By Robert Israel
Nicholas Martin, artistic director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company from 2000 to 2008, and artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival from 2007 to 2010, died on April 30, 2014 in New York after a long illness. He was 75.
Nicky, as he was known, claimed to be smitten by the stage at an early age by his parents. Born Joel Martin Levinson in Brooklyn, he first performed on New York stages as a child actor and later turned to directing.
During several encounters/interviews with Nicky over the years I found one reassuring constant — his ebullient, mirthful personality, a lively sense of humor that he retained even after he suffered a stroke and had to scuttle about in a wheelchair. I dubbed him “The Imp of the Perverse,” after the title of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, because of his mischievous nature.
Nicky told me in 2008 he was thrilled I had “figured him out.” “Well, what you’ve noticed about me is true,” he admitted. “I’ve had a life that has been troubled and abruptly punctuated by tragedy. The only thing that has gotten me through a lot of what I’ve faced is humor.” When asked to elaborate on the specifics of his troubles, he replied, “Well, there has been a lot of loss, the mortality of close ones that died of AIDS. And without going into it, really, let’s just say I’ve lived through a lot of violent death. And I’ve come through these things. Humor has helped me get through these things.”
Nicky had a deep disdain for the press. During an interview in 2008, the director told me he was “deeply distressed” by the negative notices the New York critics gave to Butley, a show that he had directed with Nathan Lane starring in the title role. Butley enjoyed favorable notices in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company before it received lukewarm reviews during its move to New York.
“The negative notices in the press, which were disappointing, seemed to dwell on the fact that these critics couldn’t get past the tremendous success [Nathan Lane] enjoyed from so many of his film roles, such as The Bird Cage and The Producers,” Martin said. “This is unfortunate and distressing. It’s as if these critics can’t get past their own envy about his successes nor see that he is tremendously talented in everything he does. Working with Nathan is a dream for a director.”
He went on to elaborate: “Several of the critics compared Nathan’s performance to Alan Bates [the British actor who starred in the original London production], and most of them weren’t alive to have seen Bates perform…. Theatre critics today don’t love the theater. They don’t have a sense of history about the theater. To compare a performer’s work with someone that they haven’t seen and who, by the way, is no longer alive, is illustrative of this.”
Nicky was beloved by the performers he worked with, who recorded a video tribute to him (below) when he left the Huntington Theatre Company in 2008. While no memorial service has been scheduled, HTC managing director Michael Maso noted that the production Nicky was scheduled to direct next season — Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — will be staged as planned, adding, “We will honor him with that production in some way.”