There’s no denying Mamet is clever and provocative: the last one to deny it would no doubt be Mamet himself. That may be his biggest problem. His early plays avoided the need to provoke the pesky liberals among whom he lived in Cambridge for many years. On the other hand, I did see Oleanna with Rebecca Pidgeon and William H. Macy on its opening night at the Hasty Pudding in Cambridge. (I was sitting behind Mamet, and when it finished, he turned to is friend and asked, “Too Academic?”) I ignored the play’s lack of character development and was intrigued by it as a way of provoking discussion. The language had been delivered at machine gun speed, particularly by Macy, who was, at the time, one of the the best actors at performing Mamet. The playwright had just married Rebecca Pidgeon and she, too, gave a terrific performance.
The very first of Mamet play I saw was Sexual Perversity in Chicago with F. Murray Abraham and Peter Riegert in 1976. It was one of the slickest, sharpest performances I’d ever seen. (Years later, during an interview, I mentioned that to Abraham, who leaned back in his chair and said: “I was quite good in that wasn’t I?”) The play’s bombastic, often deluded characters struck me as representations of contemporary American types less than fully formed characters, but his crackling use of language, the play of words, and the rhythm of his dialogue demonstrated that a well-directed and masterfully acted production of this playwright could be a great night of theater.
Race feels didactic and there is a bit of hubris to his cloying and ‘academic’ discourse on race, sexism, and lawyers. There are a number of new black playwrights who bring forward more honest discussions on the subject of race. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Tarell Alvin McCrarey’s Brother Sister Plays, Suzan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (which had a terrific production at New Rep in 2005) and many of August Wilson’s ten plays have been produced recently in Boston. But all the more reason to bring on a discussion of race and ethics via Mamet. The more discussion and argument there is the better.
My real suggestion is that Mamet should be played without so much thrashing about. The best Mamet performances come from the way he and director Scott Zigler trained actors. Mamet and Macy developed an acting program called the ‘Practical Aesthetics Workshop’. It was based on Sanford Meisner and emphasized putting your attention on the other actors, focusing on the actor’s will, intention, and actions, on rehearsal, and on what the script required of you. Without spouting the program’s philosophy, the result emphasized language ,not character. One grows from the other. The result can seem stiff and robotic at first, but as the language roils up, the power of the play increases. We become hypnotized more by the words than any fluttering about on stage. It certainly is a playwright’s conceit, but to see Macy engage this method, is to be amazed at the contained power of a performance, and the music of Mamet’s language.