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New and Forthcoming Mamet Works

Leslie Kane surveys the upcoming works by Mamet in productions, publishing, and scholarly activities.

NEW AND FORTHCOMING

THEATRE:     Among the many revivals of David Mamet’s work staged this year. including several productions of early works such as A Life in the Theatre and Speed-the-Plow, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s revival of Glengarry Glen Ross is second to none. Directed by Amy Morton, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s devastatingly entertaining production of Glengarry Glen Ross opened in Chicago in early December, an early “holiday gift” to the city from which Mamet hails (reviewed in this issue). In an immensely sympathetic portrayal of Shelly Levene, Mike Nussbaum, a seasoned Mamet actor who portrayed Aaronow in the 1984 American premiere production, is by turns exhausted arid surprisingly boyish. He leads a cast of immensely talented actors whose impressive performances account for the fact that the Steppenwolf was invited to reprise Morton’s deft production at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2002. Other extraordinary performances include those of Tract Letts as John Williamson, David Pasquesi as Ricky Roma, and Matt DiCaro in the role of Moss. One Chicago-based critic suggested that Glengarry is no less shocking than in 1984, noting that, “if anything, the infinitely excruciating ‘No Exit’ quality of the salesman’s existence is more pronounced now since their pre-cell phone, pre-lnternet world has gone the way of loyalty, fraternity and a good honest swindle.” To complement the real-estate theme, the Anatomically Correct Gallery presented an exhibit in the Steppenwolf Gallery entitled “Under Contract: Artists Look at Chicagoland Real Estate.”

    The Lyric Stage in Boston also staged a meticulously paced and highly effective production of Glengarry under the direction of Spiro Veloudos. Veloudos, who has previously directed American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow for the Lyric, finds the humor and darkness in Glengarry The crackerjack cast includes Ken Balkin, who portrays Levene as an engaging underdog, Neil A. Casey as Williamson, and Mark S. Cartier and Dale Pace as Aaronow and Moss, respectively. As the slippery snake, Ted Reinstein turns in an inspired performance as Roma (reviewed this issue). Also this year, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, staged an engaging production of Glengarry, true to the spirit of the play. Under the direction of Kenny Ireland, the production retained a great pace. As Williamson, Neil Mc Kinven was “steely and inscrutable.” Tom McGowan (Roma) and Lou Hirsch (Levene) led a talented cast. Hayden Griffin’s marvelous set—the first act Chinese restaurant complemented by a black and white movie-style office—wonderfully evoked the British take on America’s working out how to be a success in life.

    A Vancouver production of Glengarry directed by Aaron Craven recalls a Las Vegas production some years ago in that it features women in the parts of men, but in Craven’s production, the all-female cast plays all the parts typically portrayed by men—swearing, fighting, and addressing each other—in masculine form. The director’s rationale for this approach is based entirely on the fact that women are a major factor in the marketplace, and thus their status, success, and importance in business are pursued with ruthlessness, regardless of sex.

Like the joint Atlantic Theatre Company/Donmar staging of American Buffalo in 2001, a production of American Buffalo, mounted this spring by the Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester), received mixed reviews. Directed by Greg Hersov in a taut production that captured the play’s nervy claustrophobia and deep suspicions of betrayal, this revival featured three excellent performances by Mike McShane as Donny. Paul Popplewell as Bobby, and Ben Keaton as a hypnotic Teach evincing the characters caged energy.

