Joe Mantello's Full Plate

By Harry Haun
27 Mar 2011

Joe Mantello
Joe Mantello
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Other Place director Joe Mantello has a lot on his agenda these days — including a rare return to acting.

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You'd think the director of Wicked — which has routinely averaged $1.6 million a week for seven years now — would have no problem finding another home on Broadway. Well, think again: the Tony-winning Joe Mantello finds himself these days waiting in line for a Main Stem house as the director of Jon Robin Baitz's critically cheered Other Desert Cities, which just concluded its sold-out subscription run at Lincoln Center Theater's Off-Broadway venue, the Mitzi E. Newhouse. A Broadway home has been announced for his other coming project, as the lead actor in a revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. It will play the Golden Theatre, starting April 19.

Of Other Desert Cities, he said, "We're temporary orphans — I think we'll find a place. Other Desert Cities will not move until the fall, definitely…"



Happily, he has Off-Broadway to fall back on while he waits for his Main Stem marching orders. MCC Theater, which tapped him to helm The Pride last year, tapped him again to direct The Other Place, a new American play by Sharr White, currently world-premiering at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Laurie Metcalf, whom Mantello directed to a Tony nomination playing a speechwriter for President Nathan Lane in November, stars here as a scientist whose private life takes a frightening turn while she is researching the molecular basis for Alzheimer's treatment drugs. "It's hard to talk about this play," Mantello admits. "I think it's best to experience this play knowing almost nothing. Part of the joy of it is its surprises."

Dennis Boutsikaris, married ever-so-briefly to Metcalf in 2009's revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is her hubby here as well. Aya Cash, of The Pain and the Itch, co-stars.

Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place.
photo by Joan Marcus

The Normal Heart started beating again after 25 years due to staged readings on both coasts directed by Joel Grey, who replaced the late Brad Davis in the original production as Ned Weeks, the raging firebrand on the early AIDS front. An overdue film is finally in the works, with Mark Ruffalo starring and Ryan Murphy of "Glee" directing — preceded by the equally overdue Broadway edition, improbably starring Mantello.

Given his lucrative directing agenda, this may be a terrible career move, but he has his reasons: "I had no desire to return to acting. I'd left it behind, gladly, and thought it was essentially over. I never thought, 'I'll never get to play Hamlet.' The one regret that I had when I stopped acting — and there was only one — was that I never got to play this part. I saw it originally with Brad Davis, and there was something about it that made sense to me. It's the only part I always wanted to play."

And the man he picked to play Wicked's Wizard of Oz granted his wish. "Joel [Grey] asked me to do it in L.A.," says Mantello, "and I couldn't, but I said, in that way that you do, 'If you ever do it in New York, I'll be happy to do it.' Then he came to me and said, 'We're doing it in New York,' and I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'll have to do it now.'

"It's such a great play. The kind of howl that is that play is still as vibrant today as it was in 1985. If you really think back to when it was done, everything they talked about was happening in the moment. No one knew how the virus was passed. Joel said when he was going into the show, there was a scene where the men kiss, so he asked his doctor — who was Rock Hudson's doctor — and the doctor advised him not to. That's where we were."

The Mantello firebrand in Other Desert Cities, on the other hand, is not seen, but flickers and inflames the family homestead in Palm Springs. In light of the extraordinary talent populating the premises (Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski), Mantello opted to conduct rather than just direct. "It's like having five brilliant musicians. Stockard and I would talk about it. I'd say, 'You're the trumpet. You go. You keep driving. You're the melody of this scene. Then, everyone chimes in.'

"To wonderful writers like Robbie Baitz or Richard Greenberg or Terrence McNally, there is a certain music that is inherent in their voices as playwrights. I probably read a play over a hundred times before we start because I want to understand the music of it — the rhythm of it, where's the legato — so I can then, hopefully, impart that to the actors. But with this — this little quintet — it was fabulous because usually you have the main instrumentation and then people would join in, but this really is a quintet. There were places where people stepped forward, and I would say, 'Is this your aria?' And it must be an aria. That doesn't mean you have to blast us out of the theatre, but musically the play opens up here and allows you an aria."