The rule of threes is haunting Joe Mantello at the moment: In May, when his revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band opens, he’ll have three shows running on Broadway. One of the others is the long-running juggernaut Wicked. And the other is Three Tall Women, in an acclaimed revival of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer winner, headlined by three extraordinary actors: Alison Pill, Laurie Metcalf, and Glenda Jackson.
The critic John Lahr aptly called Albee’s play “cubist” for its refracted, unreliable narrative tripling in examining the life of one woman, based on Albee’s unbeloved adoptive mother, as she lays dying. Mantello’s production, with sumptuous costumes by Ann Roth and jewel-box set design by Miriam Buether, removes the script’s intermission and runs both acts of the play in succession—the first being a naturalistic scene with the two younger actors playing a lawyer and a care worker for the older woman, the second a kind of out-of-body reverie in which all three seem to be playing the woman at different stages of her life.
It’s a dazzling tightwire act for three, distinguished but not dominated by Jackson’s fierce performance. I spoke to Mantello recently about Albee, Angels in America, and the math and science of directing.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Looking over your résumé, it’s striking that you haven’t directed Albee before. Is that correct?
JOE MANTELLO: No, I did, once. I did The Zoo Story paired with Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Williamstown with Sam Rockwell and Zeljko Ivanek. I don’t even remember what year that was.
A long time ago, surely. It just seems like you’d be a good fit for his work; it’s surprising that’s the only credit.
I think, as with a lot of writers, he had his people who he felt comfortable with. I have enormous respect for him, but I do wonder sometimes whether our sensibilities would have matched. I don’t think he would have allowed us to do this production.
The way you’re doing it?
I remember the Promenade production was in the round, right?
Yeah, it was all set in the bedroom. And there’s an intermission, which I think he would have insisted on. I remember we came from intermission and there were kind of medical screens around the bed and then they were removed and there was a mannequin in the bed, and the mannequin had an oxygen mask. And the boy came into this room. I think Albee, from what I’ve read, felt that there was no distinction between the first act and the second act, that they were both part of the same reality.
That’s more or less what yours feels like in its own way—as if we’ve gone through the looking glass after the stroke. Is that the image you were going for?
The design is really an extension of his writing. We tried to find a visual vocabulary for what he was doing in the play, to kind of theatricalize what he was doing in the play. But it’s interesting, because I’ve had a couple different people say to me, who really appreciate the designs, “He would never have allowed this.”
I read somewhere that you originally wanted to be painter way back when, and that you would often try to start a project thinking about a visual gesture. Is that still the way you approach directing?
I’m interested in the visual expression of the piece and how that informs the piece. I don’t know if I start with it—although Miriam and I went down several roads until we arrived at our design for this. It is a crucial part of the pre-production process for me, and I always know we’ve arrived at it when I can sit with the model or the photos of the model and I can see the production happening in my head. And sometimes when I hit a dead end I know it’s not right yet.
Albee once told me that he always saw the whole production in his head as he wrote, and couldn’t imagine how anyone would do it otherwise.
Yeah, I also think that he was a playwright who was very confident in his interpretation of the play. I once heard him say, “No actor or director has ever shown me anything in one of my plays that I didn’t intend to be there.” I think what he meant by that was not that he had all the answers, but that if you found it, on some unconscious level he meant it to be there. I found that statement—there was something very sad about that statement to me. Because one of things I like most about rehearsal is when somebody brings something to it that I’ve never thought of. That’s the great part of what we do.
From all I’ve heard, that seems very Edward.
Yeah. Whether he really believed it or not, I don’t know.
What’s powerful about Three Tall Women is that it feels like a departure for him, and yet there’s this recognizably Albee world you go into with this play. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It reminded me of Exit the King somehow, although this is a much more realistic setting.
It has to do with the rhythm and the syntax, and it’s why I think it’s so incredibly hard for actors to memorize; it’s very precise, and it backtracks on itself. There’s a lot of repetition, but all of that is part of the fabric of the music of the play, and you definitely know when you’re off-key.
The relationship among these three characters onstage is really peculiar also. When I was looking for a throughline of your work as a director—you’ve done so many different kinds of plays, but a lot of them are distinguished by ensemble work, and also a lot of them have had strong characters really acting on each other and wanting things from each other. In this play it’s hard to know, especially in the second act, what do these women want from each other, and what are these scenes really about? Do you know what I mean?
I mean, it’s a really, really slippery play, and I can’t lie to you and say that when I walked into the room I had it all figured out—I don’t think any of us really did. It’s been a process of slowly chipping away at it. One of the things that we explored was, and this applies more to Laurie and Alison, that I wanted them to travel a great distance between Act I and Act 2, so that you really see the extremes of both. We dissected it like you dissect any play, and they’re three extraordinary actors and my job was really like: a little bit here, a little bit there.