Oleanna, one of Mamet’s most controversial plays, received several notable productions this year in Washington, D.C., Glasgow, Vienna, and Singapore. Of particular interest is the Source Theatre Company’s production, which implicitly posed the question of whether Oleanna would work if the characters were played sympathetically. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, this performance featured Rick Foucheux as John and Holly Twyford as Carol. Foucheux, who has achieved acclaim in previous performances of Mamet’s work, gave an expansive, thoughtful performance of the self-absorbed professor, while Carol, whose initial mousy appearance metamorphoses into that of a woman with a backbone and the backing of her group, provoked gasps from the audience at the play’s conclusion (reviewed this issue). The Glasgow production of Oleanna, tinder the direction of Steven Little, the ambitious young director who is carving out a distinguished career at the Royal National Theatre in London, focused upon the play’s concern with the notion of how people attempt and fail to communicate— rather than earlier productions’ focus on political correctness and sexual politics. Little’s company, Theatre Informer, in co-production with Howden Park Centre, toured Scotland with this production during 2002. And Martin Buxbaum, in his first professional production, directed Oleanna (in English) in Vienna, where he completed his doctoral work last year. Buxbaum has long been a member of the Mamet Society (and presented a fine paper on The Shawl at the Mamet Conference); his production opened on September 9 for a three-week run at the Theater Drachengasse, with Bronwyn Merz as Carol and Jeff Sturgeon as John.

    Two years after the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRB staging of Oleanna, the Theatre Practic is reviving the play in Mandarin. SRT’s version, directed by Toy Factory Theatre’s artistic director Goh Boon Teck, stars Michelle Young and Lim Kay Siu, who subsequently received a DBS Life Theatre Award for Best Actor for his performance in Oleanna. In contrast to SRT’s rather busy set, director Nelson Chia returns to the stripped down set favored by Mamet. In keeping with his vision of the play, Chia has chosen to stage his production of Oleanna in the Singapore Art Museum’s auditorium, a venue that he believes evokes an institutional space, one that marries the action and the audience. Several reviewers concurred: they found Chia’s pitch-perfect production a memorable theatergoing experience, one in which stellar acting, subtle lighting, and a pared down, functional set brought the challenging play to life on the stage.

    Two productions of Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, both in September 2001, were staged at the Source Theatre, which has previously displayed its affinity for and expertise with Mamet’s plays, and at the Pasadena Playhouse, with decidedly different results. Directed with verve by Joe Banno, the Source Theatre Company production, which opened on September 11, 2001, drew upon the play’s inherent affection and humor, whereas Michael Michetti’s production at the Pasadena Playhouse never breathed life into the play, despite skilled performances by Hal Holbrook as Robert and Rick Stear as John. Part of this may be due to Michetti’s ultra-slow speed, at odds with the rhythm of the piece, and his decision regarding changing of costumes and shifting of sets that intruded upon the delicate balance of the 20-odd scenes. Furthermore, although Mamet’s script calls for a blackout at the conclusion of several scenes, the stage never goes black. With the exception of Holbrook’s affecting performance as the aging actor, the production disappoints.

    In contrast, Joe Banno’s vision emphasizes the play’s tenderness and humor, underscoring the theatre as a place where, as one critic phrased it, “souls are bared and skewered.” Reflecting Banno’s focus on the rivalry of the two actors, Michael Todavdo plays Robert as a pompous windbag who declares, declaims, preaches, and cajoles, in a comic rendering of the big personality of a small-time actor, while Jon Cohn’s John, the younger actor, gains experience, definition, and good reviews. Also noteworthy here is the work of the set and costume designers, whose attention to detail is impressive: Greg Mitchell turns the Source into a low-budget backstage, while Kathleen Gelhard is responsible for the numerous bad wigs and costume debacles as varied as Mamet’s scenes lampooning the soldier play, the Musketeer play, and so on (reviewed this issue).

    In what appears at first glance as a strange coupling of Mamet plays, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England, mounted a double-bill of Sexual Perversity and The Shawl, directed by Angus Jackson. Both studies of urban life and social politics, the plays prove a compelling complement. Sexual Perversity was also revived in December in Sydney by The Gift Theatre Company under the crisp direction of Michael Booth, with a talented cast comprising Emma Cordero, Mary Docker, Amos Szeps, and Todd Worden. Booth’s production is the play’s first professional staging in Sydney in 20 years.

