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Signifying Nothing

How the everlasting cocksucking fuck did David Mamet get to be so lauded a figure in American theater? True, he’s been the subject of a great many interviews and profiles, in the likes of Salon and The New Yorker. And, true, he received a Pulitzer Prize. But so did William Inge, Lanford Wilson, Beth Henley and Joseph Kramm (for 1952‘s The Shrike, remember?) -- none of whom has been praised as being “among the great writers of this, or any other time,” as actor-director Joe Mantegna writes in his blurb for pal Mamet’s 1998 collection of essays, Three Uses of the Knife. Mamet‘s Pulitzer in 1984 was for Glengarry Glen Ross, a portrait of sordid American business practices as revealed through Mamet’s trademark taut linguistic cadences and repetitions. His dialogue has been often compared to that of the early Harold Pinter, as transmuted to the streets of Chicago. Pinter, however, stirs colloquial cliches and banter into an eerie, comedic blend of absurdity and menace -- a blend that emerges as a firmly situated world-view. Not so Mamet, whose world-view wobbles like a gyroscope.

Where Pinter crawled into sardonic Sam Beckett‘s black hole and redecorated it in a style of his own, Mamet’s comedy about inept thugs, 1976‘s American Buffalo, is a transparent transatlantic variation on the style of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. But even when Mamet hits his stride, yielding poetry from profanity in plays like Glengarry Glen Ross, 1988‘s Speed-the-Plow and 1994’s Oleanna, you still hear in his work more echoes from abroad than original sounds. Still, it‘s hard to identify or care about such distinctions when the subject matter is shaded with the mesmerizing angst of real estate closings (Glengarry), clashes of egos within a Hollywood film studio (Speed-the-Plow) or a college professor charged with sexually harassing a student (Oleanna).

Remove the atmosphere of desperation, however, and Mamet’s technique is more evident, as in 1981‘s Lakeboat (a film version of which is in current release, directed by Mantegna) or A Life in the Theater, now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse. Without overt mania to propel them, these early, relatively tender works -- about male bonding aboard a vessel traversing the Great Lakes, or between a pair of stage actors caught in an uneasy friendship -- glide by on Mamet’s clipped, repeated phrases. The meaning, even the characterizations, lies in the dialogue‘s musicality, in a kind of hypnosis passing itself off as drama.

It’s often said that the great theater scribes keep writing the same play over and over. Although Shakespeare‘s frame of reference, in plays as vastly different as Coriolanus and The Comedy of Errors, may be as large as the moon, it is still one frame, from one playwright. Not true of Mamet, who for different occasions shows up as a completely different writer. The purposes, even the underlying philosophies, of, say, the sweet 1992 movie Things Change or the furious play Oleanna seem to be at odds with each other. The only element binding them may be those cadences and repetitions. This is more than just the symptom of a diverse range or of an evolving artist. As a showman, Mamet displays a brilliant facility with language, but glancing back over the body of his work, I can’t fathom how he really feels, or whether he feels anything at all -- whether Mamet is enigmatic beyond comprehension, or merely facile.

In A Life in the Theater, Mamet‘s homage to the art form that would catapult him to fame, aging thespian Robert (Hal Holbrook) lectures his young stage partner, John (baby-faced Rick Stear), “Sound . . . the crown prince of phenomena. An ugly sound to me is more offensive than an ugly odor. An ugly sound is an extension of an ugly soul.”

And even though young John cringes at Robert’s incessant overblown pontificating -- at one point he puts their delicate rapport on the line by telling the stage veteran to shut up -- Robert‘s point about the sounds of words nonetheless reverberates through all of Mamet’s subsequent work. (The playwright‘s emotions may be hard to track, but not his opinions.) Mamet’s treatise on acting, 1999‘s True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, argues the need for actors to submit not only to the primacy of the Word and its attendant meanings, but to the sound of the dialogue and its attendant music. Mamet applies this thesis to all plays, when it’s really germane only to works by playwrights like Mamet and Pinter, who chisel language with surgical precision. It‘s the same view held by director Sir Peter Hall, whose recent productions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Ahmanson featured actors obviously -- and embarrassingly -- stultified by Sir Peter‘s fixation on cadence and pronunciation. Language may or may not be the foundation of theater, but the theater certainly consists of more than words and sounds.

Still, the relevance of Mamet’s theory to Mamet‘s plays is strikingly illustrated by director Michael Michetti’s failure to punctuate those vital rhythms at the Pasadena Playhouse. A Life in the Theater is a duet between Robert and John, played out in a series of scenes and tableaux -- backstage, onstage, in the dressing room, by the pay phone in the hallway. As Robert, whose career is stagnating, brings the wisdom of the aged to his poetic pronouncements on the theatrical vocation, John‘s social and professional life takes flight. Holbrook’s Robert displays a brittle envy of slick John‘s ascent, a pain that bubbles to the surface between kindly laughs and fatherly advice. Meanwhile, John struggles -- and sometimes fails -- to remain deferential while being so patronized. (The tension hits a peak when John commits the cardinal sin of defending a theater critic.)

Some of the scenes are as brief as a good morning. Others include performances of long selections -- from some World War I epic or a play resembling A Man for All Seasons -- viewed from behind the scenery, as wigs and lines are dropped in gentle moments of backstage farce. Gary Wissmann’s dusty, brick-toned set is appropriately whimsical, although a dressing room that slowly rolls into place necessitates interminable transitions between short scenes. Michetti presumes he can cover the gaps with Mitch Greenhill‘s bouncy, jazzy scoresound design, but the result turns such moments into a creeping shadow of Seinfeld’s bass-popping transitions.

This fundamental violation of rhythm extends to the pacing of many of the scenes themselves. And unfortunately, with Mamet, if the aural punctuation isn‘t perfectly honed, the sounds become noise. The characters deflate before our eyes. The trance is broken. The emperor stands naked before us.

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