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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming and Mandy Patinkin rebrand themselves

"CABARET" (Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.): Alan Cumming, pictured, returns as the Emcee in this revival of Sam Mendes' 1998 Tony-winning production of the Fred Kander/John Ebb masterwork. Michelle Williams makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. Info: March 21-August 31, $47-$162, 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org -- LINDA WINER Photo Credit: Kevin Garcia

Here's a sentence I'm getting sick of hearing:

"Nobody does Nathan Lane like Nathan Lane."

You know you've heard it. Perhaps you -- yes, perhaps I -- have even said it after enjoying one of his identifiable comic star-turns since "The Producers" in 2001 or "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in 1996 or his Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls" in 1992. I actually remember thinking "Who is that toad?" at a disastrous musical version of "Wind in the Willows," which squeaked out four performances in 1985.

But when I heard the stock not-quite-compliment again about his expert and amusing portrayal of an insecure actor in "It's Only a Play," I was surprised by an unexpected spasm of defensiveness. Lane, one of Broadway's few genuine hot-ticket items, hardly needs me to stick up for him.

And yet I'm rattled by this suggestion that Lane just plays himself and can't do anyone else. As a retort, I mention his strong, buttoned-up portrayal of the court- appointed bankruptcy trustee in "The Good Wife." Far more dramatically, Lane is taking on the central role of Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh," Eugene O'Neill's five-hour monster of a drama about pipe dreams among the denizens of a no-chance saloon.

It is a role defined on Broadway by James Earl Jones and Jason Robards and, most recently, Kevin Spacey -- not names associated with high-spirited musical comedies. Lane first played Hickey in Robert Falls' 2012 staging, which broke the box office records at his Goodman Theater. The same production, also starring Brian Dennehy, will play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from Feb. 5-March 15.

"He is an extraordinary actor," said Falls in a recent phone interview, "a great American actor. He can't help it if he is a comic genius. He's a genius, period."

Falls, not prone to overstatement, believes that, despite Lane's fame, "he is sort of underappreciated. People take him for granted. He's so good he elevates the material. But with O'Neill, he doesn't have to elevate anything."

So how do actors identified with one character or one characteristic manage to break out of comfortable success and audience expectations for them? The question seems especially timely right now.

Look at Alan Cumming, whose portrayals of ambisexual, decadent characters in "Cabaret," "Threepenny Opera" and other cheeky extravaganzas have suggested a limited range to his possibilities. In fact, I fear that his virtuosic one-man "Macbeth," set in an insane asylum, was dismissed by some as a stunt because they could not separate the Cumming image from the serious accomplishment onstage.

But there he is, triumphantly unrecognizable with a no-nonsense toupee as Eli Gold, the governor's unequivocally heterosexual campaign operative in "The Good Wife." It's a character he says he based on Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff before he became Chicago's mayor.

"He's such a strong personality," Cumming told "CBS This Morning" about his Eli. "He's ruthless ... he's also got this sort of interesting side. There's a fascinating sort of dichotomy there. Those are the sort of things I focused on."

As for playing a straight man, he playfully told London's The Guardian, "I guess I'm just a really good actor."

Perhaps even more astonishing is the transformation of Mandy Patinkin from hyper-intense, sometimes over-the-top, brilliant stage presence to Saul, the steady, disciplined and almost mysterious former FBI agent in "Homeland."

Falls agreed about what I apologize for calling the rebranding of Lane, Cumming and Patinkin. "What's great about those three is that they are male superstars in the musical-comedy world," he said. "And all three reveal extraordinary different colors when asked to do it."

Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Zero Mostel were never able to break out of the characters that made them famous. Neither could James O'Neill, the playwright's actor-father, who, as we know from the slightly disguised character in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," could never escape his most celebrated role in "The Count of Monte Cristo."

I will always feel sad about Robin Williams, who was seriously powerful as the ghost of a tiger in Rajiv Joseph's underrated "Bengal Tiger atthe Baghdad Zoo" on Broadway in 2011. Audiences seemed disappointed that Williams wasn't talking in his funny voices. The play closed early and Williams did not get a Tony nomination.

The tyranny of success is obviously a real thing. Will Kristin Chenoweth be expected to use her saucy funny voice in the upcoming revival of "On the Twentieth Century?"

"The great thing about Nathan," said Falls, "is that he could continue forever doing roles like the one in 'It's Only a Play.' He is aware that there's almost going to be a target on his back whenever he shifts into something dramatic." Falls emphasized that Lane "is playing a character in 'Only a Play' that's different from the one he played in 'The Nance,'" just as he didn't just play himself in David Mamet's 'November" or Richard Nelson's "Some Americans Abroad" or Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion."

"All great actors use parts of themselves," said Falls. "In a way, that's what makes them stars."

What's hard, perhaps, is daring to threaten the stardom by separating from the part of themselves that got them all that lovely applause. And how exciting it can be when they do.

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