Joe Mantegna Speaks His Mind on Theatre 68, Directing, & the Infamous Comic Mind of Lenny Bruce


Gil Kaan

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic


Theatre 68's world premieres I AM NOT A COMEDIAN…I'M LENNY BRUCE, opening June 23, 2017. With the blessings of Lenny's daughter Kitty Bruce and the Lenny Bruce Foundation, Theatre 68's artistic director Ronnie Marmo has written this solo show reprising his previous 2010 role as Lenny from LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED). Directing Ronnie will be Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna, also known to television viewers as an actor and a director of Criminal Minds.
We managed to persuade Joe to take a few moments from rehearsals to answer a few of our queries.
Thank you for taking a break from your rehearsals for this interview. What specific aspects attracted you to this Theatre 68 production?
Well, my past experience with them. I met Ronnie and some company members years ago in a movie and I really liked their energy. Theatre 68 also reminds me of the Organic Theater out of Chicago. I have a lot of respect for what Ronnie and the company do. They get out there and create content. That's the key to getting anywhere in this business. Don't wait. You just have to get out there and do it. 
Lenny Bruce had a pretty controversial career with his numerous arrests for using obscenities in his act. Were you aware of him in your teenage years?

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Yes, I was well aware of Lenny Bruce. I wound up doing the play LENNY in Chicago in 1974 and understudied the lead part. I remember seeing films of him, although I had never seen him live. I was well aware of what he did, and years later, I did a movie with Richard Pryor. All of the comedians today owe a lot to Lenny because he broke down a lot of barriers. It's taking freedom of speech to its purest definitions.
As a budding actor, what did you think of Lenny Bruce and his routines?
The same way I think about him now. He was a special artist. He wasn't just an artist, he had such social commentary in his humor. He was very unique. A lot of times artists who are breaking ground are not recognized in their own time. Just like Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Lenny Bruce is someone who was much more appreciated later on. No different than Martin Luther King, Jr. People who were killed and vilified, and now, they have a holiday named after them. 
You have been onstage (debuting in a Chicago production of HAIR in 1969) and in front of the camera for years now. When and what made you say, "But what I want to do is direct!"?
I don't know if I have ever said that. It was a natural evolution. I just took to it and I enjoyed it when I did it. I never gave up my day job, so to speak. I've directed in the theater a fair amount of times. I've done eight or nine episodes of Criminal Minds. Once I felt confident about it, I enjoyed it. I'm glad I don't have to make a choice between being just an actor or just a director. 
Was your Tiffany Theater production of David Mamet's LAKEBOAT, with Ed O'Neil and George Wendt in 1994, the first play you directed?
That's a good question. I directed a lot of little things before that. I think this was the first full-length with a full audience. I directed scenes and auditions for people before that. LAKEBOAT the play was successful, and then, we did the film of it after that. I gained a lot of confidence after that. 
What fond memories do you have of that production of LAKEBOAT?
I had a lot of fond memories. I hired a lot of people I knew and respected. I brought in Andy Garcia, Charles Durning, Denis Leary, Peter Falk, Robert Forrester. I had a great cast in the movie as well. I had fond memories of both the play and the film. It was a nice evolution. I'm glad I was able to do both. 
As one who's worked on both sides of the camera, and both on and off the theatre boards; do you feel you have a better understanding or a shorthand communication when speaking to actors you're directing?
Yes, definitely. I have worked with a lot of directors who are actors. There is a certain common language we can speak. There is something to be gained from that. If you have an actor who has a flare for directing, it can cut through a lot to create a nice shorthand. 
Also, as one who's worked on and off stage, what advice would you give to a neophyte auditioning for you?
I would say, it's all about the preparation. Come in as prepared as you can. You won't always get the role. 90% of the time, it has nothing to do with your talent. You must give it your best shot. Most of the time, it has something to do with "you're too short, too tall, etc." You have to come in prepared with the attitude, "I am here to solve your problem." You must be able to take direction, and feel good that you did your best with your preparation. The more prepared you are, the more you can say that this is the best you got. I think if you have decent chops, eventually it will happen for you. It's happened to me, I did things half-ass when I was younger, and I learned from it. You have to go in there and feel that you nailed it. When I bring people in and someone will knock my socks off, but that person may not be the best for the role, I will pull them aside and I will tell them that. I will bring them back three, four or five times and then, finally, they will get something that fits them. You want the reputation of someone who auditions well. Eventually, you will be perfect for the role, and that will lead to something else, and then something else after that. 
What would you like the Theatre 68 audiences to leave with after Ronnie takes his curtain call?
That it was a night well-spent. That they got their money's worth. That it was a better time than staying home or going to the movies. That they liked it enough to tell their friends to see it.
Thank you again, Mr. Mantegna!
For ticket availability and schedule of performances thru July 29, log onto www.Theatre68.com

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