NEW YORK — The director Jack O'Brien, 67, has sketched out the first eight chapters of his autobiography. Working title: "A Probable Apprentice." "It will by my 'Coming of Age in Samoa,'" he says. "I expect there will be three volumes at least."
The scene: the lobby of the Lincoln Center Theater a few minutes into a late December preview of "Shipwreck," part two of Tom Stoppard's Tolstoyan trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," over which Mr. O'Brien is presiding with the Olympian strategic authority of Tolstoy's General Kutuzov, though with rather greater sociability and panache.
The cast set sail with "Voyage," the first part, in October. "Salvage," the finale, opens officially on Sunday, which will bring the count of opening nights to three. But Mr. O'Brien has been telling his players all along that the real premiere isn't until Feb. 24. That will be the first time they tackle "Utopia" in a single day, as a marathon beginning at 11 a.m. Until then, they will still be finding their bearings.
Within his profession, Mr. O'Brien is a colossus. To the public at large, he's more like the Invisible Man. Directors whose names people know -- Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, Peter Sellars and Richard Foreman come to mind -- have signatures. Not Mr. O'Brien. "I'm the antithesis," he agrees. "Some people say they can be led blindfolded into a production of mine and know that I did it. I wish I knew how."
Regulars at the Old Globe in San Diego, where Mr. O'Brien has served as artistic director since 1981, might offer clues, but don't count on it. (The drama of how and why he landed in California will surely take up several chapters in those projected memoirs.)
Judging from his work in New York in the new millennium, Mr. O'Brien's range seems boundless. He has mounted the very dissimilar musicals "The Full Monty" (gritty), "Hairspray" (bouncy), and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (sleek). For drama, there were Mr. Stoppard's brainy, elegiac "The Invention of Love" and Shakespeare's "Henry IV," with Kevin Kline unforgettable as a Falstaff straight off a Rembrandt canvas. Yes, there were misses, too. "Imaginary Friends," set in hell, had Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones) squared off against Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) for a night of bitchy vaudeville turns. Its run was short. Worse was to come. "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," starring Ellen Burstyn, died on opening night.
As of December, "Hairspray" was six years into its Broadway run and going strong. And for the holidays, there was a family treat: the New York premiere of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!," a staple at the Old Globe for years. In theatrical craft and art, Mr. O'Brien's "Grinch" rivals Balanchine's "Nutcracker." Technically, it is light years ahead. For one magical moment, snow falls in the auditorium -- real snowflakes that chill your nose and melt like dew. Best of all, the effect is subtle; the touch is light.
As a youngster, Mr. O'Brien says, he was "always a showoff." In his student years at the University of Michigan, Jack O'Brien was the guy who sang and danced the male lead in every student musical. "But when my hair went," he says, "I knew I wouldn't be an actor. It was a blessing." Actor or no actor, the man is a character. Check out the angular flair of his spectacles, ready-made for a cartoonist's pen.
It was in 1963, in Ann Arbor, that Mr. O'Brien's destiny caught up with him in the person of Ellis Rabb: actor, director, true believer in a theatrical romance the world at large had left behind. In 1959, Rabb had founded the Association of Producing Artists -- known as APA, and later as the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company. The troupe flourished on Broadway and on the road until 1969, when Rabb rang down the curtain on a final production of "Hamlet," directed by and starring himself.
Mr. O'Brien served as Rabb's assistant for six years, and as such also assisted -- single-handedly -- the APA's all-star roster of directors, which included John Houseman, Eva Le Gallienne, Stephen Porter and Alan Schneider.
"Not only did I have to learn to watch 'in the manner' of each director," Mr. O'Brien recalls. "I had to take notes in accordance with their styles. In the process, I learned something about how a director shapes the material personally. For Rabb, it would be about theatrics, lighting cues. Porter didn't know or care about that. For him, it would be about the intellectual thrust of a play. Checking a show, you'd never give a Le Gallienne note to an actor in a Houseman production."
Might Mr. O'Brien have a signature after all, simply in his enveloping love of theatrical craft? "You could stop at love," he replies. "I love collaborating. I love the egos. I absolutely love actors. I love their acts of faith. I'm constantly falling in love with the process itself. One thing you can never say about a piece of mine is that it's lacking in enthusiasm."
Unlike some other directors, Mr. O'Brien means it when he says his rehearsals are closed. "This has been an issue as long as I can remember," he answered by email after reading my request for a variance. "I think the rehearsal space is a 'safe' one for the actors and the director. No one not involved should ever be there, because a) the actors begin to 'act' no matter what else you tell them, and it's always too early, and b) your observation of my 'invisibility' is very much the point. I need to always keep it that way."
How about quizzing the actors? "Sure," Mr. O'Brien said. "Knock yourself out."
Every Utopian approached for this story praised him without reserve. More telling than the praise as such, though, were the specifics about the way he works.
This from Brían F. O'Byrne, who plays the mammoth part of Alexander Herzen, so-called father of Russian socialism: "Jack definitely leads from the front. He plays on a large canvas in a way I haven't witnessed with anybody else, leaving it to us to find our way, though he also gives a lot of guidance. And he's quite incredible with this horrid space -- almost like a choreographer. People don't know what a skill it is to direct that much traffic."
Billy Crudup is seen as the squirrelly literary critic Vissarion Belinsky: "It's the sort of part I first started acting in college and that I always gravitated towards. But since I started working professionally, more often than not I've been offered leading-man roles, roles that come less naturally to me. Jack totally got it intuitively that it was a part I'd like to do -- in fact, the only part I would have wanted."
Ethan Hawke appears as the aristocratic Mikhail Bakunin, shameless sponge and charismatic trouble maker: "Jack's got one of the brightest, sharpest, fiercest minds I've ever come across, and yet he's not an intellectual. Stoppard is such a heady, heady playwright. Jack comes from the heart. If the director played the same notes as the playwright, it would be all cake on cake." (Mr. O'Brien puts it another way: "Don't double in brass.")
David Harbour takes a different role in each show. One of them, requiring lavish whiskers and a stagy German accent, was giving him real trouble for a while: "When I'm having difficulty, I tend to spin off into psychology, into business. Jack brought me back to the simple narrative. I never trust that, but he told me to, and I did, and it worked."
Another with three roles to juggle is Richard Easton, a friend of Mr. O'Brien's for four decades and counting, who in 1969 took direction from Mr. O'Brien in "Cock-A-Doodle Dandy," his first full-fledged Broadway directing job. "Actors trust Jack. So do designers and other technical people. He's always practical. Whatever it is, he knows how to do it, but he doesn't want to do it himself. He's funny, so there's always lots of energy in the room. He's sentimental, and he cries a lot. He's thoughtful. When rehearsals start, he basically sits and listens and watches. He has the confidence that whatever happens, he can deal with it. He uses what you bring. He never thwarts you. He's not in competition with anyone he's working with -- which is more unusual than you think."
After one play spread out over three plays, what do you do for an encore? Why, cross the plaza for your Metropolitan Opera debut, with "Il Trittico," Giacomo Puccini's "triptych" of three operas that add up to one, opening April 20.
When Joseph Volpe, the Met's former general manager, offered him the job, Mr. O'Brien said he should be hiring three directors: Luchino Visconti for the kitchen-sink shocker "Il Tabarro" (The Coat), Robert Wilson for the torture-the-heroine tear-jerker "Suor Angelica" (Sister Angelica), Billy Wilder for the slapstick chaser "Gianni Schicchi."
"And luckily," Mr. O'Brien informed him, "you've hired all three."