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"Bone China" at the Ensemble Theatre

This play couldn’t have lasted seven minutes, so it is one of those short sketches which Mamet used to create in abundance. Like those, “Bone China” has been so honed and refined, and is so concentrated, that seven minutes is a whole play in miniature, as if all the irrelevancies have been stripped away.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre Presents Marathon June, 2006: “Bone China” by David Mamet
dir. Curt Dempster, A… Victor Slezak; B… Marcia Jean

This play couldn’t have lasted seven minutes, so it is one of those short sketches which Mamet used to create in abundance. Seeing “Bone China” in the context of the other plays in Series B, however, helps to clarify Mamet’s gifts as a writer. The fourth one-act in Series B was so diffuse, in three scenes, that it was simply all over the place. By contrast, Mamet’s plays have been so honed and refined, are so concentrated, that seven minutes is a whole play in miniature, as if all the irrelevancies have been stripped away.

Here there is a simple modern setting, white couch, easy chair at 90 degrees, a table downstage with phone. White panels are the background. “A” is sitting on the couch, opening with a semi-rant against “Freud” in a speech whose content mirrors Bobby Gould in “Jolly.” “A” complains about the whole idea of causality—“We are trying to determine the cause.” His idea is that something bad happens to you as a child, and now you are an alcoholic—just get over it. It’s not the bad thing that causes your problems, “It’s the drinking.” This is Mamet at his most unsympathetic, most simplistic in solutions. I thought Slezak handled the Mamet ellipses extremely well, making it all seem like a flow of thought, rather than the staccato bursts of words which it can seem in the unskilled.

I didn’t watch “B”, Marcia Jean Kurtz, during the speech. Jan said she seemed as if about to intervene a few times, and she also felt the two of them didn’t work together as smoothly as one must when doing Mamet. How much rehearsal time could there have been to work together? However, we both got the clear impression, without being able to cite a specific line of dialogue, of the relationship. From the outset, because of the “Freud” I assumed it was an analyst and analysand, and suspected we would get a reversal of initial impressions. But since “B” said so little, it was hard to know who was supposed to be who. She was mostly quite stone-faced and difficult to read, in contrast to Slezak whose lines were more impassioned.

They are apparently talking about a young woman (A’s daughter was our guess), who has some kind of eating disorder. B stops the tirade—“How can you see her suffer?” But A answers harshly, “If she wants to starve to death, fuck her.”

There is a whole play contained in these two lines, and it is the center of  “Bone China.” The title, of course, is quintessential Mamet—completely enigmatic—though starving to death seems to be the oblique referent. As in Oleanna, the phone interrupts. What kind of a session could this be that would allow phone calls to intrude? And B answers the phone, and speaks seemingly harshly to the person on the other end. “How many pills did you take? One?” Her form of therapy over the phone to a patient, we assume, who is trying to commit suicide, is as harsh as A’s—“I can’t. Because I took an oath. And you’re lying to me.”

“A” again takes the floor to rant against self-imposed suffering, as he sees it: “Send me to the Catholic Colleges. I could teach them a thing about the Saints…which is ….they were monsters!” After this the phone rings again, B answers, and says, “Please hold all my calls.”
A, still sitting on the couch, then gives the punch line: “Some people—just don’t care.”  Curtain.

It’s a powerful punch line, giving how much he’s been ranting about not wanting to care, not wanting to take responsibility for a childhood scarring—the last line denounces such unfeelingness. And Mamet the dramatist is clearly infinitely smarter than Mamet the thinker about social ills. As a dramatist he can both quickly sketch out the problem, and then contradict the argued for solution, leaving the audience with the recognition that the stage is not where answers are given. But it does unearth and display social ills with intensity and focus which requires us to give deeper consideration to the problem.

Interestingly, the same contradiction appears in “Jolly.” Bobby Gould rants against his step-brother who would not break the trust to give his sister needed monies. She further complains that the same step-brother and his wife told her she was mishandling her own children. And he and his wife are now in “therapy.” Bobby rants like A about the futility of looking to childhood for solutions to problems in the present. Just deal with the current problem; talking about childhood is a self-indulgent waste of time in Bobby’s view. But of course, the whole play centers around Jolly’s resentments against her mother remaining since childhood. And her final nightmare vision of her mother knocking on her door speaking sweetly only to get in and do her harm, shows much deeper scarring. The play itself attacks the solution it proposes to childhood abuse and trauma. And leaves the audience to ask itself, how to deal with issues ourselves.