Perhaps portraying a young Albert Einstein in Steve Martin’s comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile has given Mark Nelson a facility for calculating his career. Believe me, I’m no Einstein, but I manage to fool the audience, says the 40-year-old actor and director and Princeton University alumnus who has apparently plotted a mathmatical formula for success. But Nelson need not be a math wizard to figure out that the number three has been a particularly lucky one for him at McCarter Theater and at the Drama Dept. no relation to Princeton University, but the fledgling Off-Broadway professional theater company with a deliberately abbreviated name of which Nelson is a founder.

As an actor, Nelson has already scored three times with McCarter audiences in The Film Society, The Three Sisters, and Rough Crossing. And in case you haven’t heard, the Drama Dept. is on a roll with three hits out of three times at bat in various Off-Off-Broadway venues. One of these hits is June Moon, the season opener at McCarter Theater. The production, which opens Friday, September 19, and plays to October 5, marks Nelson’s directorial debut at McCarter, as it did in New York.

Soon after June Moon opens, Nelson the actor departs on the national tour of Picasso. Yet Nelson assures me that he negotiated a clause in his Picasso contract to allow him to return for two weeks to ready June Moon for its anticipated Off-Broadway run. At this point, he says, the Drama Dept. is not a living. I’m going on the road with `Picasso’ to pay my rent.

On the road to Princeton, Nelson and his designers have had to figure out how to physically expand the offbeat 1929 comedy by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. The stage at the McCarter is a lot bigger than the one at the tiny Ohio Theater on Wooster Street where June Moon had its revival debut.

One of the more curious theater relics of 1929, June Moon is certainly worth dusting off. Could the passage of 68 years change the way we look at this sweet-and-sour comedy about a questionably naive songwriter from Schenectady who gains fame and fraternity among the unquestionably ruthless denizens of Tin Pan Alley? Nelson hopes to answer that question, as he stresses the inherent bite and vitriol of the Lardner touch. The play gets many of its kicks from a pack of musical hacks and exploiters that include a musically stale composer, his bored two-timing wife, a scoundrel musical publisher, his ex-femme fatale girlfriend, a smart-aleck pianist, and a witless dried up songwriter.

What a great day. I’m on a high. But I wouldn’t have said that yesterday, announces Nelson, in a telephone interview at the end of his second day of rehearsals. Knowing that you can’t always predict the receptiveness of an artist to questions during the early stages of creation, I am relieved by his affirmation that everything is going well. Although we are on the phone, Nelson’s eager, almost jubilant, responses to my questions are irrepressible.

Nelson expresses amazement at the way Drama Dept. was able to bring so much attention to itself with its very first effort. This was with a decidedly audacious restaging of Tennessee Williams’s early and problematic play, Kingdom of Earth. But it was Nelson at the helm of June Moon, the Drama Dept.’s second production, that apparently made McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann take notice.

Winning a Lucille Lortel award and a Drama Desk nomination for his direction of June Moon was a breakthrough for Nelson. But it was no less than a break for Mann, who saw one of her favorite actors at the helm of a play that she had had on her A-list for a long time. June Moon was, in fact, the play that Susan Shulman was expected to direct at McCarter last season, before she changed her mind and chose instead The Royal Family. Just think, I remind Nelson, if Shulman had directed June Moon, you probably wouldn’t be here now, and the whole course of history would be changed, relatively speaking.

Nelson’s relationship with McCarter Theater appears almost as close as his relationship with Drama Dept. That the two producing units are working together may be the start of an ongoing collaboration. In what Nelson calls a friendly deal among smart friends, McCarter will share in any future success June Moon enjoys Off-Broadway.

The Drama Dept. is a creation of artistic director Douglas Carter Beane. Beane is also the author of the Drama Dept.’s third big hit, As Bees in Honey Drown, currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater Off-Broadway. This ambitious and suddenly newsworthy little company was seeded less than three years ago with the rewards from Beane’s screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Love, Julie Newmar. Nelson was one of about 25 friends and acquaintances including actors, writers, and directors whom Beane invited to a luncheon at Sardis. There Beane proposed forming a new Off-Broadway company. We gathered once a week in his living room and we would read either a new play by one of the company writers or an old play, says Nelson, now among a core group of about 15 associates.