    The Old Neighborhood, which reveals Mamet in a reflective mode, was staged at the Dobama Theatre, Cleveland Heights, in a moving revival production of Mamet’s largely autobiographical trilogy. Directed by Scott Plate, who coaxes quietly penetrating performances from talented cast, this production features Joel Hummer in a wonderful portrayal as Bobby Gould, Jeffrey Grover (Joey), Molly McGinnis (Denna), and Tracy Field who, as Jolly, expertly manipulated heartstrings. By contrast, a revival of Speed-the-Plow in Toronto this spring proved far less satisfying. The Vancouver-based production, under the direction of Jeff Seymour—who also played the part of Bobby Gould with considerable skill—failed to locate the tension in the play and thus fell far short of the mark. Joely Collins assumed the Madonna role, while Bill Elliot gained considerable praise for his performance of Charlie Fox.

In a decidedly irreverent approach to Mama’s plays, North Hollywood’s Secret Rose Theatre presented a 90-minute evening of Mamet monologues and one-acts entitled Bearing Ourselves, an intelligent, vibrant, and “acidly funny” take on early Mama works. Performed by the newly formed JW Players under the direction of director/performer Adam Price, audiences were treated to nine scenes and two monologues, among them “All Men Are Whores’ and “Sermon.” The Food for Thought Acting Company associated with the National Arts Club did staged readings of two one-act Mamet plays, 4 A.M. and Shoeshine, to benefit Engine Co. 23 in New York City. Austin Pendleton directed both readings.

And two of Mamet’s children’s plays were treated to revivals as well. Jeff Davolt directed a special performance of Mamet’s perennial children’s favorite, Binky Rudich and the Space Pandas, for the Kansas City Arts Festival held in June 2002, while the Scotsman Assembly was the Site of a charming staging of The Frog Prince.

FILM: Heist, which opened at the Toronto Film Festival and at the Boston Film Festival in September 2001 (where its scenes of security breaches, mayhem, and an attempted hijacking of a jet (departing Logan Airport evoked considerable shock and outrage following the collapse of the World Trade Center), was released for general distribution in late 2001. Mamet’s love of flimflam and con-artistry is obvious in this cleverly written and keenly stylized caper movie, whose stunningly nasty passages, petty and major thieves, swindlers, and innumerable double-crosses continually misdirect the audience. Rebecca Pidgeon, in a breakout role as the hard-as-nails girlfriend, is terrific, as is Danny DeVito as the weaselly maestro who sucks master jewel thief Gene Hackman into one last heist. Unlike Spanish Prisoner, his homage to Hitchcock, Mamet views Heist as a film noir about violence and irony. “There is no sentiment,” he adds, “Everybody’s bad” Yet, as Jay Carr, film critic for the Boston Globe, observes, Heist “not only reminds us that there’s a little larceny in all of us, it reminds us how much fun it can be to commune with our inner selves” (reviewed this issue).

Mamet has recently completed shooting Diary of A Young Physician, his script based on the Dr. Jekyll//Mr. Hyde story. Jude Law and Penelope Cruz star in the Art Linson produced film shot in London, which also features Rebecca Pidgeon. Originally, Al Pacino was set to star as Dr. Jeykll, but with the age change to a “young” physician, Pacino dropped out of the project. Warner Brothers will distribute. And Mamet’s film Catastrophe, part of the Beckett on Film series previously mentioned in the Review, aired on     c Television stations in the United States in fall 2002 in PBS’s Stage on Screen series, Catastrophe, the first film in Beckett on Film, features Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pidgeon, and John Gielgud in his last performance.

    The writer has signed a seven—figure deal with Warner Bros. to script a gangster film on the life of John Dillinger. Steven Soderberg and George Clooney are producing; the studio is negotiating with Kimberly Peirce to direct. Unlike The Untouchables, the film will be comparable to Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde in that the gangster will drive the story. Mamet has also penned a number of new scripts. One is a film about the Israeli Air Force, which he hopes to shoot in Israel in the next two years, the other an FBI thriller that he plans to film in Boston. Also in the works is a movie project with Dustin Hoffman and Steve Martin.

