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An actor’s director? There’s no doubt

Special to The Times

Directors don’t laugh. According to the conventional view, directors get better results by withholding laughter in rehearsal. Yet during rehearsals for last season’s revival of W.S. Gilbert’s satire “Engaged,” no one laughed longer or more loudly than director Doug Hughes.

“I don’t fake it, I just don’t stifle it,” he said recently, with another laugh. While acknowledging that the “withholding Svengali” approach works for many directors, he finds it an uncomfortable fit. For Hughes, every production ought to be “a joyous conspiracy,” one full of bonhomie.

“It’s fun to run away and conspire with your mates to put on these plays,” he says. “That spirit -- I know I love it when I’m walking to work every day.”

Who can argue with the results? After spending much of his career as an administrator and director in regional theaters, the 49-year-old Hughes has become one of the most admired practitioners of his craft -- and one of the busiest. In addition to “Engaged,” his recent far-flung projects include Stephen Belber’s political drama “McReele”; Michael Cunningham’s family epic “Flesh and Blood”; Bryony Lavery’s serial-killing-pedophile play “Frozen,” which earned him his first Tony nomination; and John Patrick Shanley’s hugely celebrated “Doubt,” which has just earned him his second. At this year’s Obie Awards ceremony, Hughes picked up an award for sustained excellence.

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Not every show has been a hit, but Hughes’ batting average has been high. Over lunch, he ducks his head when asked to explain his success, finally attributing it to “very good plays and the very good company I’ve kept with them.”

His collaborators do not share the self-effacing view. Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which produced “Doubt,” calls Hughes “a wonderful director and smart guy.” Cherry Jones, star of “Doubt” and “Flesh and Blood,” risks bruising other directors with her blunt praise: “Honest to God, I think he’s the best we’ve got. There’s just no question, to my mind.”

Paradoxically, Hughes is making a name for himself with his anonymity: He leaves no fingerprints on his shows and so finds himself increasingly able to leave his mark all over the American theater.

Hughes spent half his career -- 12 years -- working for Daniel Sullivan as associate artistic director of Seattle Rep. Like his former boss, Hughes has a transparent style, emphasizing story and character, not flashy gestures. “Doubt” is a striking example. Jones plays a stern nun trying to determine if a popular new priest (played by Brian F. O’Byrne) has been acting inappropriately with a student. In Hughes’ hands, the search for the truth unfolds like a thriller. But, as with so many Hughes-directed shows, the only clue of his hand in it is the fact that it’s so good.

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When pressed to reveal the secret of Hughes’ method, his colleagues cite “atmosphere.” He fosters an environment in which actors, designers and playwrights feel comfortable and free to experiment, usually inspiring their best work. “He sort of flops in the chair, laughs and says funny things -- then gives you a really lucid piece of direction,” says actor Jefferson Mays, who worked with Hughes twice before winning a best actor Tony for “I Am My Own Wife.”

This dynamic is by design, a method Hughes has sharpened over a quarter-century of stage work. “Doug is like a therapist,” said Tim Blake Nelson, who has worked with him as actor and playwright, and now counts him as a close friend. “He doesn’t seem to be prescribing changes, rather he orients you toward finding the changes yourself -- even though he might have had them in mind in the first place.”

“He understands the psychology of actors better than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” adds Jones. “He knows when to layer things in and when to leave you alone. He knows how to push you in a way that is comfortable for you, and to grow with direction, not become less confident with direction. He knows just how to work us.”

“Perhaps,” she mused, “it’s because he’s Barney and Helen’s son.”

That would be Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, accomplished actors whose parental love and kindness their son repaid by choosing a career that he jokingly suggests may have been some kind of “Oedipal revenge.” His easy rapport with theater folk owes something to his having spent his entire life around Broadway. “It still gives me a great thrill to go through the stage door,” he said. “That gypsy lifestyle -- it was hugely seductive for me.”

Hughes wasn’t just influenced by his parents’ lifestyle -- how they attained it proved crucial as well. His mother left her home in Minnesota at 17 for a life on the New York stage. His father came from an old-school, first-generation Irish Catholic family, where he was sometimes humiliated when out of work. “They were making radical choices. They came at it as: ‘I can’t believe my good fortune to be in the profession.’ ”

That joy rubbed off on their son, as did an easy grasp of how actors think and talk. His parents and their friends didn’t speak explicitly about directors, and didn’t need to. “The impression I gleaned from my mother and father is that time in rehearsal is privileged time -- elevated, focused time -- spent by people who have agreed to depart from the norm and explore this corner of the universe.”

