Mr. Mantello's Wild Ride : He had the 'role of a lifetime' in 'Angels in America.' So why is Joe Mantello putting his acting aside? Here's a clue: His other theatrical love is directing.

Joe Mantello has a ready metaphor for the dizzying theatrical season he has enjoyed since last fall: the Cyclone at Coney Island.

The actor and director had occasion to take a ride on the legendary roller-coaster just before rehearsals began on "What's Wrong With This Picture?," the Donald Margulies drama that Mantello directed and that turned out to be a disaster, the first big Broadway flop of the '94-95 season. The ride was still on his mind months later as his production of Terrence McNally's new play, "Love! Valour! Compassion!," also made its way to Broadway--successfully, it would turn out--after receiving rave reviews in a sold-out run at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

"You get on this rickety old thing, this death trap, and you're just convinced that you're never going to survive this ride," Mantello says of his Coney Island adventure and his recent professional life. "You're bonding with people because you're showing them how vulnerable you are, screaming your head off and making all kinds of promises if you'll just get back alive. Then the roller-coaster comes to a stop. And there's something thrilling about it. And you think, 'OK. Maybe I'll get back in line and do it again.' "

Only 32 years old, Mantello is one of the new Young Turks of theater. He makes his West Coast debut as a director on Thursday when "Three Hotels," Jon Robin Baitz's drama of a disintegrating marriage, opens at the Mark Taper Forum starring Richard Dreyfuss and Christine Lahti. Yet many theatergoers already know him from his role as Louis Ironson in the Los Angeles and New York productions of Tony Kushner's acclaimed "Angels in America," parts I and II. His sensitive portrayal of the tortured soul who abandons his dying lover won him a Tony nomination (for part II, "Perestroika").

"What's Wrong With This Picture" and "Love! Valour! Compassion!" were Mantello's first big projects following his success in "Angels." "Picture" was a domestic black comedy about a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and "Love!" was a bittersweet Chekhovian tale of eight gay men weekending together during a summer fraught with AIDS, sex, camaraderie and life's fragility. Their dramatically different outcomes hold an important lesson for him.

"It was humbling," Mantello says of the twin demons of success and failure in theater. "I understood that I was not the best director in the world nor the worst director in the world. I realized that there is a very mysterious element to what works and what doesn't work in the theater. And it's good to know that from the beginning."

These days, Mantello has no lack of opportunities to plumb those mysteries. After "Three Hotels" opens--for which Mantello will be repeating chores he first performed in a widely praised 1993 production at New York's Circle Repertory Company--he heads back to Manhattan to direct the Atlantic Theater Company's revival of Craig Lucas' "Blue Window," which will open later this spring. Indeed, he says he's committed through the summer to directing various projects.

One might expect the Italian American Mantello--who describes his emotions as "somewhat operatic"--to be at least slightly rattled by high-profile pressures these days. But on a recent afternoon in the casual and cozy Chelsea flat he shares with Robbie Baitz--another Bright Young Man of the theater and his lover of the last four and a half years--Mantello is the personification of calm.

Sitting on an overstuffed couch in a room filled with dark wood and paintings done by friends, Mantello sips a cup of tea. In the course of an interview, he frequently knits his dark Mediterranean features in thoughtful deliberation. Occasionally, a sly remark or a puppy-dog smile breaks through. He raises his voice only to reprimand Hudson, a large furry black cat who shares these premises with Baitz and Mantello and has a curious craving for stamps.

"Hudson! Get out of there!" Mantello shouts, as the animal rummages through a desk. Lithe and small-framed, the actor-director bounds up from his chair to grab the cat just before he runs away with a strip of first-class postage. When a photographer shows up shortly afterward, Hudson can't stay outside of camera range. According to Mantello, the cat's love of stamps is superseded only by his love of publicity.

Hudson's co-owner, on the other hand, appears to have a far less obtrusive approach in both his personality and in his work. "Keeping it simple" is how he describes his credo as a director, which is a little surprising for someone who came to prominence in a play that featured a dazzling angel crashing through a ceiling.

"I certainly think there is a place in the theater for the helicopter to descend and for the chandelier to come crashing down," Mantello says, "but I don't know how to do that. I always think there is something more exciting about a bare stage, no matter how much money there might be in the budget."

