The gorgeous, deceptively calming bedroom set that frames Three Tall Women at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre loses none of its beauty with the lights way up and the house empty (save for myself, director Joe Mantello and the occasional crew member fussing with whatever needs fussing hours before Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill make their entrances in this Tony-nominated revival).
Mantello, one of the stage’s premiere directors currently represented on Broadway with two new productions – this one and the soon-to-open The Boys in the Band at the Booth Theatre, both joining the forever-open Wicked – is explaining how Miriam Buether’s impeccably appointed set works. How it expands, or shape-shifts, from the real-world elegance of a wealthy woman’s boudoir to, in the play’s second half, something altogether less of this earth, doubling into its own doppelganger and becoming home to the past and present, the now and the remembered.
It involves Plexiglass.
“To me it seems relatively simple,” says Mantello, who I first met back in 1994 at a Drama Desk Awards reception – the Players Club across from Gramercy Park, I think – when Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America, with Mantello starring as Louis Ironson, swept most of that season’s trophies. “But I was talking to someone the other day and they just stared at it and kept thinking, What kind of a magic trick is that?”
Count me among the baffled. Even with Mantello’s description – read it below – Three Tall Women and its set give up few mysteries easily. Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, inspired by the hard-shelled woman who adopted him, maybe loved him and never understood him, made its New York debut Off Broadway in 1994, and one of its stars, the late, great Marian Seldes, presented an award (most likely to her co-star Myra Carter) at that very same Players Club ceremony, among all the Angels.
When we spoke in the seats at the otherwise empty Golden recently, Mantello had already been Tony-nominated for his direction of the Scott Rudin-produced Three Tall Woman (the production earned six in total, with nominations for Jackson and Metcalf, Buether’s set, Ann Roth’s costumes, and for best play revival).
His second staging of the spring, the Ryan Murphy/David Stone-produced 50th anniversary revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, was in previews, with an opening set for May 31. The revival stars Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannels, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins
Mantello talked about the Albee play, Marian Seldes, what baggage The Boys in the Band carries or doesn’t, and, inevitably, at my prodding, Angels in America, the play that has circled back to New York, Three Tall Women its companion from across the years.
Next up for the director: Mantello’s staging of Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning The Humans plays the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (June 19-July 29).
“You know, I am a very fortunate man,” Mantello says at one point, “and I don’t take it for granted.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Deadline: How did you end up with two new Broadway shows opening within months of one another?
Joe Mantello: Both ideas originated with the producers, Scott Rudin (Three Tall Women) and Ryan Murphy (The Boys in the Band). They approached me with the idea of doing revivals, and it’s as simple as that.
Deadline: Had you intended to open them within such a short period or did it just fall into place like that?
Mantello: Just a coincidence. The Boys in the Band rehearsal dates were all built around Jim [Parson’s] Big Bang Theory schedule. The first day that he was available was the day after the opening of Three Tall Women. So I got up that morning, flew to LA and started rehearsals for Boys in the Band the next day.
Deadline: Let’s talk Three Tall Women. I saw the original production in ’94. I’ve been trying to think about what’s different, what’s changed. There’s no intermission now, and I seem to remember that original production weighted a bit more towards the “B” character (currently played by Laurie Metcalf, then by Marian Seldes). This production seems more balanced, or am I misremembering?
Mantello: Gosh, I saw it also and I remember it pretty vividly. I really remember Myra Carter [as the “A” character, played in the current production by Glenda Jackson) because she was an actor that I hadn’t heard of before that show, and she was a revelation to me. But I always loved Marian on stage. She was such a funny, eccentric creature to watch.
Deadline: She really was.
Mantello: You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. She was sort of the last of her kind in some ways. She was extraordinary.
Deadline: I think the first time I met you was at the Drama Desk awards at the Players Club in ’94. You would have been there for Angels in America and Marian would have been there for Three Tall Women. I remember she greeted the audience with this very strange, elaborate bow that was just so theatrical. The effect was, This woman is of the theater, no mistaking it.
Mantello: You would always know when she was in the audience, when I was acting. You would know she was in the audience because at the curtain call she was so animated and her arms were in the air and she was clutching her chest and she was…it was this…I don’t think it was a performance. I think it was absolutely a genuine expression of gratitude and awe for what the actors had done. But you always could see her. It was amazing.
