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Mamet Marathon Homecomings: Duck Variations, The Disappearance of the Jews, Home 4/15/06 Goodman Theatre

All three are oblique to their subjects, and cover up as much as they convey, imply without ever directly stating. And when direct statements are made, they are such clichés that they are startling for their inability to cover the situations in which they describe.

Homecomings: Duck Variations, The Disappearance of the Jews, Home 4/15/06 Goodman Theatre

These plays are shocking mainly in their being uprooted from original contexts and placed in this new one—three plays, totally unrelated, spread across Mamet’s whole career—1972—The Duck Variations, —1982. The Disappearance of the Jews (recontextualized itself as the first play in 1995’s The Old Neighborhood),—2005 Home.

As a microcosm of a career, these constituted the perfect opening. Taken together they reveal significant keys to Mamet’s success as a postmodern playwright. All three are oblique to their subjects, and cover up as much as they convey, imply without ever directly stating. And when direct statements are made, they are such clichés that they are startling for their inability to cover the situations in which they describe.

In Duck Variations there are continual restatements about death that startle in their inadequacy. “Nothing is better than nothing.” —response— “it’s a close second.”  Or again, “Who can say to what purpose” while the other echoes, “Who, who?” But the best Varic (Maury Cooper) and Aronovitz (Howard Witt) can come up with is a refrain that “Death is a part of Life.” But always they are talking about death—of ducks, never about their own deaths which are much more clearly on their minds, but never mentioned. The best moment in this production is the variation in which they discuss friendship, the need for friends, to be a friend, to do something for a friend, every cliché with the implication that they are friends. But they aren’t. They have no history; they just meet on the park bench and talk mainly about ducks, ducking the real issue. Only in the final scene is the punch line given, unnoticed by the two speakers—“Greeks—Old Men—of no use to their society—sit out all day and watch birds.”

I’ve always wanted to direct Duck Variations myself—but after this experience, I don’t know. It started out terrifically with two great actors, interacting beautifully, and big inclusive laughs from the audience. But then it slowly died. This was more painful than seeing a flop—we saw a play come to life brilliantly, and then just as quickly, die. Why did this happen? No variety from director Louis Contey. The performers came in at a peak, captured the audience totally, and then had nothing left to give us. Peter Brook says in The Empty Space, my theatrical bible, that one can shatter an audience by firing a gun directly at them—but you better have something really good to follow that or they’ll be totally lost. Perhaps that’s what happened here. Somehow I don’t think it’s the fault of the play; and my rule is—never blame the actors, only give them credit for what works. What doesn’t work has to be the fault of the director.

The Old Neighborhood revealed clearly Mamet’s ability to write around the absent center in three plays that were tied together by Bobby Gould, who appeared in the original three one-acts but hardly spoke at all—instead, Joey, Jolly, and Deeny did most of the talking. Bobby’s impending divorce, the breakup of his marriage, and the fate of his children is the slightly mentioned central issue. In Disappearance of the Jews, which was the first play in the sequence, we became aware of the problems in his marriage when Bobby tells the story of his schiksa wife who said that maybe the Jews caused their own persecution. The role that gets the major attention of reviewers is always that of Joey, however, who has the great speeches and stories and speculations. And played after Duck Variations it was evident how much these two characters use each other to avoid the feelings of emptiness of a life without use or purpose.

Joey’s great fantasy speech of being a blacksmith in Lodz—being respected and admired for his strength in the village—implies what he lacks in the present-day Chicago. In his store, where he keeps his gun to discourage robbery, there is no such acclaim or respect. He feels trapped by his wife and family, and imagines her dead—or that he kills her and travels north walking, finally, into the woods to his own death. The delivery here was excellent, but this production fell far short of the first one I saw in London with Colin Stinton as Bobby in London under Patrick Marber’s direction. I think the problem is Joe Dempsey as Bobby, and with the director.

Here director Rick Snyder’s staging was startlingly static, the set design totally wrong, and Bobby’s reactions to the amazing revelations of an inner life in Joey seemed misleading as well. Dempsey played the scene as if he were Jerry Seinfeld listening to one of George’s odd rants. That is, he was positioned seated backwards on a chair facing sideways, so that Joey (Keith Kupferer), sitting on a chair angled out to the audience had all the focus. And the reactions were open-mouthed amazement, closed mouthed disapproval, concern. Three settings. What makes a great Mamet actor is the ability to do nothing when nothing is called for in the script. Colin Stinton has this ability brilliantly.

If the actor playing Bobby reacts to Joey’s speeches, as any ‘normal’ person would, then the play loses all its meaning. It becomes a Seinfeld episode. Funny peculiar, uncomfortable making, but ultimately not anything related to me or my experience. If, however, as Stinton played Bobby, there is no reaction to Joey’s increasingly disturbing digressions, one keeps watching him for a reaction. And ultimately the audience has to fill in its own reactions, both for Bobby in relation to Joey, and for Bobby’s failure to react as well. That is, the play forces us to fill in the blanks and become Bobby, enter into his world. In such a state, the impending break-up of his marriage, further revealed in “Jolly,” somehow allies him with Joey in similar fantasies—and in the desire to reconnect with his Jewish heritage as almost an antidote for the feelings of emptiness.

My spouse Janice was shocked by the lack of movement in this production. She kept thinking such a physical person as Joey would move, not just sit immobile. Accenting the problem was the set which included two totally useless single beds and nightstand between them—the chairs were downstage of the bed. What were the beds for?!!? (Marber’s production simply gave us two chairs in front of a curtain, the sitting room part of the hotel room). Overdetermining with extraneous set pieces is as much a sin for Mametwerken as is overdetermining by the actors filling in emotion where none is called for. Worse, giving the sense that more of the stage will be used, they were simply misleading and emphasized the static staging of characters only sitting in two chairs facing each other.

The third variation was Home, a new play to us as we’d missed its Ensemble debut last summer. Here more powerfully we see a marriage breaking up—directly and head on, rather than obliquely. In four scenes we see husband Robert (Darrel W. Cox) and wife fighting over her working late at a conference, late night her return from the conference. There is a showdown over his desire to move far away, even to buy them two homes in the new locale for their daughter, and finally, anger erupts after papers for divorce are served, made worse by his fury that she revealed to his daughter that he’d had “reversals”—lost his job.

While it seems perfectly clear what has happened, in fact the key player again is the absent character, the daughter. He announces at the end of the first scene that he loves his daughter, but there isn’t much evidence of love from either one of them, and the daughter seems more like a counter in the conflict between them.

Here, the director’s plan became clear: two actors side by side (occasionally one getting up for a big speech, but the other always seated looking out more often into space). This gave way to the more dynamic two characters seated facing each other much more interactive and dynamic. This Mamet minimalism in blocking is always better than overplaying, but seemed too extreme by denying all movement. And that minimalism constrasted completely with the final play’s overly elaborate set— a Kitchen island, complete with working sink, and three barstools—for a play in four scenes in which the character could be separated on different sides of the bar. Still no movement, but for a play in four scenes, four different poses for the husband and wife as they grow in anger with each other. Louis Contey again directed.

David K. Sauer
Spring Hill College