Mantello's style tends to elevate the mundane into something of a sacrament. "When I first talked to Terrence about 'Love!,' he mentioned it in terms of 'Boys in the Band,' but I thought it was closer to a gay 'Our Town,' " says Mantello, who took over the production after veteran director Jerry Zaks split with McNally over creative differences. "The play had its origins in Wilder in terms of storytelling and the small moments that make up a life and that sense of community."

It isn't surprising then that Mantello should choose to give dramatic import to the details and minutiae in both "Love!" and "Three Hotels." In the former, it is a very ordinary heroism that provides solace and redemption in the face of life's Big Questions. And in "Three Hotels," a man and woman retrace their steps to discover for themselves how an idealistic marriage could sour so completely.

Mantello, who once aspired to be a painter, says that his work often begins by the conjuring up of a "visual gesture" that unlocks the play for him. In Baitz's "Three Hotels," Mantello says that he thought it was important to visually capture the poignancy of two people who love each other but who have grown apart through a conspiracy of silence and self-denial. Thus, in between the three monologues that make up the evening, the actors can be seen in the lowered lights nearly colliding as they move on and off the stage.

"These people are very far away from the core of who they are as people," says Mantello of a Peace Corps worker-turned-corporate bully and his long-suffering wife. "When you create for yourself an identity that is completely made up and constructed, you are capable of doing almost anything."

T here appears to be little danger of that happening to Mantello, the oldest of three boys whose parents, an accountant and housewife, nurtured a strong sense of self in their sons. One younger brother is a painter, the other is in college. "I was always rather outspoken," recalled Mantello of his growing up. "I worried about what people thought of me but there really wasn't room for a lot of self-doubt."

Though his grandparents were second-generation Italian Americans, Mantello's family was almost fully assimilated into a culture of "Pop-Tarts, Cheez Whiz and the Brady Bunch." Any anxieties stemming from the dissonance of being an emotional Italian in a WASP-y and repressive Illinois suburb were resolved through theater. "Here I was in the suburbs with the Smiths and the Jones, and my temperament was very Mantello, very Italian," he says. "I wasn't in sync with them."

What he could relate to was his Roman Catholicism. "We attended Mass at a cathedral in South Rockford," recalls Mantello. "It was pure theater. I wasn't sure what was going on but it was larger than me and larger than life. There's something of that sense of the mysterious and mystical that translates to theater along with the pageantry and ritual."

Attending North Carolina School of the Arts, Mantello planned a career in regional theater. The detour to New York came about at an annual get-together of the North Carolina graduating class with agents, casting directors and other professionals. "I got an agent through that," says Mantello, adding that he never did actually graduate from college. "The classes were too early."

The aspiring actor banged around New York with little success, starting a small, now-defunct repertory company with a group of friends. The core included his North Carolina classmates actors K. Todd Freeman and Mary-Louise Parker, and writer Peter Hedges, whose novel "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" was made into a movie. "It was there," says Mantello, "through my friend, Peter Hedges, that I learned about the relationship between the audience and the actor. The purity of it. Peter taught me to trust that, so that to this day, as a director, I never add anything to that unless it enhances it."

Falling between the cracks as a "type," Mantello the actor wasn't getting much paying work. "Circle Rep sort of saved me," he says. It was in that company's lab program, which operates outside of commercial pressures, where he not only began appearing in such plays as Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz," but where he also got to try his hand at directing. His first credit, in 1989, was "Imagining Brad," a play by Hedges, which went so well that Mantello began to imagine shifting his career altogether to directing.

Two years later, the actor-director also joined Naked Angels, a socially hip downtown experimental theater company. Then a friend suggested to him that he audition for the lead role in a new play by Tony Kushner: "Angels in America."

"Tony had seen me in 'The Baltimore Waltz' and asked me to do a reading of 'Perestroika,' " recalls Mantello of the beginning of his three-year involvement with the landmark production. "It was the role of a lifetime. People are always asking me what's next and though I go project by project, if I had to choose between acting and directing, I'd be a director. I've been spoiled as an actor by 'Angels.' "

Before "Angels" changed his life, however, Mantello met Robbie Baitz. A year later, they agreed to work together on a benefit production of Baitz's "Four Monologues" at Naked Angels and their romantic involvement began shortly thereafter. Mantello insisted on a rider to the relationship, however. They would avoid working together in the future.

"Robbie was so much better established than I was and I was insecure about that," says the director. Baitz's credits then included the well-received 1989 play "The Film Society," and his 1991 Off Broadway hit "Substance of Fire."

