The distance between Ricky Romas on Broadway is one and twenty years, and the difference between Joe Mantegna and Joe Mantello is Liev Schreiber, who just snarled out a Mantello-directed Roma that took the Tony for Featured Actor in a Play — as did Mantegna's equally vicious Roma in the original 1984 edition of Glengarry Glen Ross.
David Mamet has given the stage many vivid characters, but Roma — top dog and point man among the pit-bull realtors in his Pulitzer Prize play — is the only one that wins Tonys.
"In all fairness, I should say — and it's probably the worst thing an actor could say," Schreiber said in the press room immediately after his Tony triumph, "Glengarry Glen Ross was the first Broadway show that my father took me to, and I saw Joe Mantegna in the part. I'm not afraid to say, if I could have ripped Joe off, I would have ripped Joe off."
A week or so later, after the heat of victory had subsided to room temperature, Schreiber was still singing — full out — the praises of his predecessor. "He sent me a card recently. It was just such a terrific treat because he's a hero of mine. I don't know that I would be acting today if I had not seen Joe Mantegna play Ricky Roma. He sent me a note saying, 'People often say, "I know how you feel," but in this case I really know how you feel.'"
Director Mantello also really knows, having said that if he still acted, Roma would be the role he'd go for. It definitely bonded him with the actor he picked to play the part. "I didn't know Joe, really, before," Schreiber admitted. "I took the job because they told me he'd be directing it. I said yes because of Joe. It wasn't the play or anything else. It was Joe. I admired his work and always wanted to work with him. We worked really well together, too. We could complete each other's sentences. It was like that. I always knew, within a split second, what he wanted and where he was going. And he always knew, within a split second, what I wanted and what I was going for. So it was kind of a wonderful, seamless, symbiotic relationship — the kind you wait your whole life for."
Plus, how many actors get to win a Tony for a role that turned them into actors in the first place? Like Medea and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's Pseudolus, Richard Roma could become a given Tony role — although he has never been a sure thing, if only for the competitive barks and bites coming from the other corners of this Mamet-made kennel of hustling real-estate hucksters. Mantegna had to arm-wrestle co-star Robert Prosky for the prize, and Schreiber got a good run for the Tony from deskmates Alan Alda and Gordon Clapp.
When a reporter asked Schreiber if he had been afraid that the Tony vote would be split because so many Glengarry guys were going for it, he took a commendable high road: "I consider it a great compliment and great honor there were so many of us in that category."
Happily, there was more than the illusion of reflected glory for the rest of the Glengarry gang (Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Jeffrey Tambor and Jordan Lage) in the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance and the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
"I don't know that I've ever been in an experience theatrically that was so reliant on the ensemble jelling in the way that we do. Many times in a play there's one person who carries the show. Part of why the text of this play is so wonderful is because it is truly an ensemble piece. There's a buoyancy created by the exchange between the characters. It's wonderful to feel — I don't know how to describe that to someone, but, as an actor, to be suspended in the air by six other cast members is a remarkable feeling. It never drops."
Some would find it ironic that now, just as a Tony tops his 12 years of acting, he's busily opening new windows, adapting and directing a film of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, "Everything Is Illuminated." Schreiber finds it inevitable and not entirely incompatible: "It makes sense to me. The greatest thing I learned about directing was an appreciation for acting. I think I needed that. I've been acting so much that I had kinda lost touch a little bit with what it was that was so wonderful about it. Glengarry certainly brought that back."
Playing Orson Welles (to Emmy-nominated effect, in the HBO movie "RKO 281") also pointed him in this new direction. "It certainly made me feel old — he'd done everything I'd done by the time he was 23 — but also made me feel it could be done. As an actor, I've always thought like a director. Acting, for me, has always been about supplying the demands of the scene so you look at the play as a whole, understand what it needs and then figure out how you fit into that rather than thinking about it as a character who's looking for a world to inhabit. My philosophy is the play's the thing."
True to his name (Schreiber is German for "writer"), the 37-year-old actor is keeping his writing hand in, adapting a play by a Yale classmate, Charles Evered, called The Size of the World. "Basically, it's about a homeless guy who reinvents himself, based on Dale Carnegie's 'How To Win Friends and Influence People.'" Carnegie's modus operandi would seem to be 360 degrees from Glengarry Glen Ross, but not at all to Schreiber.
"Primarily what Dale Carnegie was writing about was sales etiquette, and it is typically American that this became cultural etiquette because sales is such an integral part of American culture. If you take that to its farthest conclusion, which I think Mamet does, it eventually corrupts and goes into something horrible because it's not really culture — it's sales. Dale Carnegie started by saying, 'Make sales about people,' and eventually Mamet comes to the conclusion, 'Make people about sales.' It brings it back home, in a sense."