Pulling punches

Mamet's The Old Neighborhood is full of rage, but never scores a direct hit

More than a couple of times in David Mamet's rage-and remorse-filled trilogy of scenes, The Old Neighborhood, staged by New Theatre Company, one character is stuck trying to express himself and finally just says: "Do ya know?" The other character replies: "Yeah, I know."

It's vintage Mamet--a concession that more memory and emotion can exist between two people than can ever be verbalized, even by a playwright whose coin is supposed to be repartee. Mamet's characters are famous for grunting replies back and forth to each other, and he is famously protective of the rhythms of his scripted incomprehensibility, long arguing that the playwright is center in the theater and that the actor's job is interpretation, not creation. Mamet's inflexibility in these matters can be deadly for actors, as anyone who has ever caught the disastrous film version he directed of his play Oleanna can attest. William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt cut themselves and each other with his sharp-edged staccato rhythm, shredding the sexual threat they were supposed to be facing with actorly self-consciousness.

Mamet's insistence can also be tough on an audience, as The Old Neighborhood demonstrates: Wade through the stream-of-consciousness rambling about childhood, adolescence, and lost love that is exchanged between anti-hero Bobby Gould and the people who share his past, and you will see elliptical references rush by you downstream and out of sight, not clearly identified. There are no frills, no extended setups or conversational footnotes or asides to tell you exactly who the person they're discussing is, what their relationship is to the discusser, and why they did what they did. Dropping into The Old Neighborhood unprepared can feel like enrolling in one of those foreign-language classes in which the teacher insists that only the new language can be spoken from day one. It's emotional shoptalk that is as naturalistic as anything Mamet's ever written, but in sacrificing the artifice of exposition, Mamet has created an evening that sometimes feels more like auditions by talented actors--the moods they present, rueful or vengeful, call attention to themselves but don't hark back to each other. There is little harmony among elements in The Old Neighborhood, and unfortunately, the uneven staging New Theatre Company gives it only worsens the fragmentation.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic festooned this play with praise after it premiered in Boston in 1997. After watching the playwright hide behind macho themes of conquest and corruption, they cheered, there were finally golden threads of autobiography running through one of his plays. In essays, Mamet had previously written about his abusive father, and he'd blasted assimilationist tendencies among his fellow Jews, insisting that those who had a Covenant with Moses should proudly view themselves as a tribe, a unique people. The latter sentiments rise to the surface frequently in the first two parts of The Old Neighborhood--"The Disappearance of the Jews," in which Bobby Gould (Jim Jorgensen) reminisces in a hotel room with his childhood best friend Joey (T.A. Taylor) and "Jolly," in which Gould and his sister Jolly (Charlotte Akin) commiserate about a deeply unsatisfying childhood spent, in part, with a cold gentile stepfather. As written, Jolly and Joey are frustrated, restless people trying to fit into the sockets they've made for themselves in middle age. They can't shut up about an injustice, personal or social, once they identify it. Their rages are partly defenses of one tradition (Judaism) against another (Protestantism).

T.A. Taylor, the director of New Theatre Company's production, plays Joey, and you could watch this soulful actor perform Mamet monologues till the sun comes up. He wears Joey's weathered hide with the same confidence that one of Joey's Eastern European ancestors might have donned an old winter coat for another day at the factory. As Jolly, the woman who is probably overcompensating to create the home she never felt she had as a kid, Akin indulges one of her few deficient tendencies as an actress--she comes on powerfully with her first words and rarely relents, leaving us feeling exhausted and a little pestered. Granted, Jolly opens the scene angry, but Akin is so tenderly effective when she slows down and considers her characters' children that you wish she'd charted more carefully the highs and lows of her character's monologue.

Mamet conceived The Old Neighborhood as a trio of high-octane monologues, making this play a glittering opportunity for three of its four actors--but not for the one who will play the putative lead, Bobby Gould. Jim Jorgensen simply evaporates when he is onstage as the man revisiting old haunts. But Gould isn't a character; he's a device, a trampoline for the other performers to impress us with their mid-air twists and turns. His lines are few and terminally unrevealing, even in the customary shoot-the-shit-but-don't-go-too-deep exchanges that Mamet, at his best, turns into poetic verbal striptease.