"I made it clear to him that I didn't need or want to be in his plays or want or need to direct his plays," Mantello recalls. "I'd do it on my own."

Of course, it wasn't long before the problem of career imbalances between the two was no longer an issue. In the case of Mantello directing Baitz's "Three Hotels," the playwright already had already staged a production of it at Vassar when Mantello first decided to direct it, at Circle Rep in 1993, with Ron Rifkin and Christine Lahti in the starring roles.

"I had seen the play so much more about the problems of identity and the nature of lying," says Baitz. "Joe was more interested in what people mean to each other, what they do to each other and to this yearning that exists between people. When (playwright) Lanford Wilson saw the (first) version, he said, 'Oh, this is about a woman who destroys her husband.' After he saw Joe's version, he said, 'Now it's really a play about a woman who saves her husband's life.'

"Joe made the material thaw out. And by that, I include me. What's true of the play is true to the idiom of our relationship as well."

Last October, in a talked-about profile on the front page of the New York Times Sunday arts section, Mantello and Baitz were admiringly characterized as a power couple in the theater. The article, accompanied by a large photograph of them exuding domestic tranquillity, was hailed as a high-water mark in Gay Liberation.

"Larry Kramer (the gay activist) phoned on the day it came out and went on and on about how proud he was," says Mantello with a philosophic shrug. "You know, hyperbolic Larry."

Being crowned Couple of the Moment, however, was beside the point, says Mantello. "I'm smart enough to understand fads," he explains. "And I also understand longevity. I'm in (this relationship) for the long haul."

As conversation turns to the comparative dynamics of gay and straight relationships, the front door of the apartment swings open and Baitz, bundled against the late winter cold, quietly enters.

"We're talking about the differences between gay and straight relationships," Baitz is told after he sheds his muffler and jacket. "Oh, I think it's all the same."

"I don't," offers Mantello.

"I know you don't," Baitz replies, with a sardonic edge in his voice.

"This is going to sound awful," says Mantello, when Baitz leaves the room, "but as boys, we're taught about power and about conquering and about achievement in different terms than I think women are. So when you have two men together, it can be--though not always--combustible. I don't think it's just coincidental that gay women tend to stay together for long periods of time, whereas men are always out there, hunting."

What is key to navigating those combustible issues in a gay relationship, adds Mantello, is the willingness of one or both parties to yield and compromise in the face of two clashing male egos.

Such clashes are among the things that the director has explicitly explored in his work. In "Love!," Mantello staged nude scenes that garnered much publicity and were charged with making gay audiences a bit uncomfortable. But Mantello says it was really the laying bare of gay relationships--and power struggles--that caused the problem.

"The nudity was never an issue during rehearsals," said the director. "It's a group of men, living in a house over the summer, so you would expect it. It's not exploitative. But the differences in responses between gays in the audience and straights in the audience have been really interesting.

"This isn't scientific," he adds, "but heterosexuals tend to embrace 'Love!' as a loving and friendly play. It's gay men who are ill at ease, and you see them looking around during the play, checking everybody's response to this absolutely candid portrait that Terrence has created. It's audacious and there's this sense among gay men that Terrence is giving away our secrets."

While the couples in "Love!" relentlessly claw beneath the surfaces to grasp at the truth, the two in "Three Hotels" have spent almost their entire married life afraid to look too deeply. Yet, for Mantello, it is important that the audience believe that they love each other. Otherwise, he explained, "it's just a cynical, bitter play."

Indeed, one telling directorial touch that Mantello added to "Three Hotels"--the image of the wife holding a candle--keeps the audience aware of the ties that bind the couple even as their marriage falls apart. "In the lobby afterward," Mantello says, "I always heard people debating whether they had gotten back together or they had remained apart."

And Mantello's opinion? "I don't know," he responded. "Theater isn't there to provide answers. Only possibilities. I just ask the questions. But I believe hope comes from the fact that there is a potential for redemption. At the core, that's what matters in the theater I'm attracted to. Do we dare to hope? Do we allow ourselves to hope?"

* Three Hotels, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends April 30. $28-$35.50. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000, TDD (213) 680-4017).

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction Theater credits--Actor-director Joe Mantello was nominated for a Tony for the role of Louis Ironson in "Angels in America" Part I ("Millennium Approaches"), not Part II ("Perestroika"), as was reported last Sunday. "The Film Society," by Jon Robin Baitz, premiered in 1988 rather than 1989.
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