I first worked with Nicky Martin in 1999 when he directed my play Betty’s Summer Vacation at Playwrights Horizons. The play was a comedy about an ill-fated seaside “share.” It was an edgy play, and artistic director Tim Sanford suggested we ask Nicky to direct.
I had had a reading of the play with Kristine Nielsen playing the pivotal role of Mrs. Siezmagraff, who was sort of a toxic Auntie Mame, happy as a clam and oblivious to everyone else. Kristine was deeply hilarious. Nicky hadn’t seen the reading, and with some worry I started to pitch Kristine for the role when he blurted out, “I love Kristine Nielsen! Let’s cast her!” So that was an immediate “click” between us.
Nicky was a friendly and ebullient soul, and we always laughed and laughed together. I quickly found that he knew exactly how to juggle and balance my sometimes tricky comedy: real psychology, but with a lightness that allowed for humor. Betty’s was an auspicious first collaboration for Nicky and me—it got the best reviews I’d received since Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You in 1981. The audience laughter had the energy of a rock concert. Nicky, Kristine and I all won Obie Awards that spring. Of course, reviews and awards come and go, but this was especially happy to share among the three of us.
Nicky acted as if doing theatre was easy, and I like to approach it that way, too. It’s not a big huffing-and-puffing affair—it’s to take a play and cast great actors and choose wonderful designers—and then have fun putting it on.
As I got to know Nicky better, I saw how beloved he was by a large group of actors he had worked with over the years: Debra Monk, Victor Garber, Kate Burton, Nathan Lane, Hope Davis, Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Martin, John Benjamin Hickey, Jessica Stone, Christopher Fitzgerald, Ethan Hawke, Dana Ivey and Blair Brown…to name just a few.
On Sept. 25, 2008, Nicky had a stroke that left him unable to use his left leg and arm. But his brain and speech were untouched. Nicky was slated to direct my play Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at the Public Theater in February of the following year, about four months after the stroke. Nicky needed a wheelchair, and he could only walk somewhat. In public he was brave and jovial about getting used to the complications of things he could no longer do.
But, oh my, watching him in auditions and rehearsals and then previews—he lit up. The “old” Nicky was there, alive and intuitive and smart and engaged. I was so glad he was indeed able to direct my play—and brilliantly.
I wrote Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on a commission from the McCarter Theatre. Nicky directed. Once again, it was a happy experience. Kristine and Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce were the pros, and the young ’uns were Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant and Genevieve Angelson. The performances were marvelous. Lincoln Center Theater co-produced with McCarter, and then, to all of our surprise, it moved to Broadway, and Nicky was nominated for a best director Tony.
The success of that play meant that Nicky would have had many new directing jobs: He was slated to do Vanya and Sonia at the Mark Taper Forum and the Old Globe. But last October he found a lump on the back of his neck, and it turned out to be throat cancer. The doctors felt he had a good prognosis, but said the chemo and radiation would have him too exhausted to direct at the Taper so quickly. David H-P had very much bonded with Nicky, and Nicky asked him to direct the Taper production. David did a great job; the program credit said “based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin.”
But the chemo was really hard on him, and he got terribly ill. Then suddenly there was a turnaround, and all of Nicky’s friends—on a special e-mail list that kept us informed—felt a surge of hope. He was getting better. Our hope was that he could return to directing for a year or two or more….
And then suddenly, in a matter of hours, he was very ill. A large group of his friends were standing around him in his final moments. He opened his eyes briefly; they weren’t sure he actually saw them, but he may have. And then he was gone.
They dimmed the Broadway lights for Nicky a couple of days after he passed. A whole group of us gathered at 7:45 p.m. to mark his talent and mourn his passing. The Shuberts sweetly surprised us with a great big picture of Nicky that suddenly appeared on the marquees of two theatres.
Dear Nicky, we so miss you, and won’t forget you.
Christopher Durang is a playwright.