Pulling punches

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.

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Jimmy Fowler