you or say, 'That was a stupid choice.' "
The kind of theater Zaks has generally been attracted to calls for ensemble acting -- without star turns or emphasis on one character at the expense of another. In order for it to succeed, a collaborative process must be established between director, actor and often playwright. Egos must be stifled -- a difficult task in any business and an almost self-contradictory one in the theater.
Creating a working ensemble is a skill Zaks has been praised for. Says Zaks, "If the plays are going to work, the one thing I like to think they have in common is a group of first-rate actors who are passing the ball to one another fearlessly and unself-consciously with the understanding that the more their attention is on each other, the better they look. Members of a cast have to feel as though they're the best, they're the Cincinnati Reds. It's critical because the audience feels that way too."
Zaks's early acting career may make him particularly tuned in to an actor's vulnerability. He can always put himself in a performer's place, and perhaps with that in mind suggests changes or different approaches out of earshot of other actors. "It makes you feel as though you're being treated with respect," says Holgate.
Because of his sensitivity to actors and his upbeat, supportive demeanor, Zaks is often described as "a really nice guy." It's a description he is clearly ambivalent about. First of all, he is quick to point out, there is his dark side, the side that agonizes when things -- even small things -- don't go right.
And second, he's not always Mr. Nice Guy. Zaks as a director by definition is a man firmly in charge. Producers give him creative control, and he is also in complete control of the rehearsal environment. He tolerates no actor-to-actor suggestions, no fussing around with the production once it is complete. "I couldn't tolerate being out of control," he says simply, "because then I'm not directing the play."
Sometimes, he admits, this is not good. "Sometimes this translates as an impatience. And I'm always willing to listen to what an actor has to say. I want to hear that. But if we haven't done something in rehearsal, don't you dare do it on stage. I don't think anyone has any idea how truly ruthless I am about that."
After all, if you're in charge, you can control more than just your own character, more than just your own comic bits. It's all in the director's hands. It's the world as crafted by Jerry Zaks, a world that ideally gives the audience joy.
"I like to think that when someone sees a play that I direct they feel the way they do when they wake up from a good dream," says Zaks. "In good dreams, improbable things happen, things that aren't naturalistic.
"But when you're watching them, they're real. You believe them."