Deadline: Why did you want to do Three Tall Women? What did you want to bring to it?
Mantello: Well, the writing is extraordinary and it’s slippery and elusive and challenging to follow the bread crumbs that [Albee] has left for you. I’m only up for things that are challenging these days, and this was a really exciting proposition to take on. Having seen the original production, there were certain things about it that I recall being…you know, having questions about. In the script, Albee says that there’s a mannequin in the bed for Act Two, and I remember seeing the mannequin and finding it, with all due respect, distracting – because it looked like a mannequin. And so one of the first things that I said to [scenic designer] Miriam Buether was, We have to figure out another way to tackle that.
And I also had this notion that the son should not be in the same room with the women, that there should be some sort of membrane between the women and the boy, and that’s really where we started. We went down a lot of dead ends with the design.
Deadline: So how did you get it right?
Mantello: Basically what happens is, there’s a thick piece of Plexiglass, and in front of that, for Act One, there is a whole wall which then flies very quickly in the pause between Act One and Act Two. So then there’s the Plexi, and [on the other side of it] the room is replicated in reverse, down to every item on the dressing table.
Deadline: That’s not a mirror?
Mantello: There’s a mirror behind that. So to me it seems relatively simple, but I was talking to someone the other day and they said they just stared at it and kept thinking, What kind of a magic trick is that?
Deadline: I thought the same.
Mantello: So it’s three levels – the downstage room, the layer of Plexi, the room in reverse – and then a mirror.
Deadline: I thought it was just a mirror and we were seeing everything reflected…
Mantello: People think that at first, but then all of a sudden Alison [Pill] walks into it and your mind is hopefully really blown because you think like, wait, I thought I was just looking in a mirror.
Deadline: At the performance I saw, the body in bed that used to be a mannequin raises her arm. So right away we know this is a very different production.
Mantello: The number of people who tell me they don’t see that! More often than not, people don’t see that. And the woman who plays that part is astonishing because she…I know some actors that would be like, Oh I’m going to cash the check and I’m going to lie in the bed. But she…I have complete and total respect for her because she actually approaches it like a role, and it’s really, really remarkable. I mean, look, it’s subtle, I’m not going to lie. But when you sit in the mezzanine, there are places in the script when the character is in distress and she just sort of does a slight movement with her head. She’s following along in the script and it’s really beautiful. Really amazing what she does.
Deadline: Tell me how the casting came about. Was everything built around Glenda Jackson?
Mantello: Glenda was our first because it’s obviously the most difficult role to cast. There had been some talk of the King Lear that she did coming in, so we had to wait to see how that played out. This is the fourth production Laurie and I have done together – I always want her in any play that I do.
I mean, there is no one like her. She’s ferocious. She’s the opposite of Marian [Seldes] in a lot of ways. In all ways. Where Marian was very ethereal, Laurie is incredibly grounded and practical. I wanted two actors who could go toe to toe with Glenda and both Laurie and Alison certainly fit the bill.
Deadline: Alison has the role that usually doesn’t get as much attention as the other two…
Mantello: Alison Pill is the unsung hero of Three Tall Women to me. She’s extraordinary in this part and she makes it look easy. I’m just in awe of her.
Deadline: Let’s talk about The Boys in the Band. That’s a play that comes with such baggage. What was your first thought on doing it, and did your thoughts change or develop over time?
Mantello: I was skeptical when Ryan first approached me, and I don’t know why. I mean, I hadn’t seen it in years and I don’t know what the baggage was that I brought to it, but I read it again. He said something to me which kind of unlocked it for me. He said, read it like it’s an Albee play, and when he said that…
Deadline: Which it kind of is really…
Mantello: It’s a direct descendent. Our production is still set in 1968 – there’s nothing too dramatic that’s been done to mess with that – but when I tried to think of it in a more timeless way, it made more sense to me. So I said to Ryan, I’d like to do it, but my one condition is that we cut the intermission because I think there’s great momentum to be gained. One of the criticisms of the play is that it’s schizophrenic, that it’s wildly comic in the first act and then it takes this incredibly dark turn. And I thought the challenge is, how do we do that in real time?
