JOE MANTELLO DIRECTS OFF-BROADWAY REVIVAL
They look like kids; they both have brown tousled hair over alert, ironic, angular facesthey could be brothers.
The one in the brown shirt without a tie is Craig Lucas, playwright. The one in the black vest dangling open over a striped white shirt with the sleeves rolled uplike William Holden or John Cassavetes in a 1940's-50's-60's film about The Theatreis Joe Mantello, director. Also Joe Mantello, actor, but not on this occasion.
This occasion is a late-afternoon break on the fifth day of rehearsals for Lucas's Blue Window, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Blue Window is a play for seven charactersa gay couple, a straight couple, three miscellaneousmany of whom talk at the same time, or virtually at the same time, as many of the others. It must be a challenge for even a skilled director, and Mantello, whose accomplishment in that line has lately included Love! Valour! Compassion!, is a skilled director.
"There are different ways you sort of work on it," he said. "It's a kind of layering. You break it down as a scene, then as a musical score, then add gestureand then, if you've done your homework, it somehow comes together."
"I think the musical analogy is apt," said playwright Lucas. "If you're listening to a chamber trio, you can't tell what the cello's doing, what the violin's doing. The concordance makes music." "It's against your nature as a director," said Mantello. "It's the way these people intersect one another, not about plot."
The interviewer proposed the word contrapuntal. A smile crossed the playwright's face as he said: "A friend of mine whose name I won't mention came to see this play [in an earlier incarnation] and said: 'You know, contrapuntal is passé.' I could have killed him. Then he wrote a whole musical contrapuntally."
All of Lucas's plays (six of them) and screenplays (three of them) have in the first instance been directed by Norman René. Blue Window "was really written for Norman and the troupe of actors at the Production Company"a now defunct group on 28th Street "driven into the ground by my ineptitude," said the writer whose "ineptitude" on such works as Missing Persons, Reckless, Three Postcards, Prelude to a Kiss and Longtime Companion has won him a raft of awards. "With Blue Window Norman said: 'Let's break all the rules.' He's interested in banality, in the tiniest bits of human behavior."
Now there's another director. "Norman said: 'I made my stab at it. You'll learn more if you work with somebody else on it.' "
And have you learned more?
"I really have," said Lucas, only to be interrupted by Mantello's dry: "This is only the fifth day . . . "
Blue Window has been revived more than oncein Los Angeles, New Haven, London, New Yorksince its 1984 debut, and here it is again.
"He's to blame!" said Lucas, pointing at Mantello. Next breath: "Somebody asked: 'Why are you reviving this?' I said: 'What do you mean? Do you think I wouldn't like to revive all my plays? It could be like the Berliner Ensemble.'
"Actually I've been interested in working with Joe for some years . . . Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . I actually wrote a new play, The Dying Gaul, and offered it to himwhich for one reason or another at that time, he couldn't do. By then he was Hot. I just want to say I wanted to work with Joe Mantello before he was Hot."
"I'd fallen in love with Blue Window from reading it and from seeing a PBS version of it," said Mantello. "We were going to do it last year at the Atlantic Theatre, but that fell through. Then Lynne Meadow [artistic director, MTC] asked if there was anything I wanted to do this season, and here we are."
Craig Lucas was born April 30, 1951, in Atlanta, Georgia. "My father was an FBI agent when I was growing up, then an executive. His being an FBI agent was the source of some conflict because I have, quote, leftist leanings. But we've made peace. I adore my father. My mother was a painter and a real nut. She died last year of lung cancer."
"My mother was a real nut and not a painter," Mantello murmured.
"My father's just remarried," said Lucas. "To a woman I've known all my life, my mother's best friend; they're blissfully happy. Maybe you could put in your article that it's been my lifetime goal to meet Al Hirschfeld [the artist]? Maybe he would call me up . . . Joe, by the way," Lucas added with a roll of the eyes, "wants to meet Madonna. No, it's totally, totally true. He wants to meet Madonna."
Joe Mantello was born Dec. 27, 1962, in Rockford, Illinois. His father is an accountant. "How do we get along? Depends on the day. No, we get along very well."
Mantello and playwright Jon Robin Baitz are a creative and domestic couple of some prominence in Manhattan. Lucas lived and loved for 11 years with Dr. Tim Melester, surgeon, who died Jan. 5, 1995. Blue Window was and is dedicated to him. "There's so much of him in this play," said its author. "He opened up worlds for me."
-- By Jerry Tallmer