Jonathan Lynn wants to know what an egg cream is. Sitting in Jerry’s Deli in Westwood on an absurdly hot day in early May, he’s less interested in talking about his show “Yes, Prime Minister” at this moment than he is about finding out what ingredients go into the classic New York drink. There’s something slightly comical about a 70-year-old Jew, albeit a Brit, who’s never encountered an egg cream, but then again, perhaps they never made it across the pond, something that can no longer be said about “Yes, Prime Minister,” which will make its American stage debut on June 4 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
While American audiences are probably most familiar with Lynn’s film directorial efforts, such as “Clue,” “The Whole Nine Yards” and the comedy classic “My Cousin Vinny,” British audiences know him well for his “Yes Minister” series, which was a massive hit on television and radio in the UK and in most of the English-speaking world, for that matter. “Yes Minister,” which followed the careers of politician Jim Hacker and civil servants Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley, and satirized the workings of government, won multiple BAFTA awards and various other honors. Now, more than 30 years after Lynn and Antony Jay created the series, it’s finally been adapted for the stage.
“People have been asking us to do a play based on the series ... for many, many years, and we’d always said no,” Lynn said. “We’d said what we’d had to say.” They also lost both the stars of the show, Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington, to illness. But, according to Lynn, as the 30th anniversary approached, “We thought, ‘Well, maybe it would be fun to examine whether things have changed or whether things are really fundamentally the same, but maybe cosmetically different.’ ”
Lynn and Jay got to work, and soon they’d hammered out a show that has played in London and as far away as Australia. It’s even been optioned for a production in Tel Aviv.
Asked how a play about British politics can have such broad appeal, Lynn was quick to correct: “It’s about government, which is very different. Politics is what goes on in elections, what goes on in the House of Commons,” he said. “It’s not about politics in a partisan sense. It’s not possible from watching the shows or watching this play to tell which party Jim Hacker belongs to.”
Government, it seems, is a universal problem. Even the United States and England have a lot in common, according to Lynn. “The main difference is that we have an unwritten constitution, and we don’t have separation of powers built into our constitutional theory.” And indeed, in Britain, the prime minister is, by his or her very nature, a member of the party in control of the congress. “You were dumb enough to write the separation of powers into your constitution, and we see, as we look around Washington today, just what that has led to.”
Lynn doesn’t foresee Americans having a problem understanding the show, though. “We ran this in London. ... A lot of Americans come and see the play, and we’ve never had anyone come and tell us they didn’t understand it.”
Lynn wasn’t particularly surprised to find that little in the nature of government seems to have changed in the 30 years between the premiere of the TV show and the play. “The biggest change in the way that government is run is that there are more ‘special advisers.’... There’s more outside influence.”
Politicians are also more in the line of fire. “The Freedom of Information Act has been passed, which is desperately dangerous to anyone who’s in power,” Lynn said. “If no one knows what you’re doing, no one knows what you’re doing wrong.”
For the Geffen production, which Lynn is also directing, he’s assembled a notable cast that includes Dakin Matthews, Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean, with whom Lynn has reunited after many years. “They’re a really wonderful cast. I feel very fortunate. I’ve known Michael McKean on and off for a very long time. He was in my first film, ‘Clue.’ I knew he does a wonderful British accent, because I saw ‘Spinal Tap,’ ” Lynn said with a laugh.
Asked how he felt about unintentionally starting the board-game-as-movie movement that’s also brought the world such classics as “Battleship,” Lynn was amused but also a little sad. “I didn’t imagine it, and I feel very guilty.”
Looking back at his long career, Lynn doesn’t have many regrets, though. “ ‘Vinny’ had a lot going for it. Although it was never sold this way, it was a satirical comedy about capital punishment. I’m very against capital punishment. It basically said these two kids would have been fried if they hadn’t had this argumentative, son-of-a-bitch lawyer,” Lynn said. “It was about class, which is something else that nobody ever talked about here. Vinny and Lisa are blue collar, and everyone else in the film was old money.”
But not all of his favorites became big hits. “One of my favorite films I’ve made here was ‘The Distinguished Gentleman,’ with Eddie Murphy, because that has proven prophetic, really. It’s about the power of the lobbyists and how they destroy democracy.”
“The Distinguished Gentleman,” which was co-written by Jewish Journal columnist Marty Kaplan, didn’t perform well at the box office but did get a presidential stamp of approval. “When Bill Clinton went to see it as soon as it opened — he’d just been elected president — he came out and said, ‘That’s just what it’s like in Washington.’ And I immediately phoned the studio and said, ‘We must get that clip into the ads,’ and they said, ‘No, no, we can’t do that — that would be disrespectful to the president,’ ” Lynn said, still not buying the answer. “The true reason is that Disney has lots of lobbyists in Washington, and they didn’t want to upset Congress.”
And despite politics reaching into film as much as government, Lynn sees little change in comedy in his more than 50 years in the business. “It’s impossible to sum up what comedy is in a few words. But it’s some form of telling the truth in a way that doesn’t require the audience’s empathy. That requires the audience’s objectivity.
“I think there’s more rude language than there used to be,” Lynn said. “But no, I don’t think comedy’s changed. The essentials remain the same. It’s about owning up, and it’s about recognition.”
And recognition is what Lynn thinks matters most in how a show transitions from one culture to another, and why he thinks “Yes, Prime Minister” will do well.
“The audience doesn’t recognize the behavior in the same way. Some comedies travel better than others,” he said. “Neil Simon has never really had a hit in England. ... There aren’t enough Jews in England.”
“Yes, Prime Minister” plays June 4 through July 14 in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. geffenplayhouse.com.