"Jack Be Nimble"--Jack O'Brien's Resurrection of Ellis Rabb

Ellis Rabb, by Charles Caron

 In 1992, in a moment of ambition and insanity, the actress Carrie Nye introduced me to the director Ellis Rabb and offered me as an assistant. “We need to resurrect Ellis,” Nye drawled, and I accepted—briefly—the assignment. I did not—could not—know that the resurrection of Rabb was an annual, perhaps daily, ritual among his acolytes and friends, and that the tasks had been performed, like the Stations of the Cross, for thirty years. Rabb was a dysfunctional, charismatic ruin, but many people kept trying—with little success—to prop him up on a pedestal and light candles beneath his feet.

    The task at hand was a revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, which was to be produced by a new iteration of the Association of Producing Artists (APA), the company that Rabb had founded in the 1960s, and it was to be mounted at the State University of New York at Purchase. Rabb was in no condition at the time to dress or feed himself, and his ears throbbed with the pain of Ménière's disease, but he was going to reclaim his position in the theatre, and he soon cast his play with a retinue of supplicants from his past. Within a matter of days, I realized that Rabb had no intention of directing anything: He simply got his friends together and left them to their own devices in a play sweet and sentimental, onto which he grafted cute and showy effects: Glitter on garbage. I also realized that my primary responsibilities were to keep Rabb stocked with vodka and to tend to the tiny dog of Meg Mundy.

    I resigned.

    Carrie Nye invited me over, hugged me, and said, with some regret, that this was how Ellis had always worked (“although drier at times,” she admitted), and that I might have waited a bit longer for some magic to fall upon me. “Ellis has an alchemy about him,” she told me, but I never saw it. Many did—none as clearly, as fervently, as Jack O’Brien, who has written an autobiography entitled “Jack Be Nimble”(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $35) which is, in reality, a hagiographic tract for Ellis Rabb, reverent and glossy with myth. 

   To read, review, or fully understand “Jack Be Nimble,” one must look upon it as a pilgrim’s progress, with a heavy religious scent hanging over it, like a fart in a green room, in which a young rube from Michigan, eager and positive, falls beneath the spell of an exotic, beguiling older man—a flawed holy father-- who teaches him secrets and nostrums, miracles and intercessions. Ellis Rabb evoked a priapic, near-sighted stork, manic and hyperbolic, offering endless pronouncements and announcements of new productions, new ideas, or his imminent death. He was forever in need of either an entrance cue or medical intervention, and he was given far too many of the former.

   Rabb’s credo—which he shared generously—was that one should and must become indispensable to someone very quickly, by doing anything and everything to earn a niche from which to learn, to steal, to shine. Rabb was a director of effects and absolutely no introspection, and his addiction to nostalgia and Americana (he firmly believed that audiences needed and deserved a revival of “You Can’t Take It With You” every year or two, preferably as perceived by him) led to diminishing returns, a magician pulling  mangy rabbits from a stained hat. One left Rabb productions humming the sets and the curtain calls, and enjoying the attempts from the company to evoke the past, as if they had gone without sleep watching black-and-white movies and studying adjectival acting. But Rabb, despite his dependence on effects, admitted to me that each play had to have a creamy nougat center, a pearl of great price if you will, and the success of his 1975 revival of “The Royal Family” was attributable to his securing the services of Eva Le Gallienne to anchor the play, to shine as a historical memento, to give it a weight it never possessed. Rabb also directed Rosemary Harris (from whom he was then divorced) to whip up a malignant meringue of a performance—airy and manic and reminiscent of nights when they argued and Rabb ran away to spend nights in the arms of various men. Play therapy with lavender gels. Presented during the country’s Bicentennial pageantry, it was presented and accepted as a holy relic of sorts—the finger bone, perhaps, of Saint Ann—and was loudly applauded. It was the highlight of Rabb’s career, and, upon accepting his Tony Award for direction, he announced that the APA was coming back. It never did, but Rabb spent the remainder of his career, such as it was, hauling out his revivals, cast with his retainers, drinking, and driving away all but the most loyal. (Proof that Rabb’s ministrations mattered was the recent revival of “The Royal Family,” which was a soufflé whose primary ingredient was pig iron.)

Eva Le Gallienne and Rosemary Harris in Ellis Rabb's The Royal Family (1975)

     After many years and several hundred pages of utter idolatry and concern for Rabb, O’Brien finally breaks with him, and achieves his independence by firing Rabb from a play he was directing. This could be said to be O’Brien’s Martin Luther moment, his act of boldness the nailing of theses to a door he now closes on Rabb, and one hopes that the next installment from O’Brien (“Jack Be Quick,” I would imagine, as he makes up for lost time and innocence) will deal with his work for the past thirty years.

    All autobiographies are confessions, and if they are good, and this one is, they also throw light on the lies that have been living in the corners, and that is what O’Brien has done here. He does not discount or dismiss Ellis Rabb—nor should he—but he separates the wheat from the chaff and can now see what should not be done. O’Brien has been more daring than Rabb in his choices—he has not been dependent on revivals, and he successfully operated a theatre, the Old Globe, in San Diego, and he has retained his friends—and, like Rabb, he is a director known for sweeping effects, but, unlike Rabb, he holds actors securely in both his palm and in his plays. More than a dozen actors have told me that they never feel safer than when they are directed by Jack O’Brien. The wonder of O’Brien’s talent and influence is revealed when one reads Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia,” a trilogy of chloroform, and realizes that what moved you at all was provided by O’Brien: It is not in the pages. For a man who is as passionate about and loving of the theatre as O’Brien is, it cannot be terribly satisfying to have in his credits such productions as “The Full Monty,” “Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and two horrors known as “Impressionism” and “Dead Accounts,” the latter two making me worry that he was facing problems with a mortgage or a malignancy: There are no other reasons for him to accept such assignments, until I read in these pages that directors never really retire (O’Brien is now in his seventies) and that he is a man who wants very much to remain active, alive, necessary. His talent deserves better material, but greater men than I will have to write a shelf full of books to tell us where this material might be, or if it will be received by anyone.