At first he seemed bound to join his parents in the family business. He recalls leaving graduation exercises at Trinity, the prep school on the Upper West Side, to rush to a rehearsal for Joe Papp’s production of “As You Like It” in Central Park. (He played an ensemble role.) The tempestuous Papp would seem to be the opposite of Hughes’ idea of a nurturing director, but he remembers the impresario with affection. “I adored him. It was utterly inspiring to see his guts, eloquence and contagious zeal about the theater’s importance.”

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As it happens, Hughes nearly stepped into Papp’s shoes. When George C. Wolfe announced he was resigning as head of the Public Theatre last year, Hughes’ name was reportedly on a short list to replace him. Rumors claimed that he had turned down an offer or that he withdrew his name before an offer was made. Hughes chooses his words with care: “Was it discussed? It was discussed. Did I withdraw my name? I did withdraw my name. Do I think the committee landed on a really fine choice? I do.” The board selected Oskar Eustis, late of Trinity Rep.

Hughes entered Harvard as a biology major; he left four years later with a degree in English and a renewed passion for the stage. In New York, he traveled the old-fashioned apprentice route, assisting George Abbott and Marshall Mason while painting apartments and crewing shows to pay the bills. Since age 24, he says, he hasn’t made a dollar doing anything but directing. Today he lives in Guilford, Conn., with his wife, Lynn Fusco, the chief executive of a construction and real estate company.

People who have heard Hughes speak may be surprised to learn there isn’t a British chapter in his life story. He has an eccentric, plummy accent that suggests a puckish relative of William F. Buckley’s; even Hughes calls it “ridiculous.” “If I were to struggle to justify what is, let’s face it, a pure affectation, I did have a beloved godfather who was a kind of surrogate grandfather to me,” he says. John Malcolm was an English actor who came to America to work with Katharine Cornell’s company. He also introduced Hughes’ parents to each other. Though he died when Hughes was just 14, he inspired the young man. “There were things about him that captivated me, among them his accent,” Hughes says. He mentions that Malcolm was a director as well as an actor, and pauses for a moment. “I’ve never quite spotted that before.”

Beneath the easygoing veneer, Hughes’ love for theater and the people who make it generates real fierceness. "[Costume designer] Cathy Zuber calls it my Linda Blair side,” he says, referring to the possessed girl in “The Exorcist.” During a Seattle preview of “Waiting for Godot,” starring Bill Irwin, an older couple, clearly fans of Irwin’s clowning and not of Beckett’s prose, grumbled and shifted and finally made for the exit. The trouble is that they were sitting in bleachers on the stage. “I was infuriated by them,” Hughes recalls. “This was small of me, but I walked down the aisle to greet them.” In view of 700 or so people, he told them to get out of his theater. “It is kind of Bobby Knight,” he says of his action, a reference to the volcanic college basketball coach. “But I haven’t thrown a chair yet, and hope I never do.”

Hughes understands actors’ psychology so well, his colleagues say, that he usually elides the blowups that mar many rehearsal rooms. One stark confrontation took place outside the theater. In 1997, he was named artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre. He won praise for revitalizing the place, reopening the second stage and orienting the institution to new plays. But his tenure came to a fractious close in 2001, when he resigned after a power struggle with the board chairwoman. Hughes was in rehearsal on the day he resigned and says he has been in rehearsal ever since.

His pace shows no signs of slackening. At the moment, he is supervising his next project, Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Paris Letter,” which opens June 12. Next season brings Gabriel Byrne in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet.” But first, after a quarter-century in the business, he will open his first production on Broadway proper, rather than transfer there. This fall he will direct Cynthia Nixon in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” for Manhattan Theatre Club. The assignment has special resonance for him: His mother created the role of Sally Talley (Nixon’s character) in Wilson’s “Fifth of July.”

Beyond the family ties, Hughes seems a natural choice for the play, a funny and moving two-hander, the kind of actor-centric work that seems to suit him and his ebullient approach best. “When actors are worried in rehearsal, I say, ‘You are an aristocrat -- behave as an aristocrat. Become a joyful participant here. There is no economic reason for doing this. Why are you doing this? We must relish our time together.’ ”


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