David Benedict on theatre

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The Independent Culture
Whatever happened to Mike Nichols? Once upon a time his satirical eye led to great Hollywood movies. His debut picture, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, notched up 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Compare that with the bizarrely subtext-free Wolf, his last-but-one movie starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was more a casting idea than a film. He created cultural icons with The Graduate and Catch 22, but these days serves up Regarding Henry or Postcards from the Edge, which teaches us that drugs are really bad for you because they make you late for work.

His latest film, The Birdcage (with Gene Hackman, right), a fairly pointless remake of La Cage aux Folles scripted by Elaine May (sans subtitles so that United Artists can sell it to middle America), has sent him rocketing back up the "A" list. Why? Because it has grossed $91m in five weeks. Nichols is no stranger to success. Long before Eddie Izzard, Nichols and May were Manhattan's improvising social commentators of choice. After a Broadway run in 1961, they split and Nichols reinvented himself as an actor, playing the Dauphin in St Joan and a psychotic undergoing therapy in TV's Playhouse 90. He took to writing, including the legendary Carnegie Hall evening with Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett, and then returned to Broadway, this time as a director with Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. It ran and ran, and so did his directorial career. By March 1966 he had four plays running simultaneously. Small wonder that the West Coast began to yearn to use him.

With The Birdcage opening here today, the man is hot, and he has just made his UK stage debut in The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn. What... the guy who played Alicia Silverstone's teacher in Clueless? Yep. And who said Americans can't mix high and low culture like we can.

The Designated Mourner is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (0171- 928 2252)