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The Woods in New York

First performed in 1977 the play concerns a young couple’s weekend at a lakeside cabin. Mamet had banned New York productions of the play in 1985. In December 1996, however, Mamet unexpectedly lifted the ban and granted production rights to young producer and actor Danielle Kwatinetz.

By David Mamet
Willful Productions, The Producer’s Club, New York City
24 January 1997

First performed in 1977, David Mamet’s play about a young couple’s weekend at a lakeside cabin had not been seen in New York in over ten years. This was due to a ban imposed on New York productions of the play by Mamet in 1985. In December 1996, however, Mamet unexpectedly lifted the ban and granted production rights to young producer and actor Danielle Kwatinetz. The resultant special engagement at the intimate Producer’s Club played to enthusiastic sold-out houses and showcased the work of two solid young actors, Kwatinetz (Ruth) and Eric Martin Brown (Nick), and of set designer Devorah Herbert. Herbert’s spare but elegant set featured a porch composed of simple horizontal and vertical beams. Completely surrounding the porch, a thick cover of dead leaves crunched underfoot when walked upon, contributing an almost magical layer of realism, as well as an eerie symbolism, to the otherwise stark production. “All things come from the ground,” says Ruth in The Woods, later adding that they also all “decay and wash away.” The porch functioned visually as an island in this sea of dead leaves, an attempted refuge from decaying and washing away, but one that ultimately proves impossible.

Herbert’s vision was enhanced by Dan and Chris Scully’s subtle lighting design, and by Ray Ru’s quietly effective sound design. Actors Kwatinetz and Brown deftly handled the precision of the language, capitalizing on the rhythm and repetition of the text, weaving the words into the intricate image patterns while never allowing the language to seem overwrought, nor the numerous pauses to come across as awkward or forced.

In the opening minutes of the play, the actors ably established a feeling of stillness, of stasis, of time passing and nothing moving, while still keeping their characters fully alive and interesting. To achieve this balance, director David Travis wisely kept blocking to a bare minimum, so that there was little unnecessary physical movement to distract from the movement of the language. Also beautifully conveyed was the desperate attempt by each of the characters to make reality somehow conform to the images and stories they told each other—stories of a bear who came back to her cave after a house was built on top of it; of a man who was taken up by Martians and released; of a young girl caught out in the rain, but saved by her parents. But just as the stories failed to construct, or even relate to, the reality at hand, the two lovers ultimately failed to communicate or to connect. This inability to come together was emphasized by the constant reiteration of images of falling—of falling from great distances, of falling down or of falling away, and of rain constantly falling. The elegant simplicity of image patterns such as this one allows the actors themselves to function merely as a vehicle for the images. Kwatinetz and Brown speak Mamet’s lines so that the images remain suspended on the surface, letting the words ripple out and the patterns emerge.

Only in Nick’s sudden sexual advance on Ruth, menacingly played by Brown, did the acting leap into the foreground, with results detrimental to the play. Brown’s Nick seemed to transform into a completely different character, leading to a jarring transition. The violence, rather than surfacing from some place deep inside, from some primal instinct, seemed merely tacked on. Equally startling but far more effective was a shift that came slightly later, when the lyrical language of the play suddenly erupted into harsh vulgarities. Brown exuded a raw but suppressed anger as Nick tells Ruth “I want to fuck you” and touches off an extended verbal sparring match. His growing ferocity was equally matched by Kwatinetz, as the shouting escalated with such exchanges as “You’re Goddamn-right. . . . Shut up. . . . There are no men. . . . Shut up. . . . You don’t know dick” and ends with Nick’s pronouncement that “talk is cheap. This sentiment. You’re nothing.” This sudden explosion of explicit language into a play whose language had been quiet, calm, and poetic, was well handled by the actors, for unlike Nick’s earlier attack on Ruth, the violence seemed to emerge quite naturally, from a place that had not actually been absent in the previous scenes, but was merely hidden below the surface, awaiting a chance to erupt. When, following this interruption, the language returned to its former controlled state, the undercurrent of left-over tension, though suppressed, was nonetheless palpable.

The sudden intrusion of language seemingly imported from Mamet’s more explicit plays such as American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross emphasized that in spite of Ruth’s idealization of the country, the cabin is not a real refuge, and they cannot escape from the violence and decay. The Woods ended with a bed-time story, but the final reconciliation remained uncomfortably tempered by the violent core we now knew to be hiding beneath the soothing words.