Once, when a reporter reacted with sincere surprise that Joe Mantello was going to direct The Vagina Monologues, the director took some mock umbrage. "What?" he asked back. "Isn't Joe Mantello the first name you think of when you hear the word vagina?"
Well, truthfully not, Joe — but that credit goes a long way toward balancing the books. In his four Broadway shows during the past three seasons — with the noted exceptions of Wicked, in which the women easily outpointed the men, and Assassins, which had a pair of pistol-packin' mamas — all his actors have been men: the 11 in Take Me Out and the all-male Mario Cantone of Laugh Whore. And the first three of these won him awards — Tonys for Take Me Out and Assassins and a Drama Desk Award for Wicked.
Absolutely no head-swelling accompanies these prizes. Nada. "Obviously, it's a great honor," he says, "but the only way my life has really been changed is that I now get offered really good projects, like this."
"This" is the revival at the Royale Theatre of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's 1984 opus of big sharks and little minnows in the real-estate pool. They don't play nice, as you might expect from expletive-prone Mamet. The trick is in finding the right seven guys to snarl out the play. "We spent a long time putting the cast together, assembling it methodically so that, as an ensemble, it would add up like a great orchestra. I told the men at the first read-through, 'You're all here because you're great actors. But what you're going to become — if you're not already — is great musicians, because it's so lean and beautifully written that what you have to do is follow it like notes in a score and you're halfway there.'"
So sing out, Alan Alda, Liev Schreiber, Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Gordon Clapp, Jordan Lage and Jeffrey Tambor. It's an assemblage Mantello is proud of. "Part of my job is to make sure that everyone is inhabiting the same world, hitting the same tone. If you spend time casting and do it in a smart, creative way, your work is done."
He doesn't believe he directs either gender differently. "I do think the group dynamic is different, but my approach is always the same." With a same-sex cast, he says, there's "a different feeling in the room.
I think — and I'm speaking in gross generalization — that men are much more used to putting themselves out there on the line. They jockey for positions of power. It's all out in the open. And I think, with women — in my experience — it's more of a leveled playing field. There's much more balance in the room — on the surface, but maybe underneath not. With guys, if there's competition, it's right out on the table. Guys say what they mean, and you deal with it."
Next for Mantello? "The Odd Couple with Nathan and Matthew. And it has girls — the Pigeon sisters."