Atlantic Theatre Mamet Season
The Atlantic Theater Company in New York grew out of workshops taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy, so it is fitting that Mamet's plays should have comprised their celebratory fifteenth season. These much anticipated productions—who should know better how to do Mamet plays, right¿—turned out, in fact, to be disappointing, erring on the side of realism, lacking the torque, that edge of theatrical excitement, and making one wonder if these plays really do hold up in performance, although many of us know how satisfying they are to teach.
THE ATLANTIC THEATER
COMPANY’S MAMET SEASON
Atlantic Theater. New York. September 1999 - May 2000.
The Atlantic Theater Company in New York grew out of workshops taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy, so it is fitting that Mamet’s plays should have comprised their celebratory fifteenth season. These much anticipated productions—who should know better how to do Mamet plays, right?—turned out, in fact, to be disappointing, erring on the side of realism, lacking the torque, that edge of theatrical excitement, and making one wonder if these plays really do hold up in performance, although many of us know how satisfying they are to teach. I further wondered whether their cultural moment had passed and whether our cynicism had overtaken Mamet’s and outrun it. Or has the Atlantic Theater Company provided us with productions that are de-fanged and full of— dare I say it about Mamet?—charm? The season included The Water Engine and Mr. Happiness, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Duck Variations, and American Buffalo. The fourth and final production originally scheduled to end the season, The Shawl and No One Shall be Immune paired under the umbrella title of Ghost Stories was cancelled because of the extension of American Buffalo to 21 May 2000.
THE WATER ENGINE AND MR. HAPPINESS
29 September — 21 November 1999.
Cynical nostalgia is the bitter flavor of this double bill. Mamet has been dissecting America’s malevolent destiny throughout his career, so what better play to revive at the end of the millennium than one that concludes at the 1931 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago with a guide saying: ‘Who knows what they will encounter in the rear 2000?”
Mr. Happiness is the brief curtain raiser, in which a thirties radio personality gives his listeners advice: he sits at a table and reads their letters into a microphone “on the air” and then solves their problems with answers which are both enviable in their certainty and preposterous in their simplicity. Bob Balaban’s performance—the throbbingly earnest voice, the disapproving sighs, and the sliding eyeglasses—is impeccable.
This is suitably paired with The Water Engine since Mamet wrote this longer play originally for the radio, and there is much awareness of the straining of medium-specific drama. It is worth noting that Mamet’s glances are always backwards to the past and that both these implied-radio works are redolent with his signature combination: a yearning for the old days while ruthlessly unmasking the foolhardiness of that yearning, since the old days were no better than today.
The Water Engine is about a man (Steven Goldstein) who invents an engine that runs on water; he is betrayed and murdered by patent lawyers (Jordan Lage is superbly slimy) and the corporate greed that would destroy all such boons to mankind. The nifty set ( by Walt Spangle) suggests, simultaneously, that we are inside a giant radio, that we are inside a radio studio, and that we are in a naturalistic outside world. Karen Kohlhaas directed without the stylistic excesses of Mametspeak that so irk audiences when the author directs his own work. but also without the weird humor and edginess these plays need.
SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO AND
8 January to 6 February 2000.
This was a chance to see these two minor works in a major production under Hilary Hinckle’s direction. I am pleased to report that Sexual Perversity first performed in 1974, is still offensive after all these years. When Bernie Litko (Clark Gregg). the ultra-macho creep, sits on the beach with his less creepy but dorky friend Dan (Josh Hamilton), watching imaginary women walk by, he says “Hi” to one of them, who ignores him. This provokes the quintessentially Mametian exchange with which the play ends.
Scene after scene shows us the failure of relationships: Dan meets Deborah (Kate Blumberg), they fall in love, move in together, while her roommate Joan (Kristin Reddick), a kindergarten teacher, heaps bitterness on everybody, and Bernie encourages Dan’s sexual strutting. The set is cluttered, full of tasteless furniture arranged in separate areas to represent the too-many locales of the play: two apartments, the guys’ office, a classroom. a cocktail lounge, a bedroom. a beach. The look is vintage nasty with lots of wide ties and dated attitudes.
Duck Variations is, simply, wonderful: funny, warm, and philosophical. This tiny play honors the noble attempt to think—however confusedly—about the mysteries of the universe. Two old guys (John Tormey and Peter Maloney in subtle, deeply moving performances) sit on a park bench next to a trash can, watching the lake. Day after day, in fourteen short scenes. they meet and drink coffee and talk competitively about life and death and ducks. Call it fourteen ways of looking at a duck.
12 March —21 May 2000.
David Mamet launched his scathing indictment of American culture with this play in 1975. and American Buffalo has since become a classic of contemporary drama. In this revival, directed with discouraging restraint by Neil Pepe and despite the star presence of William H. Macy I am unhappy to report that the buffalo has been housebroken—even the legendary obscenity is no longer shocking. The three hoodlums who meet in a junkshop and plan a robbery that they will inevitably botch should be, as I understand the play, repulsive and dangerous as well as pathetic, but here they seem merely inept jerks. This shifts the emotional burden of the drama: it becomes painful without being frightening.
The show begins brilliantly: Macy; wearing the proverbial cheap suit, a vile mustache and fringed loafers, pacing, delivers Teach’s famous entrance line, “Fuckin’ Ruthie…”— four muttered, one loud—with immense agitated style. He flings his hands around in expansive, empty gestures, but, finally never conveys the sociopathic energy of Teach’s character. His Teach is merely a blowhard, a cheesy braggart, and not a cruel creep, despite his bashing of Bobby and his trashing of the store. Macy’s exit into the rain at the play’s conclusion, wearing a hat he made out of newspaper, checking himself in a old-fashioned hand mirror which is lying around, is a golden moment—the kind of inspired gesture that speaks both the actor and the character.
Philip Baker Hall, with his wonderfully sleepy, weathered face, plays Donny, the store’s owner, as a guy who seems semi-decent, semi-intelligent, barely getting by; he keeps his hands in his pockets. Mark Webber plays Bobby, Donny’s devoted gofer, as a dazed stoner rather than a wired heroin addict, his head cocked, his hands dangling waist-high from his wrists; he points at things with his chin and his elbows, as if always about to do something he never does, glazed with earnest ineptitude.
In this production, the rhythmic language is not theatrically satisfying, neither excessively stylized nor realistically inflected; the upshot is often that a line or an exchange makes little sense. (What did he mean by that? we wonder.) The set (by Kevin Rigdon) is a terrific collection of trash-pickings from old skis to cut glass decanters with a wonderful rainstorm at the end, but the junkshop seems too spacious, too bright, too clean to create the claustrophobic mess of this ugly world that has trapped these ugly people.
UNIVERSITY OF THE ARTS