From 2016: John Tillinger, Just For Laughs
What makes John Tillinger laugh?
After all, the longtime theater director knows funny, having successfully tickled the domestic dalliances of the characters of Alan Ayckbourn, the dark humor of Joe Orton, the gentle laughs of A.R. Gurney and the human comedy of Terrence McNally.
Tillinger says though he thinks most of the comedy on TV is lame, he’s a big laugh-out-loud fan of the subversive, profane and wicked humor of “Veep,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the early episodes of the Brit-com, “Absolutely Fabulous.”
“I have a very mean streak in me, which you may or may not have gathered,” says Tillinger with a sly smile, a seductive tone and a Britain-meets-Litchfield-County accent. “I like wit and the clever line in life, as well as in the theater. Words count very much to me.”
Tillinger will be returning to familiar turf of literate-yet-absurd comedy when he directs Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at Westport Country Playhouse. The production, which runs Aug. 23 to Sept. 10, features old Orton hand Paxton Whitehead, as well as Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember and recent Yale School of Drama grad Chris Ghaffari (who played Romeo at Hartford Stage earlier this year).
Tillinger has earned the reputation as the go-to guy for Orton, having revived interest in the ’60s British playwright, first with the director’s highly praised off-Broadway production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloan” in 1981 with Joe Mahar. Tillinger followed that success with Orton’s “Loot” (which transferred to Broadway with Alec Baldwin) in 1986 and “What the Butler Saw” in 1989.
“What I always look for in plays is something that knocks hypocrisy, yet makes it comic in some peculiar way,” he says from the spacious living room of his Roxbury home, where he’s lived for 45 years, situated on 20 garden-filled acres.
He lived there first with his then-wife actress Dorothy Lyman (the memorable Opel in TV’s “All My Children”) and their children, Emma, president of Martin Scorsese’s production company, and Sebastian, an actor.
As he settles in for a conversation, his cat Baboo suddenly makes a commotion in a corner of the room. “What are you doing?” the director says in a threatening voice to the feline. Then entre nous, “Don’t you hate cats? I hate cats.”
But Tillinger loves comedy.