In fact, Mart had a one act version that existed. I don’t know why he’d done it that way, but then we made further edits from there. And I think it was the right decision. I think it plays beautifully. Some of what we cut was just material with references that would have no resonance right now. I mean there were names and places…
Deadline: I want to say Lupe Velez but that’s not right…
Mantello: Maria Montez. She’s still in. She made the cut.
No, it’s that initial scene, that duet between the characters of Michael and Donald setting up the party. There’s a lot of information that was probably useful and essential to an audience in 1968.
Deadline: The psychoanalyses stuff?
Mantello: Yeah. I feel like a contemporary audience doesn’t need that sort of backstory. Blaming the mother and all of that.
Deadline: Is there anything else that is going to feel different in tone from earlier versions and the movie?
Mantello: No, it’s Boys in the Band, and everything we’ve done to the play has been with Mart’s blessing and participation. He’s been really involved in any modifications to the script and he’s been incredibly generous. He’s the least precious person I could imagine.
Deadline: He must be thrilled with this production.
Mantello: After 50 years he’s making his Broadway debut. It’s extraordinary, the life of this play. It was celebrated, and then it was reviled, and then dismissed, and then relegated to the ash heap, and then resurrected. Who knows how it will be received with this production, but it’s sort of gone through…it’s like Cher. She’s had a lot of different lives, and this play has done the same, but it’s still here and it’s still strong and sturdy. We’re in week three of previews, and it’s really entertaining, almost alarmingly so. The first week and a half of previews, the audience response to the humor in the play was so overwhelming that I think the actors were like on a bucking bronco. It was really hard to control.
So I’ve found that this question of, Is it relevant or not, it certainly seems that way to us. Audiences are very engaged in the play and with the play, in the humor of the play and also when it takes a turn and goes into darker territory.
Deadline: I think that’s why people like myself who have an affection for it have an affection for it. Though I have to say when I was a kid and watched it on TV, I didn’t like it. It was like, this is not what I want life to be. So I get that aspect of it too, the criticism.
Mantello: But it is a very specific portrait of a group of friends at a specific time, and so the criticism about it being about a group of self-hating gay men, I’m sorry I don’t…I find that lazy and I feel it doesn’t apply to the play. You certainly can apply that to the character of Michael, who is conflicted and does have a lot of self-loathing, but I think there are characters in the play that are absolutely courageous. I find that in Emory, who sort of embodies that extraordinary queer spirit, who is not backing down. Even when [the ostensibly straight] Alan comes into the room, Emory refuses to play a part, he just throws it in his face.
Deadline: And there are references in the play – the jokes about Emory in the baths and being arrested – that give the sense of him being someone who’s lived his life, regardless. We can’t forget people like him.
Mantello: Yes, and the story he tells of being a young kid and reaching out to his first love and saying “I want you to be my friend,” there’s something so bold and courageous and incredibly moving about that. Then when that is thrown in his face and he’s mocked for it…I don’t look at that as self-loathing.
Deadline: I think this is the first fully openly gay production of Boys in the Band. Correct?
Mantello: I’m not sure about the ’95 revival. I’m trying to think. The guys that I knew that were in that production were gay, are gay, but I didn’t know all the cast. I have a feeling that they weren’t all gay.
But our cast is entirely gay. There’s this meta aspect of the production that I find incredibly moving. At the curtain call you see these nine gay men who’ve just performed this play for you. The world is changing. Many of them have major careers, not being relegated only to gay roles, and the thing that I think is palpable to the audience is their genuine affection for one another and for the play itself. That goes a long way in mitigating some of the criticisms about the play, that it’s this group of really hateful gay men. You feel our cast’s affection for one another as actors.
Deadline: That brings to mind the original cast, many of whom came to sad ends. So sad so many of them didn’t live to see this re-appreciation.
Mantello: I’m friendly with Laurence Luckinbill. He’s a great man. He’s coming in for the opening, as is Peter White who played Alan. And I believe Reuben Greene who played Bernard is still around. We’re trying to find him.
Deadline: I hope you do.
