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Mantello has a way with Broadway

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The hottest tickets on Broadway this fall and next spring have one 42-year-old man in common. That's director Joe Mantello, who after guiding the imminent revival of The Odd Couple starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will oversee Julia Roberts' Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, set to begin performances in March.

"I suppose if I chose to sit down and dwell on it, I'd be paralyzed," says Mantello, who began his own Broadway career as an actor. "But at the end of the day, you have block as much of the noise out as possible and try to deliver a quality production. My responsibility is primarily to the actors."

Mantello has juggled a lot of big projects in recent years, with a lot of big names attached. Before directing Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber in last season's acclaimed Glengarry Glenn Ross, he helmed both the smash musical Wicked and Greenberg's Tony Award-winning Take Me Out. Other shows have teamed him with stars such as Edie Falco, Stanley Tucci, Mario Cantone and Alan Cumming.

But Mantello, himself a two-time Tony winner -- for Take Me Out and his 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins -- tends to be drawn to a project more by the name on the script than the one potentially looming over the marquee.

"I lived with a playwright for 12 years," says Mantello, referring to former partner Jon Robin Baitz. "So I know the blood, sweat and tears that go into writing a play.

"I don't see the script as just a springboard for my interpretation. You do your best to serve the vision writers have -- not by removing yourself from the equation, but by trying to filter what they intended through your artistry."

The Odd Couple marks Mantello's second collaboration with Neil Simon, with whom he also worked on 1997's short-lived Proposals. Mantello also directed Lane in the theater and film versions of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! "Directing is too strong a word for what you do with Nathan, though. He's a joy to work with. And Matthew is a friend."

With Roberts, there was a professional connection. "We share an agent, so I know that Julia's been looking for a play." When he read the female role in the three-character Rain, Mantello says, Roberts "popped into my head, but I didn't say anything at first. Then our agent said, 'What do you think of Julia for this part?' And I said, 'Well, that's a coincidence.'"

With his plate full through the end of the season, Mantello says, "I'm trying to stop working. Now I have to believe that I'm the best person for the job -- or at least in the top three -- and to really love the script. You must lead with passion, because actors are smart, and they can smell it when you don't."

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