If you need an illustration of how much the early writing of Harold Pinter influenced the early writing of David Mamet, you need only check out Randall Arney's staging of Mamet's 1975 American Buffalo at the Geffen Playhouse, which opened last week. It's then worth perusing Pinter's 1960 one-act The Dumb Waiter for their striking similarities, before considering the divergent political paths of Mamet and Pinter. Mamet swung to the right, Pinter to the left, a shift emblazoned in Pinter's recorded speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize, in which he eviscerated U.S. military policies, specifically the invasion of Iraq, as one in a series of international war crimes. By the end of his life, Pinter was a spokesman denouncing human rights abuses worldwide.
What, then, is the relationship between a writer's plays and the political principles they express? In the playwrights we emulate, it's actually a tight relationship.
It's often argued that a play, in order to be aesthetically pure, should disguise the author's soap-box opinions. This was among the loudest criticisms of Mamet's Oleanna, a rigged debate between an embattled college professor and strident, intellectually middling feminists who destroy his life largely on trumped-up charges — as though Mamet the author was clunking around the stage and knocking over the furniture, or so the complaints ran. What, then, can be said of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot, Master Harold ... and the Boys and A Lesson From Aloes — an entire subgenre of plays indicting apartheid policies in South Africa. The main difference between Fugard's insertion of politics and Mamet's is one of subtlety. Oleanna is as subtle as the expletives that punctuate so many of Mamet's plays. Was his offense simply being too obvious? Unlikely. His critique of his opponents' dogma was no less obvious, or rigged, than Vaclav Havel's similar critique in Temptation — a parody of Soviet bureaucrats in communist-occupied Czechoslovakia, and a play far less controversial than Oleanna — at least in the West. Mamet's primary offense in Oleanna was being politically offensive. An argument could be made that being offensive is to an artist's credit.
If the obviousness of his politics is Mamet's crime, what, then, can be said of Pinter's growing infusion of politics in his plays, starting in 1984 with his satire of bureaucrats bantering about nuclear annihilation in One for the Road, and continuing in 1988 with Mountain Language, concerning Turkish suppression of the Kurdish language. Both Pinter and Mamet devoted the better part of their careers to the cliches and double-speak of language, and their connections to political bullying. The devil in their plays is dogma.
What's fascinating is how they start at such similar starting points in their respective early plays, The Dumb Waiter and American Buffalo, before arriving at opposite poles of the political spectrum decades later in their philosophies of how to live with the barbarity both plays depict.
In American Buffalo, three thugs, who endorse violence to varying degrees as a means to an end, come and go in a 1970s junk shop owned by the most reasonable one of the lot, Don (Bill Smitrovich). Don recoils at the sight of a gun in his shop — he doesn't want weapons used in his various heists. There's no reason that his crookery should involve people coming to blows, he believes. Smitrovich, with his bald pate, stands around a lot with his arms folded over his belly, listening to the lunatic theories of his co-conspirators mostly with patience. Then he turns on a spigot, letting loose the more forceful stream of his own wishes. Don wins most arguments. He is, after all, the owner, the brains and the senior of all the characters in the play.
Don has a certain rough-hewn, paternalistic fondness for a "kid" named Bob (Freddy Rodriguez), who rarely uses a word exceeding two syllables, continually hits up his foster dad for cash and wanders through life, or at least through the "resale shop," at a slight angle. It's as though he sees the world at a tilt. He has an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear, when he's not running it through his fingers.
The play opens with the pair planning a heist. The details are sketchy at first, and will slowly come into focus — not unlike in The Dumb Waiter, set in a hotel basement, where a pair of thugs are waiting for an assignment that's similarly cryptic at first but eventually becomes clearer.
The bond between Pinter's thugs, Ben and Gus, also is paternalistic. An undercurrent of working-class menace runs through both plays. As an interlude, the characters in each play spend considerable time talking about food — a common trope in plays and movies about thugs that lends glimmers of absurdity to the horrors that lie underneath.
In both plays, a pivotal character has a mental breakdown, driven mad by his incomprehension of his environs, in what appears to be a shared, almost tragic compassion for oppressed characters, railing against the forces of commerce and of life that bear down upon them.
You'd almost imagine from these scenes that the two playwrights have the same politics.
In The Dumb Waiter, Gus implodes: "What's he doing it for? We've been through our tests, haven't we? We got right through our tests, years ago, didn't we? We took them together, don't you remember, didn't we? We proved ourselves before now, haven't we? We've always done our job. What's he doing all this for? What's the idea? What's he playing these games for? ... WE'VE GOT NOTHING LEFT! NOTHING! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
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American Buffalo's third character, Teach (Ron Eldard), suffers a similar collapse near that play's conclusion, after their planned heist has gone awry: "My Whole Cocksucking Life. The Whole Entire World. There Is No Law. There Is No Right and Wrong. The World Is Lies. There Is No Friendship. Every Fucking Thing. (pause) Every God-Forsaken Thing." (The script capitalizes every word, as though Mamet is crowing about rather than apologizing for the articulation of the play's larger view.)
I do wish Arney's production were tighter. The actors are magnificent, as is Takeshi Kata's ultra-cluttered set with stools and bicycle wheels and suitcases stacked at various altitudes. The play on the page is taut, yet onstage it plods, possibly from the excessive focus on the emotions flying across the room. The actors are good enough to keep those emotions wry, expressed in the glint of an eye or a furrowed eyebrow. Arney deserves credit for that, but he also deserves blame for the sagging cue pick-up, which slows the pace. Imagine Rice Krispies having sat too long in milk.
Still, it's a revelation to see a play now regarded an American classic. Classics often are ultimately portraits of cruelty and despair. The mystery remains how two playwrights can have such a common understanding of the human condition and then, over the course of a lifetime, arrive at such opposite conclusions over what to do about it.
AMERICAN BUFFALO | By David Mamet | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through May 12 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com