College's first theatre and dramatic art major directs
Gore Vidal's The Best Man
By Laura Butchy
than a decade after becoming the College's first graduate in drama
and theatre arts, a major he helped to develop, Ethan McSweeny '93
already has directed his first Broadway show, Gore Vidal's The
Best Man, currently in a limited run.
was unforgettable, unrepeatable, and mostly unprintable," McSweeny
says of his initial experience working on the Great White Way. "I
had a stupendous cast, each with a unique artistic personality. And
I had unbelievable dinner discussions with Gore
does the young director explain his quick rise to one of the most
prestigious jobs in the theater?
"Enormously fortunate luck
and timing," McSweeny answers.
McSweeny first learned of
the plan to revive Vidal's political comedy in 1999 from producers
Michael Rothfeld '69 and Jeffrey Richards, who worked on McSweeny's
highly successful Off-Broadway production Never the
is an exceptionally talented and sensitive director," said Rothfeld
of their decision to hire McSweeny. "He has a great understanding,
from his own childhood in Washington and his father's experience as
a political journalist, of the issues in the play."
McSweeny fell in love with
the script and soon found himself in Italy visiting Vidal, who,
like McSweeny, is a native of Washington, D.C. They immediately
agreed not to change the play in any way, ignoring the temptation
to update it to mirror contemporary political
some strange way, the play works better now than in 1960," McSweeny
muses. "You can look at Bush, Gore, McCain and Bradley and see how
much they're there."
scandal when it premiered in 1960, the play remains timely today,
an amazing accomplishment for a political satire. McSweeny
continuously compliments the "sheer craftsmanship" of Gore, whose
career has included work as a novelist, essayist, memoirist,
playwright, screenwriter and film actor.
The Best Man is set
at a 1960 presidential convention, where a former governor and
secretary of state with high ideals and a penchant for womanizing
vies for his party's nomination with a self-made, seemingly
virtuous young senator who is not adverse to dirty campaigning. The
plot revolves around the wavering support of a dying former
president, the discovery by each candidate of dirt on the other,
and the question of who will begin the mudslinging.
"Some directors who have
worked on this play have known nothing about politics," Vidal said
in an interview with USA Today. "This kid [McSweeny] knows
everything, even more than I do now."
production, which opened Sept. 17 and runs through Dec. 31 at the
Virginia Theatre, features an all-star cast that includes Charles
Durning, Spalding Gray, Chris Noth, Elizabeth Ashley, Michael
Learned, and Christine Ebersole. "In the first act, every time a
door opens, another star walks in," McSweeny comments.
The New York Times
called the show "a hit," and according to the New York Post,
"The present production is made all the more welcome by Ethan
McSweeny's fast-paced staging and a sweetly balanced
where does McSweeny go after directing on Broadway? Back to work.
He directed a production of Wit for the Pittsburgh Public Theater
that opened Nov. 16, and he is now working on a new play called
Tamincanfly that opens in January. The new comedy about a racehorse
will be performed at the McGinn/Cazale Theater on the Upper West
biggest influence as a director was sitting around my family's
table growing up," McSweeny said in an interview with
CurtainUp. "We're Irish and the mode of discourse is to tell
stories. At all of our holidays and family gatherings, the most
exciting part was always the end of dinner when everyone would kick
back and enjoy an after-dinner drink and start spinning
McSweeny names Michael
Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington,
as one of the major influences on his career. Another is Dean of
the College Austin Quigley, who taught several of McSweeny's
theater courses and attended opening night of The Best
was clearly a gifted student back then and he directed two
outstanding student productions, John Osborne's Look Back in
Anger and an outdoor version of Shakespeare's The
Tempest," Quigley said. "I am not surprised to see how rapidly
his career has developed. His first Broadway production. has proved
a great success and I am confident it will be the first of
McSweeny says he chose to
attend Columbia to get away from theater, since the College had no
theater major at the time. But in McSweeny's sophomore year,
Quigley arrived as the College was creating a theater degree, in
which McSweeny quickly became involved.
our hubris and youthful arrogance, we told them [the
administration] they were doing it wrong," McSweeny laughs. He was
surprised to suddenly find himself on the committee to develop the
major, where he supported students' requests for an academically
rigorous major heavy on English and history classes, not just
liked [that] it was about student-produced events and initiatives,"
he says of Columbia's program. "Extracurricular theater was all
voluntary." McSweeny was the first student to sign up for the new
major and became the program's first graduate.
think I got a diploma in the mail eventually," McSweeny notes with
amusement. "I owed the library about $1,000 in fines."
Spalding Gray (center)
plays presidential canididate William Russell and Michael Learned
plays his wife Alice in Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
PHOTO: PETER CUNNINGHAM
of his practical training came after graduation, when he returned
to Washington and spent four years working as assistant director of
The Shakespeare Theatre under Kahn.
"Theater, I think, is one
of the last professions where the apprentice position is alive and
strong," McSweeny says. At The Shakespeare Theater, he directed
over two dozen plays, many Shakespearean, between 1993-97, also
aiding in casting. He credits that time as teaching him how a
1997, he landed his first engagement as a director at the Signature
Theatre in Arlington, Va., little knowing it would catapult him
(and the show) to rave reviews Off Broadway.
"It's never supposed to
work like this in the theater," McSweeny says with a smile, "but
Eric Schaeffer [artistic director of the Signature Theatre] called
me and said, 'Hi, I've got this play and all I need is a director.'
We met, I read the play, I pretended to take two weeks to think
about it, and then I called him and said yes."
McSweeny directed John
Logan's Never the Sinner at the Signature Theater and then
through three transfers: to the Rep Stage in Columbia, Md., to New
York's American Jewish Theatre, and finally to a large off-Broadway
stage, the John Houseman Theatre on West 42nd Street. McSweeny says
he was not surprised by the critical and popular success of the
"It's an intelligent play
with big ideas being debated in it. It's not a four character play
about why my mother messed up my life," McSweeny explains. "It was
an enormous jump-start for my career."
Since then, McSweeny has
been working as a freelance director for theaters all over the
country, including The Guthrie Theater and The Alley
York is a great base, and the only one for freelance directors,"
McSweeny says. Looking toward the future, McSweeny hopes to someday
return to Washington as an artistic director, which he considers
the most challenging job in the American theater. In the meantime,
he hopes to continue directing works by both classical and living
this country, there's a terrible tendency to categorize artists,"
McSweeny says. He has been careful not to let himself be
pigeonholed, especially now that his success allows him to invest
himself in projects that interest him.
of my great ambitions," he adds, "is to get Austin Quigley off the
dean's bench and in to dramaturge a show for me."
About the Author:
Laura Butchy, who is studying dramaturgy at the School of the
Arts, wrote the cover story about Professors Karen Barkey and Tony
Marx in the May 2000 issue of Columbia College