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Mr. Mantello's Wild Ride : He had the 'role of a lifetime' in 'Angels in America.' So why is Joe Mantello putting his acting aside? Here's a clue: His other theatrical love is directing.

March 19, 1995|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

Mantello's style tends to elevate the mundane into something of a sacrament. "When I first talked to Terrence about 'Love!,' he mentioned it in terms of 'Boys in the Band,' but I thought it was closer to a gay 'Our Town,' " says Mantello, who took over the production after veteran director Jerry Zaks split with McNally over creative differences. "The play had its origins in Wilder in terms of storytelling and the small moments that make up a life and that sense of community."

It isn't surprising then that Mantello should choose to give dramatic import to the details and minutiae in both "Love!" and "Three Hotels." In the former, it is a very ordinary heroism that provides solace and redemption in the face of life's Big Questions. And in "Three Hotels," a man and woman retrace their steps to discover for themselves how an idealistic marriage could sour so completely.

Mantello, who once aspired to be a painter, says that his work often begins by the conjuring up of a "visual gesture" that unlocks the play for him. In Baitz's "Three Hotels," Mantello says that he thought it was important to visually capture the poignancy of two people who love each other but who have grown apart through a conspiracy of silence and self-denial. Thus, in between the three monologues that make up the evening, the actors can be seen in the lowered lights nearly colliding as they move on and off the stage.

Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater credits--Actor-director Joe Mantello was nominated for a Tony for the role of Louis Ironson in "Angels in America" Part I ("Millennium Approaches"), not Part II ("Perestroika"), as was reported last Sunday. "The Film Society," by Jon Robin Baitz, premiered in 1988 rather than 1989.

"These people are very far away from the core of who they are as people," says Mantello of a Peace Corps worker-turned-corporate bully and his long-suffering wife. "When you create for yourself an identity that is completely made up and constructed, you are capable of doing almost anything."

T here appears to be little danger of that happening to Mantello, the oldest of three boys whose parents, an accountant and housewife, nurtured a strong sense of self in their sons. One younger brother is a painter, the other is in college. "I was always rather outspoken," recalled Mantello of his growing up. "I worried about what people thought of me but there really wasn't room for a lot of self-doubt."

Though his grandparents were second-generation Italian Americans, Mantello's family was almost fully assimilated into a culture of "Pop-Tarts, Cheez Whiz and the Brady Bunch." Any anxieties stemming from the dissonance of being an emotional Italian in a WASP-y and repressive Illinois suburb were resolved through theater. "Here I was in the suburbs with the Smiths and the Jones, and my temperament was very Mantello, very Italian," he says. "I wasn't in sync with them."

What he could relate to was his Roman Catholicism. "We attended Mass at a cathedral in South Rockford," recalls Mantello. "It was pure theater. I wasn't sure what was going on but it was larger than me and larger than life. There's something of that sense of the mysterious and mystical that translates to theater along with the pageantry and ritual."

Attending North Carolina School of the Arts, Mantello planned a career in regional theater. The detour to New York came about at an annual get-together of the North Carolina graduating class with agents, casting directors and other professionals. "I got an agent through that," says Mantello, adding that he never did actually graduate from college. "The classes were too early."

The aspiring actor banged around New York with little success, starting a small, now-defunct repertory company with a group of friends. The core included his North Carolina classmates actors K. Todd Freeman and Mary-Louise Parker, and writer Peter Hedges, whose novel "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" was made into a movie. "It was there," says Mantello, "through my friend, Peter Hedges, that I learned about the relationship between the audience and the actor. The purity of it. Peter taught me to trust that, so that to this day, as a director, I never add anything to that unless it enhances it."

Falling between the cracks as a "type," Mantello the actor wasn't getting much paying work. "Circle Rep sort of saved me," he says. It was in that company's lab program, which operates outside of commercial pressures, where he not only began appearing in such plays as Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz," but where he also got to try his hand at directing. His first credit, in 1989, was "Imagining Brad," a play by Hedges, which went so well that Mantello began to imagine shifting his career altogether to directing.

Two years later, the actor-director also joined Naked Angels, a socially hip downtown experimental theater company. Then a friend suggested to him that he audition for the lead role in a new play by Tony Kushner: "Angels in America."

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