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No One Will Be Immune: Five Pieces for the Theatre

Throughout “No One Will Be Immune” (as well as throughout the other four pieces), Mamet drives home the point that (an) A tries to be as specific as he can about what he knows while (a) B interprets what A says and then attempts to fill in the blanks. This process of filling in the blanks will result in "an other story," as we are warned earlier by A. And so, A's "plan" becomes a "fantasy" under B's questioning.

NO ONE WILL BE IMMUNE: FIVE

PIECES FOR THEATRE

By David Mamet

Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York City. 27 March 1996.

Of particular interest in EST's program of five Mamet one acts and monologues (in celebration of the Ensemble's twenty-fifth anniversary) is the overall production's grasp of the playwright's humor and, in particular, an exceptional presentation (and New York premiere) of Joseph Dintenfass, a one act play that highlights the themes of recent full-length plays such as Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna, and The Cryptogram . The other four works, including one world premiere, Sunday Afternoon, capture Mamet's on-going explorations into pedantry, ambiguous situations, and the human gift for filling in the blanks to make meaning.

The evening opens with “A Sermon,” one of three pieces that highlights Mamet's humor. In this monologue, a clergyman delivers a Sunday sermon made up of bizarre metaphors and analogies that lead to and result from wild digressions about human insensitivity and aggression. Playing up the seldom evoked absurd side of Mamet, David Rasche, as the clergyman, encourages the audience to laugh at the minister while he dabbles in breaking the fourth wall. Rasche utilizes the close quarters of the theatre to make frequent eye contact with the audience-congregation, and he continues to straddle the fourth wall even when the laughter makes the audience uneasy—particularly at the moment when the spectators realize that the clergyman is the one in need of faith: "We all know what it is to call on powers—and let's pray that they exist—far greater than ourselves."

But Rasche and director Curt Dempster's approach sacrifices an understanding of the minister's comments. Although the clergyman is pedantic in his language and examples (he uses a word like mucilage and speaks of "stiff construction-paper Indians and pumpkins of experience"), there is insight in his outrage. He should not be embarrassed, as Rasche plays it, to repeat the "Fuck you" in an anecdote about people laughing at a man accidentally breaking his nose on a door. Rather, one should be rightly appalled that "Fuck you" is all the man can say after searching for a response.

The theme of the failure in and of language is also explored in “Sunday Afternoon.” Another pedantic intellectual, "A" (played wonderfully with obsessive self-interest by David Margulies), takes his listener, "B" (Rasche), on a tortuous path of reasoning that begins with a shame over his own legs leading to his rejection of all shorts and, after getting lost in his own ideas, ends with his surmising that a (hypothetical) man's obsession with finding a star affects "some world." Dempster's wise positioning of “Sunday Afternoon” after “A Sermon” illustrates how much humans are like the yak mentioned by the latter's clergyman: an animal that "knows it should make a sound, but has no idea what that sound is supposed to be."

The humorous presentation of the pedantics is played up to the detriment of what Mamet reaches for in A's thought, however, and to the detriment of Mamet's presentation of the inarticulateness that characterizes most of our explanations of our actions. Also, the humor that Margulies and Rasche generate in their philosophical discussion never successfully modulates into the tension of A's physical and verbal fumbling over C's (Elaine Bromka) injury to her thumb. The play turns on A’s revulsion over C's bleeding on the ham even though A has done "much more. . . intimate things with her." Perhaps the failure of the new piece is in the extreme abstraction of the situation; in “Sunday Afternoon” Mamet's ambiguity does not work.

A desire for meaning, for a land and a community, pulls the title character to the countryside in “Joseph Dintenfass,” the most accomplished piece in the program. Unlike the other one acts and monologues, this playlet has named characters in a barely disguised New England countryside. The situation is based on an American myth: the writer who, after achieving great success, retires to the country to work but stalls just as his self-exile is taken as a sign of profound wisdom by his fans. As in Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna, and The Cryptogram, Mamet harnesses the American myth and the creation of a distinct setting to give meaning to his use of ambiguity in “Joseph Dintenfass.” This clarity of context allows for the ambiguous action between the characters to become provocatively dramatic.

Joseph Dintenfass (played with classic Mametian restraint by James Murtaugh) is hosting Michael and his girlfriend Claire (Kristina Lear, in the evening's strongest performance) for the weekend. The action of the play is the encounter between Joseph and Claire after Michael has gone to bed. What happens between the characters that they and we must interpret is a kiss: a goodnight kiss or a desiring kiss.

As in Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna , the male uses his power to punish the female for arousing in him a confession or a self-confession of his desire for her or, more importantly for Mamet's men, a desire for a self free from the strictures of society, free from how a man is supposed to act. It is the latter that is more embarrassing for the American male, more revealing of his vulnerability, since illicit desire for a woman actually reinforces the "manliness" of the American male. As in the full-length plays, it is Joseph's social position as artist, which he at first wishes to shirk but finally reassumes, that enables him to punish Claire for her exposure of his private self.

