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Mamet Marathon: Daughters, Sisters, Mothers: Almost Done, Reunion, Jolly, Dark Pony

This was a set of plays that is accessible, heart wrenching, touching—and as a result totally false as Mamet productions, but very workable for an audience which needs to be told how to respond.

Mamet Marathon: Daughters, Sisters, Mothers: Almost Done, Reunion, Jolly, Dark Pony
4/15/08 Goodman Theatre
This was a shock—we came at  7:45 and the whole ground floor was virtually full, as was much of the balcony. The previous night there were lots of seats in both areas, as there were with Binky Rudich that morning. So what would make this such a much more popular billing? Emotion. This was a set of plays that is accessible, heart wrenching, touching—and totally false as Mamet plays, but very workable for an audience which needs to be told how to respond.

The emotional accessibility reminded me of earlier critiques of Mamet’s direction—anonymous theatre company directors would say misdirected as the playwright/director, and they couldn’t wait to direct the play themselves (said of Oleanna, cited in On Stage and Off in New York Times). After tonight, it is easy to see what they’d do with it. I only wish Robert Falls’ A Life in the Theatre would have been on this weekend as well—we will see eleven plays in three days—but miss his production.

The selection of this set of one acts was, however, very well made, since they do cohere—not just as Mamet’s takes on women, always constructed as women in relationships, in families. It begins with a monologue by a woman recounting how her father told once, when they were outdoors, that her suffering from the cold could be alleviated if she could only imagine herself back home, thinking back to this moment—and she would be already all warmed up and the cold would be reduced to a memory. She found the thought comforting, and imagines how, if someday she has a child, how she will pass that story on to him, and he will remember it and recount it to his own children. The monologue is conducted in a chair, with Bethany Caputo wrapped in a blanket, she rearranges herself, sometimes sitting sideways, varying positions as the thoughts shift through time.

The play sets the tone of memory, and time, key ingredients in the four. And the conclusion with Red Pony takes us back to the young girl and her father, and in this staging Caputo gets up from the side by side chairs at the end and comes downstage relegating the whole experience to memory. She repeats over and over her father’s mantra, “All I had to do is think ahead.” But the subtext is ignored—there is no reality, only what is inside the head: “The rest is already passing even as we think of it.”

But if that’s the case, then why would the acting be so realistic? Reunion was shocking because the only previous productions I’d seen were from Mamet Directs an old (expensive) video of his work on this play in 1977 with Mike Nussbaum and Lindsay Crouse. There, of course, director Mamet drains the actors of emotion. Here, let loose by director Ann Filmer, Danny Goldring is most appealing as the ill-at-ease father who hasn’t seen his daughter in 20-something years since she was a small child. Here, in contrast to the static production last night, the characters do move—and there is humor added. There is only one chair, in which he sits, when he asks her to sit too. She first goes and sits behind him, in the only other chair next to the coffee pot. He twists to talk to her, finally moving her chair out to face his. The action is a nice image of his living alone, without ever having company. He gets laughs on lines he says to himself—of Jerry her husband—“does he mean it?” in relation to going to Church, and then, to himself almost, “Some of them mean it.” His big advice speech Goldring says in a rush, as if to head her off from his own life—“Take a chance for happiness. […] Pay the price. You gotta Pay the price. That’s all I  know.” Silence.

The most moving moment is when Carol rebukes him saying he’s better than just being a worker in a restaurant. He’s shocked and hurt. He assures her he likes it there, his maybe fiancée to be works there, and Carol’s never even been there—concluding  “I am what I am.” He tries to gloss over Carol’s complaint that Jerry’s “a lousy fuck” by reassuring her how much Jerry cares for her—even tries to talk her into having children. But Caputo’s unexpected outrage with after her initial almost standoffish uneasiness comes unexpectedly. So does her anger that she was robbed of having a father, and that’s why she’s searched for Bernie. She wants to hear his old war stories, to have the father she never had. She feels robbed.

At the end of the play, however, one feels that feminists are right in their complaints about realism—it reveals all it knows about the characters and we feel we understand them completely. I never felt this way, however, in watching Mamet direct the same play. When he did it, so much of the text was unstated that I, as audience member, had to work to figure out what was going on, put myself in both their positions, re-write the play, in a sense, with my own interior life. The scene is too awkward for full revelation—after abandoning his daughter in early childhood she suddenly comes to find him. No explanation is ever given for his departure—he claims later he had great anger against her and her mother when there was an injunction against his seeing them. But no causes are given, and the great need for each other that is expressed in this production is at best implicit in Mamet’s. It takes Nussbaum forever to make the coffee, as if he’s stalling and not wanting to face Carol. Here it comes instantly—Goldring’s Bernie is hiding nothing. Nor is Caputo’s Carol. And by filling in all the blanks for the audience, they rob us of our own work on the play, make it too easy, showing us the emotions rather than leaving them beneath the surface to be explored by the audience in itself.

Jolly, too, departed from Mamet convention as one would expect from Rick Snyder, who also directed The Disappearance of the Jews. Here the set is wrong again—Mamet’s was staged in a kitchen—here it is a large overstuffed couch in white brocade with a wing chair in matching brocade. Mamet is made back into the living room dramatist of European stereotype of American playwright’s settings. Jolly, however, is highly energized in this rendition—continually sitting on her legs, shifting her weight, putting them out in front of her. Yet the irony is that in this production, Todd Lahrman as Carl gets all the laughs and steals the show because he’s soooo whipped by Jolly. His first laugh comes with “activities” his first word, as he fills in the word she’s looking for on demand in a wimpy voice. The overly emotional acting goes to an extreme in this production, where Bobby twice breaks down crying, “I get so sad sometimes,” and Jolly is equally emotional—they finally just put their heads together and cry. Before that there’s been lots of touching by Joe Dempsey to console her, as he endlessly chimes in with “of course” and “I know” to keep her monologues going.

But again, as with Carol, one wonders where the problem is. Ok, so she didn’t get the skis she wanted for Christmas—but what is wrong with her present circumstances? They are obviously well off and have white brocade furniture. So what’s her complaint? Or his? Both, like Carol, have lives that somehow have disappointed them, and they want to blame their deprived childhoods when they didn’t get enough love. One wonders where the voice of David Mamet, commandant of the The Unit, has gone to tell his charges to suck it up and get on with their lives.

Red Pony was a fit conclusion to the evening, as Caputo did her best little girl, first entranced, then sitting straight up, then thrusting legs out, then anxious, then snuggled next to her father. It reversed the staging of Reunion in that she was totally the focus.  But in the Mamet directed incarnation on video, I had much more sense of this being the father’s story—Mamet wouldn’t let Crouse react this way, but only stare out the window of the ‘car.’ And the story then came to be more a story of desertion, the father who leaves, rather than the rescue from the wolves by the pony who saves Rain Boy. One tries to discover the hidden message to the daughter in Mamet’s staging. Here the message is a happy father daughter quality time moment, a fond memory of childhood.

If the order of the plays were reversed, it might be more evident that this warm moment is a total fiction, the kind of made up memory one might use to console oneself. And if such a reversal took place, putting the plays in chronological order—the self-delusion would be seen as self-inflicted, rather than something to blame on one parents instead of facing one’s own inadequacies.

Almost Done
Bethany Caputo

Bethany Caputo and Danny Goldring

    Rengin Altay, Joe Dempsey, Todd Lahrman

Dark Pony
Bethany Caputo and Danny Goldring