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At 98, actor Mike Nussbaum soars at reading of Mamet pilot play

On a cloudy, windy Tuesday afternoon, two men sat down at the Levy Senior Center to do nothing more remarkable than read a play.

So why was the hybrid Nov. 29 event, held both in-person and on Zoom, sold out, with 270 people attending the Levy Lecture online? The men were Evanston’s two best-known theater friends, BJ Jones and Mike Nussbaum, getting together to read a work by David Mamet.

BJ Jones, left, reads a play Tuesday, Nov. 29, with actor Mike Nussbaum at the Levy Senior Center.
BJ Jones, left, reads a play Tuesday, Nov. 29, with actor Mike Nussbaum at the Levy Senior Center. The play was Pilot’s Lounge, written by David Mamet with Nussbaum in mind. Credit: Gay Riseborough

“Pilot’s Lounge,” commissioned by Northlight Theatre, was drafted by the famed playwright as a favor to Jones and as a gift to Nussbaum, who at age 98 is still working and the oldest Equity actor in the country.

Nussbaum was one of the founders of Northlight and its first Artistic Director. Jones, Northlight’s current Artistic Director, met Nussbaum in 1976 when they were acting in a commercial for Pizza Hut in Indianapolis, and they have been good friends ever since.

On Tuesday the two friends read Mamet’s dialogue, a conversation between two men in a small executive airport pilots’ lounge. One is a retired pilot, Nussbaum. The other is still flying, read by Jones.

Nussbaum shone in his role as a loquacious retiree with stories of his service in the Pacific Theater of World War II; anecdotes about the Flying Tigers, the Lindbergh affair, and other stories. Most touching was the tale of his old flight jacket, which his character treasured but had recently been relined and “restored” by his (offstage) daughter as a birthday surprise, ruining the jacket for him. Apparently this bit was based on a true-life story Nussbaum had related to Mamet many years ago.

Following the play reading, Jones spoke about Northlight’s plans to move from Skokie back to Evanston, where the troupe began as the Evanston Theater Company. He announced Northlight’s upcoming season of plays and showed the new facade design. The special glass that was to be used in the windows was coming from a factory in Ukraine that has now been destroyed in the war there, Jones said, so the facade design has been changed somewhat.

Jones spoke of the expansive backstage space planned for the new theater, with wings, flys, traps and a superb sound system. He said two parking lots will be available by the theater, with valet parking and the city lot on Maple Avenue to accommodate any parking issues.

“Evanston residents make up our largest subscriber group, even though we are in Skokie,” Jones said. “And we are eager to come back home.”

Northlight’s association with the Levy Center is one of several partnerships the theater group has with other Evanston organizations and schools. Joe Levy, after whom the center is named, took a playwriting class with Northlight in the late ’80s and was always enthusiastic about theater. “Highlights” is a popular writer’s workshop the theater offers to Levy members in six-week sessions. It has been held on Zoom, but is about to go “live.”

Senior center renovations

The Nov. 29 event was put on by the Levy Center Foundation and sponsored by Lincolnwood Place, a senior living center in Lincolnwood. The Levy Lecture series is free and open to the public, not just to Levy members. This was the series’ first hybrid lecture, said Judy Newton, Levy Foundation Chair.

The space used for the event, Bobby’s Room, has been recently renovated in consultation with an audio specialist.

A hearing loop system has been installed, along with top-of-the-line audio-visual equipment, new rubber flooring, new window coverings and seating. There is an electric divider that can silently create two rooms out of one at the touch of a button. Bobby’s Room is used for lectures, bingo, yoga and tai chi, as well as rental parties and other events, said Jill Korshak, Levy Foundation member.

By Gay Riseborough as published in the Evanston RoundTable.


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