But Claire, like many of Mamet's recent female characters, is quickly approaching or is at Joseph's level of awareness, which is achieved, according to Mamet's theatre, through one's social position. Claire, not Joseph, echoes the ideas presented in the previous pieces, saying that an impulse "comes into our head from somewhere and we act on it, however we do, and. In some way it affects those around us. And then . . . And then it is in them. Beyond them—in their mind. In their understanding of the way things are." (Mamet plays with this "impulse" being real, but extraterrestrial, in “No One Will Be Immune.”) And it is Claire who says that "we insulate ourselves about a new experience"—we protect ourselves from the new by interpreting it in old ways, in the terms of our obsessions. But Claire also wants to change herself and the world, which is the naive position in Mamet's universe.

In EST's production, Claire is ignorant of the desire she arouses in Joseph by kissing him goodnight, an action which prompts Joseph to punish her. Upon rereading the script ( No One Will Be Immune and Other Plays and Pieces , NY: Dramatist Play Service, 1994, pp. 91-105), however, I came to see this as an obvious and not an essential reading of the characters' behavior. It is also very likely that Claire consciously pries into Joseph's sexual desire; she gives the host enough hints that she is using Michael only to meet Joseph and to satisfy his needs. But Joseph's fears and weakness make him retreat into his status as artist-philosopher. He denies the kiss meant anything by denying that anything means anything: "They were just 'stories.' They were just things people said. There was no, there was no magic in them." If one puts Claire in the progression of female characters Mamet has written in the 1990s, culminating with Donny in The Cryptogram , one might make Claire's "I'm sorry" at the end of the play an act of power instead of acquiescence.

The ambiguity of meaning in adult interaction that is at the center of “Joseph Dintenfass”  could have carried over nicely in “Almost Done”, a "monologue for a woman" (of an unspecified age). The piece, which is about the speaker's "thinking ahead" to when she and her father will be home, can be situated in a variety of settings: perhaps at the fire so warmly promised her by her father, or at a later date after she has had a child. Mamet's stage directions indicate that the woman "is talking to her child. The child is not on stage." Hence, the child may not actually exist in the woman's life. Dempster and actor Elaine Bromka make the speaker a grown woman and the offstage child a "real" presence; their decision turns the element of school-girl histrionics about what it could feel like finally to have a baby into middle-aged melodrama ("What release! I would feel release, a long release. Yes, this is done, now this is finally done. I have had my child. I am delivered.") . The result at EST is that Mamet's experiment with time becomes a touching piece about motherhood and the passing on of experience.

The evening concludes with “No One Will Be Immune,” staged and directed as it had been previously during EST's One Act Plays in June 1995 (see DMR , Fall 1995, 8-9). The piece succeeds in its use of David Rasche's comic portrayal of "A," while it falls short in Bryon Jennings's earnest and angry prosecutor "B." Kert Lundell's scenic emphasis on the hardness and coldness of interrogation rooms also misfires; Lundell might have chosen to complete the wood paneling "motif" he effectively establishes in the previous sets (here, a sympathetic but impersonal space of a pedantic psychologist's office might work well); as a design concept, the choice of simulated wood paneling by Mamet's Americans seems to expresses the simulated selves that many adopt as they attempt to make meaning of their lives.

In Dempster's production, Jennings's B storms at Rasche's literal minded yet seemingly inoffensive A, using even the cliche of photographic evidence of the plane crash in an attempt to make A, the suspected terrorist, crack. But, as is the case with producing Mamet's works, the degree to which one departs from the power of the action can be problematic. For example, it would have been a little more pernicious and disturbing if B, by linking A's departure from the plane to the plane's crashing, had been seemingly sympathetic to A, if not parental and helpful. A velvet glove approach (especially when B tries to calm A by repeating "It's all right") would make the steel fist of B's brainwashing of A all the more disturbing.

Rasche's superb comedic timing lends power to A's ultimate mental collapse, as the humor chillingly modulates into tension. Starting out as yet another pedantic character, A is funny and witty in his dissection of language and its shortcomings, only to become confused by the interpretation of his impressions and actions.

Throughout “No One Will Be Immune” (as well as throughout the other four pieces), Mamet drives home the point that (an) A tries to be as specific as he can about what he knows while (a) B interprets what A says and then attempts to fill in the blanks. This process of filling in the blanks will result in "an other story," as we are warned earlier by A. And so, A's "plan" becomes a "fantasy" under B's questioning, "in the field" becomes "Up in the Country," and a light at night becomes a nightlight from A's childhood. What was "ambiguous to say the least" becomes, quite logically, worked out through B's questions. The horror is that this is the process of Coming to Know, as Mamet might write, that we all share and from which no one is immune.

GREG WOODRUFF

SUNY at Stony Brook