These three women also seem more distinct from each other than even the original production, and they’re all three such different actors.
Temperamentally they really are kind of extensions of one another; there’s a ferociousness to all of them, an intelligence to all of them. There is something in their style and the way that they approach the work that’s not timid.
But again, they feel very distinct. I guess my question is, in a more conventional play, as an actor or director you would be thinking about who these characters are before they come into this play—“backstory” is one word for it. In this case, are there clear answers to that question? Do there need to be clear answers? As in, “I think I’m literally going to turn into her in the future,” or, “I’m looking at the person I was before.” Because on some level that’s how it plays.
Well, I think in the first act he’s showing you sort of a portrait of a life, and you get bits and pieces of information that don’t quite add up to a full portrait. Then in the second act he sort of reveals the character in her entirety, and all of the little breadcrumbs that he’s dropped along the way—our job in the second act is to assemble them for the audience, so you watch the ball drop when they get information that Glenda planted in the first act.
It strikes me as a neat trick that A, Glenda’s role, has a problem with memory, because otherwise she would simply know everything the other characters know.
It’s like B says to her: “I think you remember everything, you just can’t call it to mind all the time.” And I think that’s the manifestation of that in Act 2.
I wonder if you could compare this to any other works you’ve directed, any that ventured into absurdism. I don’t think of that as your métier. The Humans had a sort of supernatural element to it, and musical theatre has a whole other level or reality that you’re working, but anything else?
Yeah, I’m trying to think. Gosh.
I mean, certainly a play like Glengarry Glen Ross or even November, the Mamets you’ve done, have a certain attack to them, right?
There’s a musicality to it. That’s the closet thing in terms of, when you’re in the hands of a master playwright like that, there is sort of this untangling of their code of language. I’m always fascinated by that. We did it on Glengarry and we did it here—there were some days that were almost like music rehearsals. We said, “Set aside the acting, set aside anything that you would impose on this. Let’s just look at it like it’s a musical score, without judgment, without anything, and just try to understand it rhythmically.” Because I’m a big believer that there’s so much information within that, and there would be portions of the days where we would just work on it like you’re teaching someone music.
Speaking of setting acting aside, I’ve just read The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Angels in America, and I didn’t realize that when you got the role of Louis in Angels, your acting career was just going okay for you—and then you got that role. One thing that emerged in that book is that everyone who was involved was like, “Will I ever do anything as meaningful as this?” Obviously, you have, but I think you’ve said that that just spoiled you for acting, or you got acting out of your system. Is that how you think of it?
I think two things happened at the same time. One was that I was conscious enough to know that it was unlikely that that experience would ever be topped. So I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment, and at the same time I just kind of stumbled into this directing career. The transition, the segue, was not intentional, it just sort of happened.
Then occasionally someone will ask you to be in a play, but you’re not going after parts.
In the case of The Normal Heart, that was a play that I had always wanted to do and signed on to do a benefit reading. And The Glass Menagerie was really about wanting to work with Sam Gold.
When you’re acting in a play, do you leave your directing brain at the door, so you’re not second-guessing the director?
Totally. In both instances where I’ve acted since I’ve become a director, it was with extraordinary directors, so a) that part of my brain didn’t kick in, and b) I stayed in my own lane, because that’s what I would want as a director.
Did you feel like you learned from those directors?
I did. I mean, George [C. Wolfe] is a special case because the last time I acted was in Angels with him, so I sort of had an idea—I love him and there truly is no one more inspiring or better company. With Sam, I had always admired his work but felt that we had two vastly different metabolisms as directors, that he was comfortable with silence and a kind of looseness that is sort of antithetical to my rhythm. When I would see his work, I loved it, and so I thought, I just want to understand how that happens.
Do you think you figured it out?
It’s pretty simple; he’s just comfortable with it, you know? And I’m much more like—I tap dance a little bit more.
Right, I think I read somewhere that you like to not just sit in rehearsal—you like to be wrong a lot, just try things, try things. Was he comfortable with you doing that? Like, flailing a little bit to find your way?
I became a different actor after I started directing, because I would watch people like Laurie Metcalf and the way that they would rehearse and their process, and it was very different than the process that I had, which was a little bit slower and a little bit more private and a little bit more not willing to put myself on the line, though ultimately I would maybe get there. But then I’d watch really great actors who come in and just have idea after idea, and they’re always on a search to give the audience the ride of their lives, from day one. What’s the best choice? What’s the most interesting choice?
A career question: Is it true that when you have a long-running hit like Wicked under your belt, you’re pretty much set financially, and you don’t have to worry and hustle like you might otherwise have to?
