TIMING is everything. Ten years ago, Jack Viertel, creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters, put a flea in the ear of the director Daniel Sullivan about the long-forgotten Samson Raphaelson bauble "Accent on Youth," whose central character is the Broadway playwright Steven Gaye, just the wrong side of 50. After a career built on comic fluff, Gaye switches to tragedy (or perhaps soap opera) with a new play called "Old Love," in which a 60-year-old leaves his wife for a woman in her 20s. Life and art start intertwining, with amusing results.
Back in 1934, critics mentioned parallels to Ferenc Molnar and Pirandello, which may be stretching things some. But Mr. Sullivan was intrigued. There was just one problem.
"I couldn't cast it," Mr. Sullivan said the other day at a West Side cafe. "I didn't have an idea. So I set it aside." By pure coincidence, the Manhattan Theater Club's associate artistic director, Mandy Greenfield, mentioned the play again when she and Mr. Sullivan — the company's acting artistic director while Lynne Meadow took a yearlong sabbatical — were lining up the new season.
In this case, the second time was the charm. After a hiatus of 20 years, Mr. Sullivan was looking to team up again with David Hyde Pierce, whom he first directed as the replacement for Boyd Gaines in "The Heidi Chronicles." After 20 years in bondage to television and musicals, Mr. Hyde Pierce recalls that experience fondly.
"Dan had the patience and trust to let us find our own way to the characters," he said. (Christine Lahti was stepping in for Joan Allen at the same time.) "Though he has strong ideas, he believes in collaboration over coercion. That's why, for actors and for audiences, his shows feel not so much directed as illuminated from within."
As for "Accent on Youth," Mr. Hyde Pierce said, "I was interested because Dan was interested." A reading was arranged, and presto. The revival, the first on Broadway since the original production, opened on Wednesday.
Reviewing the original in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson described it as "one of those comedies that dance on the border line between theater and life," adding that he had most enjoyed the first act.
At 50, Mr. Hyde Pierce is the right age for the starring role. More important, he has the delicate comic touch for a character defined by earnest, self-centered midlife insecurities. As Mr. Sullivan sees it, the crux here is not the ability to fire off a zinger. "There are no jokes in 'Accent on Youth,' " he said. "The funny lines are character lines."
Still, the play posed challenges. For one, Gaye smokes. "I've never smoked before," Mr. Hyde Pierce said. "I see now why actors like to. It's fantastic physical business for expressing what you're thinking." He said he would kick what he called "a strange and ludicrous habit" (herbal cigarettes, in this case) when the play closes.
Mr. Sullivan noted two challenges of a subtler kind. "Gaye has to read pages from his script and not be an actor," he said. "He has to play the piano and not be a pianist." A Tony and an Emmy bear witness to Mr. Hyde Pierce's chops as an actor, so the nonacting bit may have posed less of a problem than stumbling dutifully through a Chopin's Étude in E, (Op. 10, No. 3), as he does here; in real life, he is an accomplished classical musician.
But what Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hyde Pierce seemed most eager to talk about was Mr. Raphaelson, a playwright whose name is mostly forgotten though his legacy includes some classics. Born on the Lower East Side, he died in 1983 at 89, with eight Broadway plays to his credit. The first was "The Jazz Singer," promptly adapted as the first full-length film talkie. As a screenwriter, he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock ("Suspicion") and formed a lasting partnership with the director Ernst Lubitsch.
"The trick of 'Accent on Youth,' " Mr. Hyde Pierce said, "is that there are always a multiple things happening at once. In the first scene, we're seeing what actors are like, we're seeing the vanity of the playwright. At the same time Raphaelson is giving the audience an exposition of 'Old Love' and introducing the theme of the whole play."
When he was well into his 80s, Mr. Raphaelson, known as Raph, sat for an interview with Bill Moyers, anatomizing his talent with brisk candor, hands flying with excitement. On the plus side, he considered himself a master of technique who could have taught Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams a thing or two about construction. On the minus side, he never plumbed the depths of his experience as those greater playwrights did.
Yet "Accent on Youth" does flirt with autobiography here and there. In a pivotal scene, Gaye's secretary, Linda Brown (Mary Catherine Garrison), reflexively takes down his spontaneous rant in shorthand for possible use in some future play. Wittily, this prompts Gaye to dictate back to her a recent rant of her own.
"Virtually everything Raph ever wrote was written with a secretary in the room," Mr. Sullivan said. "I hear that the one who took down 'Accent on Youth' is still around, living somewhere in Florida." Unfortunately, his secrets are safe with her. "We couldn't track her down," Mr. Sullivan said. "We've tried."