MARK BROKAW: A Director Who Refuses to Fill In the Blanks
THE MENSWEAR DEPARTMENT at Saks, the lobby of the Paramount Hotel, the back seat of a limousine -- audiences for the Drama Dept.'s production of ''As Bees in Honey Drown'' are likely to feel they have been on a ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' tour of Manhattan. Yet it is all achieved by the director Mark Brokaw -- a member of the company -- with nothing more than a few cushioned stools and an ensemble of versatile actors.

''It took courage with this play,'' said Cynthia Nixon, who performed multiple roles in Douglas Carter Beane's satire about the fleecing of a luxe-hungry modern Candide and his revenge. ''It's so much about the sexiness of money and falling in love with fine china and good wine. But the production is very minimal. Mark just assumes that the audience will fill all that in.''

Mr. Brokaw had executed a similar sleight-of-hand three months before in March, when he directed Paula Vogel's ''How I Learned to Drive'' for the Vineyard Theater. Performed on a nearly bare stage, the play wanders backward and forward in time and space to tell the story of a young woman's incestuous relationship with her pedophilic uncle. ''Mark said to me right up front,'' the playwright recalled, '' 'What would you think if I did it with nothing but chairs?' I said, a little dubiously, 'Nothing but chairs?' ''

Mr. Brokaw, she added, ''has embraced what the actual magic of theater is, which isn't based on spectacle. You can create a far greater spectacle from actors and words alone.'' The director, 38, says simply, ''I'm distrustful when everything's already there.''

A handful of hits has made Mr. Brokaw, in the gruesome parlance of show business, ''the flavor of the month'': ''How I Learned to Drive'' has settled in at the Century Theater after winning a slew of awards; ''As Bees in Honey Drown'' is newly transferred to the Lucille Lortel (with Amy Ryan and Bo Foxworth taking over for Ms. Nixon and Josh Hamilton, who originated the ''Candide'' role); and ''This Is Our Youth,'' Mr. Brokaw's acclaimed staging last season of Kenneth Lonergan's slacker drama for the New Group, is scheduled to open commercially in the fall.

As usual, it took about 10 years to become an overnight sensation. After graduating from Yale Drama School, Mr. Brokaw came to New York on a Drama League fellowship, through which he met Carole Rothman, artistic chief of the Second Stage Theater. He was the assistant director on Ms. Rothman's production of Tina Howe's ''Coastal Disturbances'' in 1987. The next year she gave him his first New York gig directing ''The Rimers of Eldritch'' by Lanford Wilson. But what put Mr. Brokaw on the map was his 1991 Second Stage production of ''The Good Times Are Killing Me,'' a tough and funny play about an interracial friendship between two girls by the cartoonist Lynda Barry. That, too, bore Mr. Brokaw's trademark of fluid scene changes and minimal scenery.

A 6-foot-3 beanpole in a red-and-white button-down shirt and well-worn jeans, on this day the director looks every inch the Midwestern farm boy he was, growing up in Aledo, Ill. (pop. 3,000). His resourcefulness, aversion to expensive scenery and desire for community come from a seven-year apprenticeship with the Celebration Company, a small troupe in the Illinois college town of Urbana. ''We did 12 plays a year with very limited money and limited means,'' he said. ''It was really about the actor and the space. It's semi-professional. No one gets paid, the directors make very little . . .''

He grinned. ''Perfect training for Off Broadway.''

New York Times, July 27, 1997, Sunday

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