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Sexual Perversity in Chicago

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629



By David Mamet. On Stage Company, Theatre de Nesle. Paris. 30 July 1999.


Any production that includes both old-style internalized Stanislavskian, emotion-based acting and postmodernist, externalized Mametian acting may emerge as confusing. In Nicholas Calderbank’s production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, such conflicting acting styles are distracting but still strangely effective at times. Chris Goodman (Dan), looking like a young Charles Grodin, has a gift for Grodinesque understatement and underplay, seemingly ideal to play a Mamet young protagonist. Unfortunately, Doug Rand, failing to get much back from Goodman, overplays Bernie in wildly comical ways. He gets all the laughs but inappropriately mugs even as he tells Dan about his molestation at a movie as a boy. From then on, Rand’s raised eyebrows caricature all of Dan’s allusions to male-male interaction. Perhaps he was compensating for Goodman’s less emotional and audience-winning Mametesque approach. Still, in this production, the end of the play seemed to be Bernie’s, making it the tragedy of the lonely sexually abused child/victim as he and Dan sit in beach chairs ogling the women, incapable of developing a significant relationship.

Two nude scenes between Dan and Deborah (Carly Abramowitz) provide opportunity for this audience to ogle. The actors manage to make nudity, even in this small space, seem unaffected, a natural reflection of the growing intimacy of the two lovers. Abramowitz, like Rand, must respond to the non-emotional Goodman. But rather than overacting, she just speaks the lines, as Mamet would say. Her restrained acting matches Goodman’s, effectively suggesting that the repressed young lovers are afraid to reveal their feelings for fear of jeopardizing the relationship. And when the couple breaks up, both Abramowitz and Goodman use a more emotive, contrasting style that movingly suggests the depths of those feelings.

The actors’ typical restraint, however, suggests a lack of connection among all the characters. Alexa Rutherford is excellent as Joan, presenting her philosophical questioning without editorializing. By implication, her performance suggests that such questioning is one reason for the failure of relationship and a reflection of her superficiality. I’ve always wondered about the charges that Mamet is anti-feminist, assuming that plays like this must be to blame. In performance, the play clearly satirizes all four characters. Here, Bernie is the most caricatured, since Rand uses a stage-Chicago accent as false as stage-Irish or stage-Southern.

Tormod Lindgren’s set design updates the play from 1970s Chicago to the late 90s (even a year referent was changed to 1999) with an overlay of Paris fashion. A 6’x8' glossy, metallic background for the bar scene, cut with perforations and large symmetrical holes, is the key design element for a number of scenes and for the play’s poster as well. Shifting the set about for most scenes, though, becomes obtrusive. Still, this production is very effective in its revealing juxtaposition of scenes staged simultaneously. For example when Bernie is at the movies, watching a sex film, behind him Dan and Deborah are in bed together. This double staging highlights Mamet’s careful construction or structure. Director Calderbank interestingly uses three freezes/silences that take place when Bernie seems stunned by a momentary epiphany; those veryphysical pauses further accentuate Mamet’s rigorous shaping of his works.

The audience for this production clearly was called upon to recognize Mamet’s ironic or satiric depiction of these characters. And if Rand made such perceptions a little too obvious, the audience still enjoyed his performance, which did not distract from the more restrained and profound moments the play offers.

The last page of the program includes a glossary for the French audience. "The Loop" is translated "business district in Chicago." OK. But some of these entries are sophomoric. "Chlorox": "a brand of glue"????

Spring Hill College