The final scene of the trilogy, "Deeny," is the weakest, partly because nonentity Gould is stranded alongside "D" (Jane MacFarlane), who has a lot more dialogue than he does, yet still manages to seem even more painfully underwritten. MacFarlane is competent, but beyond that I'll have to withhold judgment on her performance because I'm still not sure what her character is doing here. The scene is an uncomfortable restaurant conversation between two former lovers, but it's always unclear from both directions exactly how meaningful their relationship was. And when "D" starts talking about her desire to grow a garden and her fear that a frost might kill it, we can't help but ask ourselves if the dearth of developed female characters in Mamet's writing career is caused by his dearth of understanding for females in romantic crises. The spoiled garden talk feels like an overripe metaphor for thwarted female desire, not to mention a handy diagnosis for the playwright's paralysis. Bring up the subject of women and (nonmaternal) love or desire, and watch him scamper like a scared bunny. New Theatre's The Old Neighborhood is full of such pulled punches, and a few direct hits too, although you spend so much time calling the fight, the sensation of its bruises sometimes evades you.

The Old Neighborhood runs through March 27. Call (214) 871-3300.

Street shots
Playwright Naomi Iizuka was drawn away from Yale Law School toward the theater by the siren song of classical literature. Contemporary if non-traditionally narrative versions of myth have made Ms. Iizuka's name at venues as diverse in scale and scope as Printer's Devil, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the Dallas Theater Center, where Skin, her adaptation of the German expressionist classic Woyzeck, played at the DTC's Big D Festival a few years back.

Other adaptations by Iizuka include Carthage, her version of the story of Dido and Aeneas, and Polaroid Stories, her more recent retelling of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" currently approaching its final weekend at the Undermain. The troupe had already done Iizuka's Tattoo Girl in collaboration with the University of Texas at Dallas, making her more widely produced than many young playwrights of such aggressively experimental leanings. A recent essay by Arthur Miller in Harpers attacked the buzz that seems to reflexively surround works that are christened experimental, saying the only thing that should matter is how well the playwright puts forth his or her view of the world.

Judging by the Undermain's diverting but inconsequential production, I'd say the verdict is still out on Iizuka's view of society. However, she does seem to hold the view that using the framework of a classic story as a kind of theatrical tree--hanging ideas old and new--automatically imbues her play with profundity. Although Polaroid Stories boasts a 2,000-year-old literary marquee name on its pedigree, Ms. Iizuka never really makes a strong connection between the malt-liquor-swilling, crack-smoking, baggy-pants-wearing homeless teens hanging around the sewer and the interplay among gods and mortals in Ovid's stories. Indeed, just as the diaphanous pants are about to fall off the butts of some of these hard-hearted young addicts, so the too-loose parallels of these stories about the creation of the world have to be pulled up by the characters and the playwright. The kids' lives are too aimless and structureless and hopeless, the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and the like too finely honed in their intent and execution, to make a match with impact.

Undermain associate and director Doug Stuart unwittingly collaborates with this feeling by pushing his actors and audience so close together, containing most of the action within a chain-link-fence box. Trapping so many wandering lives in so small a space takes the energy and wanderlust out of their stories. There are appealing moments and clever touches throughout--Orpheus (Max Hartman) boasts a guitar instead of a lyre and writes Wally Pleasant-like odes of love to Eurydice (Sitara DiGagne), while Theseus (Derik Webb) is a twangy skinhead boy who can't get over how cool the word "Motherfucker" sounds when it echoes endlessly inside the city sewer line. Narcissus (Newton Pitman) is appropriately cocky and is followed around by a reflection (Megan Pitsios) who lovingly repeats everything he says. But since most of these characters are jonesing for shelter or rock or just a little affection, their individuality is submerged under universal (not counting the crack) needs. If homeless kids are too easily ignored or dismissed, it's because their personalities are reduced to the sum total of everything they're not getting that they should. Add Iizuka's classical layer to their plight, and her characters become even blurrier. The title Polaroid Stories becomes inadvertently appropriate--the Undermain performances, spirited but unmemorable, finally do achieve the sensation of that indistinct, disposable image technology.

Polaroid Stories runs through March 20. Call (214) 747-1424.

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