Tuesday, November 27, 2007

David Mamet

I first became aware of Mamet as a writer through his 1987 film about the world of con men, House of Games. I was fascinated by the dialog and by Joe Mantegna’s performance. Mamet characters are usually lowlifes, undereducated men who pretend to omniscience. They pronounce eternal truisms about the most banal details of their sordid lives and defend their “positions” on such matters as if they involved the highest moral principle. That makes the dialog seem unself-consciously clever from the characters’ own points of view, humorous to the condescending audience, and well-crafted from a critic’s point of view. Mamet is all about dialog.

I eagerly sought out Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992 and The Spanish Prisoner in 1997 and was not disappointed by either of those films. I even read his short book, Three Uses of the Knife (2000), a series of lectures on the nature of drama. That helped me appreciate his style even better. I also enjoyed Lakeboat, State and Main, and especially, the recent (2005) Edmond, starring William H. Macy in a tremendous acting performance. I haven’t seen all Mamet's films but I have never been disappointed by any of those I have seen.

So it was with high expectations that I went to a local performance of his 1975 play, American Buffalo, produced by Theater Schmeater in Seattle. Directed by Aimee Bruneau, it starred Trick Danneker, Mark Fullerton, and James Venturini as the three actors, the only three characters physically present in the play, although three or four other characters felt like they were also in the play because of how the characters referred to them, a nice feat of playwriting. Donny (Venturini) owns a pawn shop, where all the “action” takes place (and 99.9% of the action is verbal). Bobby (Danneker) is a young junkie who hangs out there, apparently out of loneliness, as does Donny’s friend and poker buddy Teach (Fullerton).

These aimless, shiftless characters have very small horizons. No customers ever appear in the shop, but Donny tells how a customer yesterday bought an American buffalo nickel from him for $50, making him think later that it must have been worth much more than that. Donny recruits the other two into a scheme to rob the customer, who lives nearby, of his presumptive coin collection. They discuss this scheme endlessly for 60 minutes, along with much else, such as the virtues of eating yogurt, how to cheat at cards, and whether the waitress down the street treats them with proper respect. Clearly the men are incapable of even conceptualizing the robbery well, let alone executing it, but that does not stop them from declaring their wisdom on the topic and staking out their points of view on various ancillary matters. It is classic Mamet technique. In the final act, they resolve to forget the whole thing and the play is over.

I am really not a theater person. I see a play once or twice a year, but I have really enjoyed only half a dozen performances in twenty-five years. Why do I keep going? I don’t know. Maybe I just can’t believe that such a popular art form can so consistently escape me.

American Buffalo was a case in point. The production was perfectly competent and I was never actually bored, not to the point that I wanted to walk out. But even while watching it, I kept thinking, what is the point of all this jabbering? Mamet’s dialogic cleverness cannot sustain the full 60 minutes of the play alone. To me, the purpose of a play is to illuminate the human condition in some way. So what was illuminated by these three nattering characters? Uneducated people don’t think clearly? They are not self-aware? Their thinking tends to self-aggrandizement? Okay, maybe, but I think I knew that.

There is a slightly more subtle theme about the nature of male friendship. The characters argue (over nothing), shouting when there is no reason to shout, poking and pushing when there is no reason to poke and push, and finally there is a fight (over nothing) that upsets the furniture and draws blood. But at the end, Teach asks Donny, “You’re not mad at me, are you?” Donny puts aside his crusty authoritarianism for just a moment and answers tenderly, “No.” Despite all the yelling, shouting, threats, insults, shoves and fisticuffs, the men don’t mean anything by it. It’s just the only way they know how to express their friendship. That idea is not new news, but the particular way it was acted out, maybe that was enough to justify the effort. I’m not sure.

I admit there is something magical about sitting with a group of 50 people and having three of them get up and start telling a story; showing a story, actually. It’s a peculiarly human thing to do. Chimpanzees would never do it. Only we can see ourselves in the mirror of the other. So the contextual experience of the art form itself has value, no denying that. But I have a sense of missed opportunity after a play like this.

Maybe it simply was not the most terrific acting. Teach was a hyperventilated kinetic character that seemed cloned from the Kramer character TV's Seinfeld. That was unimaginative, although the director probably realized it would help keep the overall energy level up. Donny was not convincing as a shopkeeper or a criminal and suggested nothing more sinister than a friend’s loudmouth father. Bobby was a cipher. So maybe the problem with me and the theater is that I am too cheap to spring for top drawer tickets to first class productions.

For Seattle theater-goers, Theater Schmeater is at www.schmeater.org.

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