Did anyone expect the first two shows to get such attention? Not at all. It was a fluke. I don’t understand how we could have been so lucky, says Nelson, noting how many talented people working in admirable projects have not been as fortunate. Nelson doesn’t disallow the impact of a great New York Times review. Another rave from the Times for the third play, As Bees in Honey Drown, finds its producer Edgar Lansbury, who also happens to be the Drama Dept.’s chairman of the board, with the money in place to move June Moon to an Off-Broadway theater. This, as soon as the right theater becomes available and the artistic team says, Go.

Nelson stresses that his immediate goal is to make June Moon work at Princeton’s McCarter. We have the same team of designers that we had before, but they are working on a more elaborate level, and with a much bigger budget, says Nelson. He confides that the imaginatively designed show was produced at the Ohio Theater for about $17,000 compared with the $500,000 or more it takes to produce the average Off-Broadway show.

Although the Drama Dept. has produced its first shows under an affordable Equity showcase agreement which limits the length of run, they are also pursuing film and cable TV development. Beane is writing a screenplay that will include members of the company. New Line Pictures has signed a deal with Drama Dept. to underwrite three new plays produced over the next two years in exchange for film rights.

Exactly how different is June Moon at McCarter from the one seen Off-Broadway? Conceding that the design is dramatically different, Nelson says that, after exhaustive auditions, he has a new actress playing the ingenue Edna. Her name is Jessica Stone, and she’s great. After one successful pass at the play, Nelson says that he is discovering a new energy with new cast members.

What is it about the somewhat obscure comedy June Moon that attracted Nelson? I saw it on TV on PBS when I was in high school and loved it. He attributes his decision to direct it 22 years later to the lasting impression made by that special broadcast and its cast, which included Stephen Sondheim, as the piano arranger, with Susan Sarandon, Jack Cassidy, and Estelle Parsons.

Ironically it was not until after his New York production of June Moon closed that Nelson got to see the old video again. I thought I was directing in the same tone as the TV production, but I soon realized that it was more cartoony and light-hearted than our production. Perhaps unwittingly, Nelson acknowledged the dark side of the comedy that he sees as completely unsentimental, no sappy saintly characters, and with a startlingly ambivalent ending. The 1990s can exult in that sensibility, he adds.

The fact that in this play one hero finds happiness while the other hero’s happiness is shattered is not in the usual George S. Kaufman vein. June Moon is a far cry from Once in a Lifetime and You Can’t Take it With You, making the Drama Dept.’s agenda all the more distinct. That agenda, as Nelson sees it, is to do things that others are not doing, and to unearth neglected American voices. All of us are bringing in special plays that we have fixations on. A public reading series coming up will include an oldie like Philip Barry’s `Here Come the Clowns,’ and a new play by company playwright Peter Hedges. These readings will help us decide which is the next play to produce.

Nelson notes that the talented members of the Drama Dept. are getting around. One of their members, Becky Ann Baker (in the original cast of Titanic), came directly to McCarter to repeat her role as Lucille in June Moon. This, after starring in Blithe Spirit for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, a production not incidentally directed by her husband Dylan Baker, also a Drama Dept. member.

Does directing on such a grand scale as McCarter permit Nelson to ponder the possibilities of another show here? Oh, definitely. Chekhov, he replies without hesitation. Chekhov is my absolute obsession. I saw my first Chekhov when I was a student at Princeton. He recalls the year, 1975, and the play, The Sea Gull, under the direction of Michael Kahn. However, for the Drama Dept. I want to direct a new play by a living playwright. I’ve never worked with a living playwright before. One can play it safe by doing plays by dead playwrights who can’t complain.

An English major at Princeton, Class of 1977, Nelson took every theater course he could. My parents were horrified, he says. Most of the men in the family are doctors, and they were hoping that I would be too. So instead of Anatomy 501, he took acting lessons with the great Uta Hagen after graduation. The talented young man who was raised in Westwood not only found his career in the theater, but his partner also. Where? Painting scenery for The Three Sisters. As you can see, it’s all relative to my theory of threes.

Simon Saltzman

June Moon, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-683-8000. Opening night for the comedy that plays to October 5. $31 & $35. Friday, September 19, 8 p.m.

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