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Death Defying Acts: An Interview

Actors' Guild of Lexington, Kentucky production of Death Defying Acts.


By David Mamet

Actors Guild of Lexington, Kentucky. 25 June 2000.


To get into the Actors’ Guild of Lexington theater, one has to walk through an art gallery and go up the stairs at the back to the second floor. The black-box space itself is small, the stage twenty feet by thirty feet with seating for a total of one hundred and three spectators situated on its sides. Despite this plebeian setting, the Actors’ Guild mounted a production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in 1997 that rivaled the London premiere in quality of acting and directing. Thus, when I learned that David Mamet’s An Interview was being staged as part of the Guild’s last production for the 1999-2000 season, I was eager to see whether the company could handle this play equally well.

A trilogy of short plays presented under the collective title Death Defying Acts made up the evening’s program. Mamet’s twenty-five-mi flute-long drama was followed by Elaine May’s slightly longer Hotlines and. after an intermission, Woody Allen’s Central Park West. An Interview is simple and straightforward: the Attorney (played by Jim McDermott) faces judgment to determine where he will spend the rest of eternity. The sole determiner of his fate is the Attendant (Lilla Lowe). who is dressed in judges robes and sits in a throne-like chair made of large bones. During the interview. the attorney is asked about his life in vague, general questions which become specific only when the question itself has no bearing on his life. Did he ever borrow a lawnmower from his neighbor? Did he bury the lawn mower?

Aside from a few semi-philosophical observations (treat your neighbor’s lawnmower as if it is his rather than yours), there is little meat in the play for the audience to chew upon. Given its yoking with works by May and Allen, it might be expected that there would be some humor involved, but Mamet’s usual biting satire is missing in this piece. In essence, the play is nothing more than an extended lawyer joke, at times mildly amusing, in which the stupidity of bureaucracy is also demonstrated. Unfortunately, despite the audience’s fairly warm acceptance of the show, there is nothing new or insightful here. The attorney attempts some obvious Clintonian equivocations and outright lies to escape his fate, but because he (I) passed the bar and (2) neglected to live forever, he is condemned to an eternity in a hell of burning white phosphorus where he must listen to a symphonic tone poem. The play ends when he is given one last chance to be sent elsewhere: in order to leave, he must name an honest lawyer. After a short struggle to come up with even a single name. he asks, ‘How much time do I have?” to which the Attendant replies with finality, “We hope you enjoy it here.”

There was nothing particularly exciting about Shannon Christy’s directing or Russell Mendez’s set nor was the acting inspired. Lowe was certainly acceptable as the Attendant. but McDermott was clearly giving a performance instead of acting a part. Indeed, he often turned and directed his comments to the audience, as though they were the jury listening to his arguments in making a case for lawyers.

May’s piece, about a suicide hotline, was better acted and more moving, although it, too, was not very inventive. Allen’s profane but funny one-acter, however, was well worth the trip. The interesting thing regarding this sketch about infidelity (among stereotypical writers, lawyers, psychiatrists, and their partners) was that some of the actors who appeared in the first two plays reappeared in this work. Among them was McDermott, again as an attorney. In this case, however, he was much more natural in his delivery than he had been in the Mamet piece. In fact, although the actors and the director were the same, the Allen play was by far the best-performed and well-received by the audience. The sad lesson here is that, while it would not be expected to incite performances on the same level as those that grow- out of Arcadia and the munificence of many of Mamet’s shorter compositions such as Dark Pony and Reunion, An Interview was too slight to bring out the best of the Guild’s cast and crew even when presented in this trilogy format.