Mantello: Luckinbill says what an extraordinary time it was, and that the fascinating thing was, here they were in this fiercely, unapologetically homosexual play about gay life. I don’t want to say a homosexual play because I think there’s something diminishing about that, but a play about gay life, right? And the cast couldn’t, at least publicly in any of the press for the show, none of them talked about it. None of them could talk about it. I think, and Larry can confirm this, but I think there were stories written about the straight actors. There was a story about Cliff Gorman and maybe about Larry talking about what it was like to be a straight actor in this play. But the others, even when they would go on talk shows and the subject would come up, they would all just kind of clam up.
Deadline: I think a significant number of them were making a living as soap opera actors.
Mantello: Yep, Keith Prentice definitely.
Deadline: I knew Keith much later in his life. Not well, but in passing. Before he died he moved back to Ohio and was running a local theater company. I don’t know if he was sick at that point, but in any case I wish I would have known him well enough to ask him all of these questions.
Mantello: All of those original performances hold up so beautifully. And like you, I wish they were all around to experience this moment with the current cast.
Deadline: I just saw a picture of Bobby La Tourneaux, who played the Cowboy, in The New York Times story a few weeks ago about people we’ve lost to AIDS.
Mantello: His was the saddest of all the stories. A man who was his lawyer at one point – [La Tourneaux] ran into some issues – wrote me and kind of explained the story of the last part of his life, and it was really tragic, really really tragic.
Deadline: Have you seen Angels in America yet?
Mantello: I saw it on the final marathon day at the National [Theatre, in London].
Mantello: It was the first time I’ve experienced it that way. I think when I left the show on Broadway I went back to see it, and then I saw the Off-Broadway revival with Zach [Quinto], but each of those times I saw parts one and two on two different nights. So this was the first time I sat and watched a marathon, which is an entirely different way to experience that play. That knocked me out. And I really thought that they unpacked the angel and the heaven threads of the play in a way that I’d never seen before and I really, really appreciated that. It was the clearest it’s ever been to me. From someone who was inside of it for a year and a half or two years, I have to tell you to this day I’m still sort of baffled at what we were talking about in the heaven scene. But I was able to sort of get a glimpse of what Tony was going for in [the new] production.
Deadline: I still hear the original cast’s voices in my head when I see Angels. Do other people tell you that?
Mantello: I’ve heard it a little bit recently. I would like to think that has more to do with the play than it has to do with individual performances, because it’s such an overwhelming experience the first time you encounter that play. I mean the first person I saw do Louis was Michael Stuhlbarg…I saw him do it at Julliard, and I hear his voice.
Deadline: One more Angels question. Denise Gough [who plays Harper Pitt in the current Broadway production] said that she really wanted at the end, to kiss Joe [Lee Pace] goodbye so that there’s a sense of some forgiveness for him, which is something people have always talked about regarding this play – that Joe Pitt, the closeted Republican Mormon lawyer, is the only character who isn’t rescued in some way.
Mantello: To me it’s not about forgiveness. I think he’s released at the end. I think Harper does release Joe by the fact that she extricates herself from that relationship. That is a release. Yes, there’s a lot of bitterness and a lot of pain that they have to sort out, but she does the most loving thing that she can do, which is that she removes herself from that relationship – the most loving thing she can do for herself and for him. She says, the lie is over. So in some way I think there is compassion for Joe. We just don’t know in a concrete way where he is four years down the line.
Deadline: I’d like to know what happens to Joe.
Mantello: I have great faith in Joe. I think I see a happier ending for Joe than most people do.
Deadline: I’m torn between happy and thinking that he’s going to get busted in a men’s room somewhere in Washington later in life.
Mantello: Maybe. I guess I’ve always thought with Angels we’re seeing the beginning of the dawning of Joe’s consciousness, and that he’s smart enough and that there is an inherent goodness there. He’s conflicted but he’s inherently a good man.
Deadline: Tony nominations. Is it still exciting? Do you allow yourself to think about it?
Mantello: Well, it’s always nice to be invited to the party. I think I have a healthy perspective on it now. It’s not going to change my life. It’s an incredible honor if only to celebrate all the great work that happened this season. And it’s nice to be there. Lindsay Mendez [Tony-nominated for her role as Carrie in Carousel] and I have been friends for a long time, and to be in the audience the night of her first nomination is incredibly special to me. So I will experience it more like that, as a part of the community as opposed to it being any sort of competition.