‘Jack Be Nimble’: best theater memoir since ‘Act One’?

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jackYou might expect a memoir by the prolific — and brilliant — director Jack O’Brien to focus on the amazing run of hits he’s had in the past decade, including his Tony wins for the crowd-pleasing musical “Hairspray” and the brainy Tom Stoppard epic “The Coast of Utopia.”

Instead, O’Brien’s “Jack Be Nimble” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) takes us back to the beginning of his career when he found himself working as the assistant to the turbulent genius director/actor Ellis Rabb.

O’Brien’s book is subtitled “The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director” which captures the author’s witty view of how so often what we start out to become in life is not what we end up being.

The memoirist’s original career intent — half a century ago — was to become the lyric writing half of a Lerner and Loewe-style Broadway songwriting team. That was the path O’Brien was on at the University of Michigan when fate — in the form of director Ellis Rabb and his APA repertory company — turned his head around.

O’Brien displays a very healthy ego in “Jack Be Nimble” but the book is more a tribute to Ellis Rabb — and the early days of the American repertory theater/regional theater movement — than a traditional autobiography.

In the first few chapters, O’Brien writes about the influence on American stage history of John Houseman and the Shakespeare theater in Stratford, and Tyrone Guthrie’s decision to start a regional theater in Minnesota.

It was Guthrie’s exploratory visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and his rejection of that site for his regional theater that led to the University welcoming Ellis Rabb and a brand new Milwaukee, Wisconsin theater troupe to the campus.

Rabb had a rising star actress in the company — his wife, Rosemary Harris — and enough talent and ambition to carry him and the APA/Phoenix company on to New York City and triumph. By moving into Rabb’s orbit, young Jack would work with legends like Houseman, Uta Hagen and Eva LeGallienne and such amazing fresh talents as Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen and Sada Thompson.

“Jack Be Nimble” is about the excitement of the early days in any career, when every experience and every personality is fresh. The book is also a performance in which O’Brien’s witty, gossipy voice is as strong as the personalities of the theater folk he writes about.

O’Brien shares stormy backstage confrontations with the reader — the tiff with Rosemary Harris that led to Nancy Marchand (and her actor husband Paul Sparer) leaving the company — but he never stoops to personal vitriol. Kindness and respect permeate the book.

The memoirist is well aware of the fragile, intangible nature of great stage acting: “We may not altogether understand it, but when someone as individual as Rosemary Harris walks onto a stage, something indefinable happens…Still, to reflect on (APA’s) history and not make some attempt to revive a bit of its magic on the page is, I think, pointless. One may not entirely succeed, but one needs in some way to attest to lightning in a bottle.”

The gift of “Jack Be Nimble” is that it does capture a lot of the “lightning in a bottle” that made this period in American theater history so vital, and that launched a great modern stage director’s career. It’s a book worthy of a place on the same shelf with Moss Hart’s “Act One.”

(Ellis Rabb is on the left in the photo below, with Peter Evans, in the first New York production of the David Mamet play, “A Life in the Theater,” in 1977.)

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Joe Meyers

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