It has allowed me to choose the kinds of things that I want to work on; it’s freed me up to do that.
That includes The Boys in the Band, which will be the first show of the next season. Was that a formative show for you, or were you one of those people who was like, “Ech, Boys in the Band”?
More the latter. Ryan Murphy asked me to read it, and I was skeptical, but I have enormous respect for him so I was curious. I thought, Why Boys in the Band now? He said, “Read it like it’s an Albee play.” And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. I always thought of it as this kind of campy period piece, and he encouraged me to think about it in a broader, more timeless way. That did it. I read it like that and I thought, “Oh right, we don’t have to see bell bottoms and long sideburns.”
I know that one reason Mart Crowley wrote the play was to put gay characters onstage at a time when gay playwrights like Albee and Williams were accused of dressing male characters in drag as women. But was Mart inspired by Albee’s work formally as well?
I think so; Boys is clearly a descendant of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I think even he would have to admit that. I do hear from some people, “Why that play? It’s full of self-loathing.” In fact, in some way the characters get blamed and vilified for something that is really a societal response that’s making them act this way. What I love about the play is that now, to experience it in the larger context of, well, we know what happened two years later, we now know what happened two years later, and now 50 years later you have all of these out gay actors who have vibrant, extraordinary careers, and how does that interact with this play? Because that play is full of this inchoate rage; it’s like something’s about to explode. It’s too easy—it’s lazy to say, “Oh, it’s a play about nine gay men who hate themselves.”
I read in a piece about one of your first directing jobs, Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels, that what you brought as a director was that you were more interested in what people do to each other than in the purported themes of the play. That rang true of your work overall—not that the themes don’t emerge, but that’s not where you necessarily focus.
I’m interested in dissecting that. It can be difficult to talk about something until I come out the other side of it, because I tend to not have a kind of intellectual overview of it, for better or for worse. But I have an instinctual feel about it. I am interested in how people affect one another, and I’m also interested in the distance between what people say and what they really mean, and unlocking that.
Right, subtext. I have to say I do think of you as an actor’s director—
I’ll take that.
Do you feel like you switch into a different register when you’re doing musical theatre?
I don’t. I mean, it’s a different kind of a process, because on a musical there are more creative people in the room, smart people in the room that have their own say. On something like this it’s fantastic but it’s a little bit lonely, you know? There are so many collaborators on a musical that there’s kind of—
It’s sort of the blessing and curse of doing a musical.
Right, it’s a lot of cooks. But I tend to like to work on new plays where the playwright is there. I like that. I’m most comfortable with that relationship, one on one with a new play.
So I have to ask you if you’ve seen the new Angels in America.
I saw the final marathon in London at the National.
I liked it.
Is it easy or hard to watch someone else do it?
When I saw the revival Off-Broadway, I saw that on two separate nights. But in London was my first time experiencing a marathon. That was surreal, and particularly at the National, the two people on my left and all the people in front of me, we were all together all day, all these strangers. And there was something about the camaraderie of that, that by the time you got to the end and the house lights—I don’t know if they still do this, but I think the house lights went up as Prior was doing the final speech. The ritual of being together with strangers all day, that wiped me out.
I saw it last week on Broadway and it’s like a sporting event—people were whooping and hollering already as the second part started, which is great to see.
It’s just one of those massive, mammoth pieces that whenever you see it, if it’s done halfway well, and this one is more than that, different things emerge. Marianne Elliott’s take on the angel and heaven is so vastly different than anything that we did and so that effects the entire piece.
I talked to Tony Taccone, who’s directing it in Berkeley next month. Is that a show you want to take a whack at as a director someday?
I thought about doing it once with students; I’d like to do that. If I ever did it, I would want to do it with budget restrictions and students. I think I would be really happy doing it that way. I don’t want a Broadway budget.
And Tony Kushner giving you notes.
I’ve read that the Catholic mass was one of your first theatrical touchstones.
It was maybe a starting point. I do like ritual, and the mass is all about ritual, so I like that. I’m interested in the way—this is not an answer to your question, but there’s a component of directing, and specifically directing on Broadway, that is about math. It’s like for the first week of performances, the scrim would go up and the ladies would be revealed and music would be playing, and you could tell the audience didn’t know whether to applaud; some nights they would kind of applaud. The ability to kind of sit down and figure out, “Okay, this is what needs to happen with the lights, this is when the scrim needs to go, the music needs to finish here,” and then it happens right and they applaud every time. Every time. I like that aspect of problem solving and sometimes it’s just math.
And that can only happen in previews—it’s not something you can do in tech.
There are some things you can’t tell until the audience gets here. You know?