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Director Michael Grandage Hits Broadway

MARK KENNEDY | April 28, 2007 01:34 PM EST | AP


NEW YORK — Director Michael Grandage has so many balls in the air these days that finding one on the ground surely must come as a relief.

The head of London's acclaimed Donmar Warehouse was found one recent afternoon happily whacking a golf ball in an indoor simulator _ a perk of his sleek corporate housing overlooking Times Square.

"It's good, isn't it?" he says as a computer evaluated his shot, which left a wall-sized screen quivering. "Without going to a single golf course, you could leave these apartment blocks a golfer and not been one when you arrive."

If the non-golfing Grandage does leave New York with a competitive swing, it would be par for the course. With a relentless work ethic and knack for choosing projects, he's become one of Britain's most respected theater directors.

Even while he goofs off with a round of virtual golf, the Grandage-directed "Evita" is playing to packed houses in the West End, as is his "Guys and Dolls," a production of which is also on tour in England. Back at the Donmar, his version of Henrik Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" has just ended and it's time to plan something by Shakespeare for Christmas.

On top of all that is the reason for his New York visit: making his Broadway directorial debut with "Frost/Nixon," the play that he launched in London last year to raves.

"He's incredible," says producer Arielle Tepper Madover. "He has the unbelievable ability to multitask _ to run a theater, be in rehearsal for another show and cast for another. I've seen him do it when I visited in London. I was like, 'How are you doing this?'"

For the 44-year-old Grandage, there's simply no other way. He's a man of perpetual motion and efficiency, though his compact and wiry frame exudes a sense of calm.

"The thing that defines me is a need to keep myself on my toes. I never, ever like to become safe," he says. "I need to keep myself constantly fed with a very, very broad repertoire of work."

That includes "Frost/Nixon," Peter Morgan's behind-the-scenes dramatization of David Frost's TV interviews with former President Nixon in 1977.

During their 12-day interviews that yielded more than 28 hours of footage, the two men play a cat-and-mouse game _ Nixon eager for redemption after Watergate and Frost hoping to nail the disgraced ex-president for his lies. The result, Grandage says, was a landmark shift in the way politics and the media interact. The age of the deferential reporter feeling lucky just to be in the company as a world leader was forever gone.

"What we have on our television sets now is, without question, a hand-down of that shift," says Grandage. "If we now have the television we deserve, which I think we probably do, we need to know where that started."

Starring two-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella and film actor Michael Sheen _ last seen as Tony Blair in Morgan's "The Queen" _ the play has kept its two main actors for New York but added seven new American actors.

Even though tens of millions watched the Frost-Nixon interviews, Grandage is relying on a lot of people not knowing intimate details of the tapes.

"I believe the play is a thriller _ that's what it is for me," he says. "Did Frost win? Did Nixon win? I hope the audience will submit to the evening and go, 'Actually, I don't know what the outcome of this was.'"

Having audiences accept Grandage's vision has been remarkably easy since he replaced Sam Mendes as artistic director of the 250-seat, not-for-profit Donmar in 2002. He had just done a five-year stint as head of the Sheffield Theatres, which he had transformed from the brink of closure into a hub of activity in northern England, attracting such actors as Kenneth Branagh and Joseph Fiennes.

He faced a different task when he came down to London. Grandage was taking over a West End theater that Mendes had left with a great reputation and a relatively healthy bank account. That meant he could be a bit more dangerous _ and indulge his love of both European repertoire and up-and-coming playwrights.

He launched his regime by directing Noel Coward's little-known "The Vortex," followed by a series of highbrow productions, including a Tom Stoppard version of "Pirandello's Henry IV" and Albert Camus' "Caligula," which won him an Olivier Award for best director. A Harold Pinter play followed, as did "Hecuba" by Euripides.

Safe, it was not.

"I learned quick and on the job that theatergoing audiences will absolutely respond to some kind of passion. If you can channel your own passion for what you do into your programing, they would much prefer to be led," he says.

"They're not sheep, by any stretch of the imagination. But they like to be led by somebody who wants to go, 'I want to do a load of stuff like this _ come with me.'"

So far, they have, lining up to see little-known classical plays as well as new works like Mark Ravenhill's dark piece, "The Cut," starring Ian McKellen.

Since refocussing the Donmar, Grandage has expanded its reach with more touring, collaborations with other theaters and this latest step onto Broadway, seven years after the last Donmar transfer _ "The Real Thing" under Mendes.

"It was about finding the right play at the right moment. 'Frost/Nixon' came along, and we thought, 'Actually this feels like it,'" Grandage says.

Besides provocative works, Grandage's audiences are likely to see a minimal approach to set designs. He and Christopher Oram, a frequent collaborator on sets and costumes, prefer a stripped-down style.

That's a good thing since Grandage and Oram have been a couple for 12 years. "Theoretically, it could be a disaster," he says with a laugh. "In practice, it's actually the bond that keeps us sane, in a way."

Grandage grew up in Cornwall, in southwest England, and graduated from London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He was an actor until he turned 35 and juicy parts began drying up. Anxiety caused bouts of stage fright. "The lack of control over one's career as an actor is absolutely colossal," he says. "A very 'me' way to deal with it is just to stop."

In 1996, he was invited to direct a production of Arthur Miller's "The Last Yankee" at a regional theater in Colchester.

"It was just one of those moments when I did it _ I knew it was right," he recalls. "I don't know why I waited so long."

Using the contacts he had developed over 12 years in the business, Grandage began his second career.

"He really has unbelievable vision. He knows exactly what he wants," says producer Madover, who recalls going to a recent rehearsal of "Frost/Nixon" and watching several actors burst into an impromptu dance session.

"I think that probably knowing exactly what he wants is what gives him the confidence to be in that rehearsal room and make everyone feel completely relaxed."

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On the Net:

http://www.FrostNixonOnBroadway.com

http://www.donmarwarehouse.com