     Several years ago I began—and ultimately abandoned—a book that would deal with the art of directing. I had interviewed hundreds of actors, designers, and playwrights, and had asked them to define for me what made a good director. It was a fascinating period of time, and Jack O’Brien’s name repeatedly was mentioned, and from those both working in the current theatre and those who once had and who now studied it with an appreciative distance, including Elia Kazan and Arthur Penn. 

    What so many people love and admire—and always, always notice—about O’Brien’s work is that each production is a sort of flag planted firmly and lovingly in the timeline of theatre history, and the audience and the actors sense where they stand and why it matters (if it does) and why it is being done. Jack O’Brien is very much a director who loves the theatre and knows its place, even if most working with him do not, so he is, as Penn put it, something of a mystic, a wise man determined to let us know why things should matter and be remembered. To watch a play directed by O’Brien is to discover what he has learned, discarded, implanted into his work, and to read “Jack Be Nimble” is to watch him boldly walk toward his dream, embrace it, watch it curdle, and then present it as a cautionary tale. He got out of it alive, and he told the truth. The years of the APA were a maze of mendacity and gauze, and over the entire enterprise was a victim mentality that was fueled regularly by Rabb and Harris: Rabb was always on the precipice of a breakdown or foreclosure, and Harris, who always maintained that Rabb’s homosexuality was a complete surprise and betrayal to her, kept everyone aware of their bravery and their errant dreaming. “This we do for you,” they seemed always to be saying, according to Uta Hagen, who came to the APA in 1968, and found it worth doing but, as she put it, “a company with no foundation, a leaking roof, and an attic full of rabid bats.” 

    Rabb enjoyed regaling people with tales of how hard he worked and how little appreciation he received, and Harris liked to tell fellow actresses that she could not understand how Ellis, a man who compared her perky, pink nipples to flawless roses, could not and would not give her a child. These are people who were unfamiliar with the truth and never tried too hard to uncover it. The reality of the situation, as Carrie Nye believed it, is that they both got what they wanted, with concomitant pain, damage, and bruised accomplices. Rabb made Harris a star, taught her how to dress and move and read plays. Harris was the compliant doll upon which Rabb could affix designs and motives. O’Brien also got what he wanted, but he is the only member of this particular trinity to admit as much, and it would take a particularly dishonest reader to not admit that we all lie as often and as extravagantly to survive and function, especially in what is left of the American theatre.

   When it became apparent, in 1992, that I could offer no aid to Ellis Rabb as a directorial assistant, we would still meet for lunch and talk about things. Rabb was always writing plays—big and bold and always with a woman offering rescue—and he wanted me to read some pages he had crafted of an autobiography. Rabb would order a Salty Dog (Le Gallienne’s favorite drink) and he would tell stories about the joy of living in a perpetual fantasy of what the theatre might become. These were fascinating stories, and they would send a person out in the world ready to work toward something magical. This aspect of Rabb is captured beautifully in O’Brien’s book, particularly in an extended appendix, which holds the notes of Le Gallienne’s direction of “The Cherry Orchard” for the APA.

   Rabb was hurt that O’Brien had fired him, and he was often disparaging of the work that he was doing, savaging aspects of “Two Shakespearean Actors,” a play directed by O’Brien that was then running on Broadway. I ignored these rants, but I noticed that when an actor approached our table and attempted to ridicule, in a similar manner,  the work of Jack O’Brien, Rabb delivered a coruscating peroration that left the man blanched and apologetic. “No one attacks my friends,” Rabb told me, hoisting another drink.

   It ended badly for Rabb, who would call me from the Barbizon and ask me to bring booze “and maybe a boy?” he would add. I would visit him, bloated and ruddy, unable to keep his robe around his body, asking if anything I saw was of interest. Whatever his faults and whatever his demons, he did not deserve the conclusion he got, one he would never have allowed and would not have been able to stage. He would have required—and he needed--some form of female deliverance.

   Carrie Nye called a friend she shared with Rabb one day in 1998. “I have bad news about Ellis,” she began. “Oh,” the friend replied, “he’s in town? That’s bad news.” “No,” Nye told her, “he’s dead.”

   The female deliverance came when Carrie Nye and Rosemary Harris, perhaps his closest female friends, battered but stalwart, traveled to Memphis for Rabb’s funeral and acted as witnesses, friends, artistic wives.

A screen shot of Ellis Rabb and Carrie Nye in Maxim Gorky's Enemies (1973).

   O’Brien writes in this bracing book “Great acting is always shockingly direct and simple, in the sense that love is.” So is writing and so is living, and O’Brien does both directly and simply and powerfully. This is a noble and painful book that resurrects Ellis Rabb and places him both on a pedestal and in the center of our attention. I hope that the next book does the same for Jack O’Brien. It is time now for his story.

© 2013 James Grissom


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