‘Couple’ continues helmer’s hot streak

Featured Player: Joe Mantello

NEW YORK — Versatility on Broadway usually means combined singing, dancing and acting skills, but the most versatile talent in New York theater right now might be director Joe Mantello.

The A-list legit directors’ club is a relatively small group, including Jack O’Brien, Mike Nichols, Daniel Sullivan and Doug Hughes. But arguably no one has notched up such an impressive track record over the past three seasons as former actor Mantello.

From an intimate two-hander to a solo standup, from all-male ensemblers to a girl-centric mega-musical, Mantello not only has been uncommonly prolific, switching genres with ease, but has consistently fostered either commercially or critically successful productions — and quite often both.

After helming the razor-sharp revival of David Mamet’s iconic drama of real estate sharks, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which this month scored two Tony awards , Mantello next up will revisit Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” reteaming the duo that made “The Producers” a gargantuan hit, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Beginning previews Oct. 4 at the Brooks Atkinson, the play already is shaping up to be the major success of the fall. Even before tickets went on general release, group sales and the first block of American Express exclusives had totaled a whopping $12 million, hinting that the limited run through March could sell out before the show even opens.

Tickets are not on sale to the general public until July 5, making an extension almost certain, depending on the stars’ availability.

Clearly, auds are hungry for a bona fide comedy — once a Broadway staple but largely unrepresented since “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” closed in 2002. And the bid to recapture the Lane-Broderick magic makes for a potent box office brew.

“There’s some alchemy that audiences respond to when you put these two actors together,” says Mantello. “I’m aware we’ll be mounting this production under a microscope. It’s that lightning-in-a-bottle effect that you’re trying to capture again. ‘The Producers’ was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you have to do the best you can and trust it will work out.”

“It’s important that we deal with this like the classic comedy it is, and not summer stock that we’re shoving these actors into to make a buck,” he adds. Mantello’s output of the past handful of seasons could hardly have been more eclectic.

In addition to “Glengarry,” consider the career path from Terrence McNally’s anti-glamour romance “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” to Richard Greenberg’s tale of a star baseballer’s emergence from the closet, “Take Me Out,” to Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and McNally’s chamber musical about a humble Dublin bus conductor, “The Man of No Importance.”

Then came the witches of Oz backstory, “Wicked,” followed by Stephen Sondheim’s dark rumination on violence in American history, “Assassins,” and Mario Cantone’s comic crucifixion of celebrity and family, “Laugh Whore.”.

“If there’s a pattern there, it’s unknown to me,” laughs Mantello. “I learned a while back simply to follow my instincts. I just try to take everything on its own terms. For me, it’s also about having a good time.”

Perhaps the biggest leap for the director was going from a background mostly in plays to an elaborately staged musical like “Wicked.” The Stephen Schwartz tuner drew mixed reviews when it opened in New York but has since become a cultural phenomenon.

Mantello earlier this year launched the show’s touring company in Toronto. This month, he segues from fine-tuning the Los Angeles bow to shepherding the Chicago production through its opening week. While some foreign stagings will be directed by associates, Mantello plans to mount the London production himself, likely to come together for the 2006-07 season.

“A few years ago, I had mostly done new plays, so I made a conscious decision I wanted to do musicals,” says Mantello. “I like the camaraderie of several people in a room pulling a show together, and I like the writer, especially, to be involved. It’s not quite as lonely.”

Mantello received his first Tony nomination in 1993 not as director but as an actor in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” But he shows little nostalgia for that profession, which now seems like field research for his grown-up job.

“Having been an actor serves me by giving me a sensitivity to the process of creating a role, but it can also be detrimental,” he confesses. “I know enough to help the actor, but sometimes I know too much, so impatience will set in.”

Mantello has no firm plans for a show to follow “The Odd Couple” but would like to do another musical.

However, given the long developmental process involved in birthing a tuner, expediency dictates that the tireless director is eyeing candidates for revival instead. How long his unbroken hot streak can be maintained is something on which Mantello doesn’t much care to speculate.

“It’s probably not possible to maintain it forever, and inevitably, there’s going to be a fall,” he says. “But I’m not really interested in playing that game. I’m just grateful for the string I’ve had.

“I don’t think of my career, I just think of what’s the next thing that catches my eye,” continues Mantello. “You have to accept that it’s a rollercoaster and not get morally bankrupt by constantly asking ‘How am I doing?’ “

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