Death Defying Acts and No One Shall Be Immune
What happens when Mamet meets the supernatural? When the master dramatist of superrealism takes the audience into alternate realities in his two new oneact plays, it almost seems to be a joke. In the last line that we discover "The Interview" takes place in the vestibule to the afterlife;a place for routing attorneys into hell. "No One Will Be Immune" presents an official interviewing a man who averted being killed in a plane crash by disembarking just before the plane took off because of a warning.
By David Mamet
Death Defying Acts
Variety Arts Theatre, New York
March 6, 1995
No One Will Be Immune
By David Mamet
18th Marathon of One Act Plays
Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York
June 2, 1995
What happens when Mamet meets the supernatural? When the master dramatist of superrealism takes the audience into alternate realities in his two new oneact plays, it seems to be a joke—a bad joke. For it is only in the last line that we discover "The Interview" takes place in the vestibule to the afterlife—a place for routing attorneys into hell. "No One Will Be Immune" presents an official interviewing a man who averted being killed in a plane crash by disembarking just before the plane took off. Only in the last line do we realize that his warning came via a UFO. These are unexpected twists for Mamet plots.
In some sense both are plays of misdirection, aided by the directors and designers who make the play seem perfectly Mametesque from the outset. Both present simple sets—a polished desk and two chairs for the first, an old table and two chairs for the second. The sets mislead as do both plays, giving the sense that these are realistic situations. "The Interview" is the first play of Death Defying Acts (with "Central Park West" by Woody Allen and "Hotline" by Elaine May), all directed by Michael Blakemore and designed by Robin Wagner. It has an expensivelooking set: hightech gray walls set on a V with shafts of light falling in areas, the furniture blandly upscale modern. Nothing until the final line gives the audience the sense that this is a supernatural setting.
In "The Interview" even the Attorney (Paul Guilfoyle) does not fully know his situation. At the opening, he sits in silence across the desk from the Attendant (Gerry Becker) and the audience sits too. We all wait for someone to speak. Guilfoyle does great work clearing his throat, shifting his body, getting laughs from the audience as we try to figure out what is going on. Guilfoyle keeps giving openings to the Attendant to speak first. But he does not. The Attorney is forced to begin the interview, and is thereby put on unfamiliar ground, unable to give his own rebuttal to charges. He is forced himself to talk, and the innocent repetition of his own words by the Attendant makes him quickly rethink, back up, try to avoid giving anything away in his previous statement. The fun of the piece is in watching Guilfoyle squirm, first physically, then verbally, as he strives to present himself in the best light.
In "No One Shall Be Immune," directed by Curt Dempster, the characters are even less defined. A is played by David Rasche, and B by Paul Fox. Here B, the official, is more active as a pacing and aggressive interviewer who is trying to get a confession out of A. But A ignores these implicit threats, and instead seems mainly concerned with finding his own buried motives for his past actions.
What is intriguing about A's struggle is that he inarticulately searches for an explanation for disembarking from the airplane that later exploded. The audience watches his struggle to bring to the surface lost or repressed memories. In Rasche's performance, the emphasis is on A's internal struggle to explain an experience which seems beyond his ability to construct in words.
Thus the point of contrast between the two plays is that in the second, A is not trying to cover up a memory or admission, but rather is himself trying to reconstruct what it was that made him disembark from the plane. His attempt seems inarticulate yet honest, as he tries to say he felt in some way warned without being able to explain exactly how. One's sense in this play is that memory/experience is buried and unreachable. In "The Interview" one senses more that once the Attorney lets slip something from the past, he is not trying to recover more of the incident, but rather to cover it up. When the Attendant probes his memories, asking about a buried lawnmower and the advice of a neighbor given to the Attorney as a child, the Attorney then redefines what happened, as if covering up any slip he might have made that would reveal him in a negative light.
The two plays contrast almost as much as Oleanna and The Cryptogram do. In "No One Shall Be Immune" reality is all in the present. The past and buried memory/experience are barely glimpsed through a glass darkly. This is closer to modernism, in which the surface of a character is a mask for hidden depths. It also resembles The Cryptogram in its reliance on buried memories which makes present reality unclear and unknowable. By contrast "The Interview" is more like Oleanna in which John and Carol both know what happened in the past, but struggle for control of its interpretation in the present. There is no sense that these past events are murky or undefined, but rather that they are differently construed in the present.
Both oneacts, however, start out treating the audience as any other realistic construction, as combination Peeping Tom and objective judge. But the negative judgments that the audience makes of the Attorney, as he tries to construct himself in the best light, are turned upon ourselves at the conclusion when we discover he is not being judged for the reasons we were judging him— that was an imposition of our own ideology onto the play. Instead, his final judgment is that he is guilty and sentenced to hell not for what he did or didn't do in the past, nor for the way he depicts it in the present, but because of what he is—a lawyer.
The shock to the audience at the end is not that a joke has been played upon us, but more—we thought we knew the rules. The expensive, abstract office set should allow us the realistic privilege of watching and judging in safety. But the ending turns the joke back at us: the judgments we make are simply indications of who we are. And for that we too will be judged.
In "No One Shall Be Immune" the title itself reveals the aim of the work toward the audience. While we watch the machinations of the Attorney in "The Interview" with some detachment, seeing only the more slippery and evasive parts of the self in him, A's struggles are more engaging. We listen to his sincere attempt to say what has happened, and we put together clues from what he says. We construct some kind of rational explanation, only to have the ending laugh in our face to say it was a UFO experience that gave him subliminal warnings that took him off the plane. Once again, our privileged position as outside judge is turned against us; we are laughed at for so misconstruing what was going on.
Both productions, therefore, play metatheatrical games with the audience, in the end forcing us to the recognition that we can't know hidden depths of the other as all the conventions of realism had promised we could.
DAVID KENNEDY SAUER
Spring Hill College