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Dangerous Corners

Mamet directs J.B. Priestly's play. In this play of psychological intrigue, Mamet strips Priestley's wordy text to its bare essentials, creating a sparseness that actually heightens the original's dramatic tension and characters' motivations.


By J. B. Priestley. Adapted and directed by David Mamet.

Atlantic Theater Company, New York City

22 November 1995.

During the tenth anniversary season of the Atlantic Theater Company ( 1994-96), David Mamet, a co-founder of the Off-Broadway ensemble, adapted and directed his severely streamlined production of J. B. Priestley's sixty-three year-old realist play, Dangerous Corner . The New York production is actually the second one for Mamet's revision; the ATC premiered the work during the summer of 1995 at the Burlington City Arts Festival, Vermont. It is not difficult to see what attracted Mamet to Priestley's play: a character's reference to a single object (a cigarette box) sets off a seemingly endless number of associations for the six characters at Freda and Robert Chatfield's country home—those present are stymied by a possible link between the death of one of their group and a theft at the host's publishing firm. Not unlike the buffalo head nickel that carries significant meaning and value for the men in Mamet's American Buffalo , the cigarette box—as well as its former owner, the recent suicide victim Martin Chatfield—provide the central frame of reference through which each of the characters comes to (re)define his/her relationship to the others. The value of an object, finally, is relative; the context within which the object exists between people and the kinds of relationships it serves to define become the contested areas of meaning and intimacy. And it is dead Martin—like absent Bobby in The Cryptogram — who controls the onstage action through his absence.

Post-dinner conversation in the Chatfield's garden (Mamet's, not Priestley's, location) proves to be most revealing: the hostess Freda confesses love for her dead brother-in-law Martin (and her gift to him of the cigarette box); Olwen admits her love for Freda's husband (and her boss) Robert; Robert confesses his love for Betty (his sister-in-law), only to find out that Betty is having an affair with Stanton (one of Robert's publishing partners); and not to be left behind, Gordon, Betty's husband, reveals his bisexuality and undying love for the deceased Martin. The unmasking of a whole history of lies that exists among the group of adults is prompted by the gradual unraveling of the history of Martin's cigarette box. No character is without secrets in the play and a passionate commitment to protect those secrets since only through lies is there hope that one's fantasies can be realized. But the revelers' ongoing drinking and subsequently loosened tongues free them to confess.

Time, history, and memory all intertwined with desire, repulsion, deception, and hypocrisy quickly surface as features within Priestley's play that define his characters' relationships, their actions, and their world; they are also features that capture Mamet's imagination both as writer and director.

"Life has dangerous corners if you don't choose your route well," remarks Stanton, whose image captures the dangers— the untidy messes—that surface in private and public lives when the games of infatuation, sex, and love collide. Mamet's language is marked by constant starts and jolts, twists and turns. Sentences become roadways that lead characters' thoughts down routes that can clarify, confuse, complete, or clash with one another. More often than not, one's sentences are halted by self-inflicted "stop signs," depending upon whether lies are to be elaborated upon or truths abruptly squelched. Mamet masterfully paces the actors' dialogue to heighten—through language usage and delivery—the circuitous nature of the characters' shifting relationships to one another, their desire for safe passage, free from conflict and responsibility, when communicating (however evasively) with others. Mamet's keen ear for vocal precision is matched by a piercing eye for striking, complementary movement: in a wooden latticed, multilevel set that expansively fills the open stage's proscenium (skillfully designed by James Wolk), Mamet positions his actors in opposite "corners" of the stage itself (actually he fills corners repeatedly throughout the production) or on select set pieces (a bench, swing, or porch) where they spar with words, moving toward and away from one another like seasoned fighters (or is it sequestered jurors?)—never physically touching one another, but maintaining a bodily energy that appears ready to burst through Laura Cunningham's sleek costumes at any minute. But, of course, as upper middle class decorum dictates, such spontaneity among the characters is repressed.

In this play of psychological intrigue, Mamet strips Priestley's wordy text to its bare essentials, creating a sparseness that actually heightens the original's dramatic tension and characters' motivations. Unfortunately, the ATC's acting, quite surprisingly, is noticeably uneven. Outstanding, however, are Felicity Huffman as Freda and Rebecca Pidgeon as Olwen, both of whom speak Mamet's language with effortless poignancy and immediacy. Their performances center the production's style and tone; their work consistently grounds any show in which they appear. Overall, Mamet scores brilliantly with his adaptation and direction of Priestley's play; he cuts no corners to ensure the inherent effectiveness and integrity of the 1932 play's dramatic and theatrical values.


New York University