Acting is one of the least-explored arts in cultural criticism, at least when it comes to describing the choices an actor makes in a production instead of whether or not the result was “good” or “bad.” One of the best things an actor can accomplish, then, is a performance that is so technically perfect that it’s impossible to discuss without delving into the mechanics of the craft itself. It’s worth heralding every time it happens, and it happened on Tuesday, when Nathan Lane delivered this brief—but brilliant—performance for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. For his text, Mr. Lane selected the famous “FIRE NOTICE” monologue from the Playbill from Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, in which Lane is currently starring:
Chills. Lane makes some unconventional choices in this performance, but his exceptional skill as an actor allows him to make the whole thing look as though there’s no other way to play the scene. In fact, if this is the first time you’ve seen “FIRE NOTICE” performed, some of the nuances may go unnoticed. Here’s the original text:
FIRE NOTICE: The exit indicated by a red light and sign nearest to the seat you occupy is the shortest route to the street. In the event of fire or other emergency please do not run—WALK TO THAT EXIT.
Thoughtless persons annoy patrons and endanger the safety of others by lighting matches or smoking in the prohibited areas during the performances and intermissions. This violates a city ordinance and is punishable by law.
The “FIRE COMMISSIONER” epilogue is performed more rarely than the Roy-Cohn-in-hell scene from Angels in America, so it’s not that noteworthy that Lane omits it. But watch the way he delivers the line “In the event of fire or other emergency please do not run—WALK TO THAT EXIT.” The capitalization would suggest building to a crescendo here, and indeed, this is the approach most actors take. But Lane’s Fire Commissioner—an annoyed bureaucrat trying very hard to keep his temper in the face of a plague of lit matches and smoking patrons—is a long way from the fire-and-fury versions of Pacino or Brando. So Lane inverts the emphasis, shouting “DO NOT RUN,” then, as the Fire Commissioner visibly regainins control of his emotions, practically purring “Walk to that exit.” Using this moment to pull back instead of escalating gives the audience time to clock the barely-under-control anger and threat in the Fire Commissioner’s voice. It also gives Lane plenty of room to build to “PUNISHABLE BY LAW,” which should clearly be the emotional high point of “FIRE NOTICE,” typography be damned.
It’s another example of the way a brilliant actor can tease out hidden meanings in a text, arguing for an unconventional interpretation by physically embodying that reading, fusing performance and criticism into something altogether new. Nathan Lane’s unconventional performance has given us the definitive Fire Commissioner. We can’t wait to see what he does with the “EMERGENCY RESUSCITATION EQUIPMENT” monologue or The Use of Any Recording Devices, Either Audio or Video.