Mamet was the guest of the 9 th Annual Jerusalem Film Festival in July, where he was honored with a special tribute. The writer was last in Israel in 1991 when he presented Homicide. At a forum celebrating his work, Mamet read his entire unproduced screenplay Russian Poland, an interweaving of Isaac Luria folk tales set in a nineteenth century shtetl framed by scenes of Jewish American volunteers commandeering a plane from the British and flying to the then British protectorate Palestine during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. While in Israel, Mamet toured Jerusalem with Mayor Ehud Olmert, visiting the sites of numerous suicide bombings.

MAMET DIRECTS: In June 2002, Mamet directed Ricky Jay: On the Stem at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. Although Ricky Jay, who can quote Shakespeare on request, is proud of the writing, he admits to having “a pretty good rewrite man (Mamet,” whose steely hand and sure eye encompassed every aspect of the production. including wardrobe, set design, lighting, props, blocking, and rewriting. Capable of performing card tricks with incredible dexterity accompanied by his carnival-barker patter. Jay also pulls off amazing memory stunts in this show. The nine-week run of On the Stem (an old nickname for Broadway) was sold out for the entire run (reviewed this issue). In an interesting postscript to their collaboration, David Mamet and Ricky Jay sat for a portrait by the 99-year-old Al Hirschfeld a few hours before the opening. Mamet, who also directed the Obie-winning Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, directed a revival of his 1985 production last fall, with sets by Kevin Rigdon and lighting by John Ambrose. It ran in New York and at the Market Theater in Cam bridge, MA, in September 2002.

PUBLICATIONS: National Geographic Books     shed Mamet's memoir. South of the Northeast Kingdom, in which Mamet writes affectionately about Vermont, where he has maintained a home for nearly 40 years. One in a series of “travel’ books from National Geographic that includes works by prominent writers such as Oliver Sacks, Jan Morris, Jamaica Kincaid, and Joyce Carol Oates. South of the Northeast Kingdom has little of the travelogue in it. Rather, the book, which features Mamet’s black and white photos, touches upon such subjects as his family life, his time at Goddard College, Mud and Deer Season, and his community of Vermonters (reviewed this issue). And Vintage has     published Boston Marriage.

OTHER NEWS : In late March, Mamet read from his new play, Dr. Faustus (a free-verse version of the play), at the 92 nd Street Y, which will be presented by the Young Vic in London, and in April he participated in the Seattle Arts and Lectures season, which this year, the 15th anniversary, included Seamus Heaney, George Plimpton, and Francine Prose. And a long-awaited revival of Glengarry Glen Ross set to open on Broadway in December 2002 has suffered a possibly fatal blow, the result of the withdrawal of Danny DeVito (as Levene) from the project. A number of other names have been floated to lead the cast—Al Pacino, Gene Hackman.,James Gandolfini—but as of this printing, no announcement has been made.

Two final tidbits, Mamet was on hand with Rebecca Pidgeon and 450 other invited literati, politicians, friends of the arts, and theatrical professionals who have collaborated with ART artistic director Robert Brustein—including F. Murray Abraham, Claire Bloom, Christopher Durang, Robert Parker, William Styron, and Andrei Serban—for a good-bye parts of epic proportions for Brustein, who has retired after 20 years at the ART.

Not long ago, Mamet wrote an essay on Los Angeles in which he disparaged a flavor of the month” culture and questioned, “What are these savages doing in these lovely homes?” Many of us are keenly aware of Mamet’s caustic comments on L.A. and Hollywood, which have peppered his essays and interviews for years. Vet, David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon have sold their Newton, Massachusetts manse and relocated to Santa Monica on the Left Coast, where they hope that Rebecca Pidgeon’s proximity to HoIIywood will further her acting career. Mamet has also signed a contract with NBC for an hour-long dramatic series to air on television in fall 2003. The as yet untitled series has been characterized as “Robin Hood meets Mission Impossible.” Each episode, which will feature four men and a woman, will open with the group attempting to pull off a con, but in a switch from vintage Mamet, the cons are intended to even the score in favor of individuals harmed by the system. Mamet will serve as executive producer.

LESLIE KANE

WESTFIELD STATE COLLEGE