Photo by Craig Schwartz

David Mamet will turn 52 in November. By this age, most playwrights have pretty much exhausted what life memories they’ve been drawing upon for subject matter and start strip-mining other veins of experience. Some begin writing about writing — or rather, about the world of celebrity that writing has opened for them, a rarefied milieu of psychiatrists, attorneys and high-rent betrayals. Others reach far back in time to childhood in search of “what went wrong,” guided by the uneasy yet unshakable feeling that politically, morally or personally, the world hasn’t measured up to its early advertisements. Mamet has begun to take this second approach, and the results — a pair of one-acts currently in repertory at the Geffen Playhouse — regale us with both jaunty evocations of a vanished Jewish Chicago and the exorbitant sadness that comes from knowing that somewhere just before middle age, “life” became “fate.”

Yet, at either of the plays’ conclusions, Mamet’s examination of what’s gone wrong isn’t the same as the playwright’s claiming that life has welched on its promise. Nor does he bemoan the loss of the summery playground of youth. Well, from a distance it may look as though he does, but as in most Mamet stories, the truth lies somewhere beneath these deceptively familiar themes, as well as between the lines of his staccato dialogue.

Similarly, at first glance this billing of The Old Neighborhood with The Cryptogram looks like a shotgun wedding, the miscegenation of two very different and very short plays (75 and 65 minutes, respectively) that have been paired solely to justify a trip to Westwood. (The Geffen Playhouse’s detailed stage-bill notes, along with its lobby display of blown-up Mamet quotes, make the evening read more like a project than a production.) But closer inspection reveals a connection, however tenuous and accidental it may be. The first play picks through the emotional debris of a sundered Jewish family by looking to the past; the second play is set in the past and presents a much more generalized family unit at the exact flashpoint of a crisis that will determine its future.

In The Old Neighborhood (1997), we are reintroduced to Mamet’s driven Everymensch Bobby Gould (David Boutsikaris), who’s shooting the breeze in a hotel room with an old boyhood pal, Joey (David Warshofsky). They share Chicago memories about drugstores, girlfriends and synagogues, until Joey asks Bobby how his wife is doing. When Bobby replies, “Fine,” Joey presses the point: “But how is she?”

We then learn that Bobby’s estranged wife is a shiksa — and apparently not a very compassionate one, given that she believes Jews themselves are somehow responsible for their centuries of persecution. This last confession from Bobby is reveille to Joey’s ears, prompting him to go on a rant in which he both denounces anti-Semites and chides Bobby for having left the old neighborhood and, by extension, his “people.” From there Joey rhapsodizes himself into a shtetl fantasy, in which he becomes an authentic man through “farming, building, carrying things.”

This scene, laconically titled “The Disappearance of the Jews,” is clearly Joey’s, and at the Geffen this also means it belongs to Warshofsky, who by turns is pathetic, frightening and vulnerable. Within minutes this Jewish utopia becomes corrupted by Joey’s own projected infidelities; after turning his back on this idyll, Joey admits to being obsessed with the idea of murdering his family and committing suicide in some remote wilderness. “I’m going to die like this,” the smalltime restaurateur laments, “a schmuck.”

Director Michael Bloom shows a keen awareness of the dangerous, delusional ambitions revealed through the resentful outbursts of characters who suspect their lives are more banal than heroic, and draws fine performances from his actors in both plays. Warshofsky is frankly electric during this scene, though Boutsikaris has not exactly clocked out, either. His melancholy face is a map of sympathy, and at times we almost think we can hear his eyebrows sigh. Watching him during Joey’s tirade, we see a man who wants to believe all gentiles wear swastika underwear, who aches to accept that happiness comes only with staying with your own kind, but also — now middle-aged — knows the futility of chasing nostalgic mirages.

Well, almost, for next we find Bobby at his sister Jolly’s (Robin Bartlett) home, which she shares with her gently supportive husband, Carl (Ed Begley Jr.). Here Bobby listens to what must be a familiar recital by now — Jolly’s bitter accounts of how abusive, cheap and uncaring their mother and Christian stepfather were to them. Jolly is an open sore of hurt and rage, leaving Bobby little to do but murmur soothing words — and realize how truly alone in the world he is, a wandering Jew who cannot even return to the hearth of warm personal myths. When Jolly’s hands reach around him in a clawlike embrace and she declares, “This is a family,” we know her brother is not only estranged from his wife, but from a home that never really was.

The play’s last scene is a lunch meeting between Bobby and an old girlfriend (Christine Dunford) in the café of the department store where she works. Listening to the pretty but hollow-headed, rambling Deeny, Bobby knows that not even the promise of sex can redeem the past and that his diaspora in life is final.

The Cryptogram (first staged in 1994, but based on much earlier writing) takes place in 1959. A hyperactive boy, John (Will Rothhaar), anxiously awaits the return home of his father, Robert, who is to take him camping. Trying to keep John calm (this was in the days before Ritalin) are his mother, Donny (Dunford), and his parents’ affable homosexual friend, Del (Begley). But it’s soon plain that there will be no camping trip, this weekend or any. The grown-ups cotton on when John finds a note on the staircase; after the boy goes to his room, Donny discloses its contents to Del: A Dear Donny letter from Robert that will uncover Del’s helpful role in Robert’s extramarital affair — and subsequent departure. Devastated, Donny counters this betrayal by telling Del that the German paratrooper knife Robert presented to him was not won in combat but purchased in a London street. Little by little, John begins to decode the language of adults and, with its deciphering, learns a new world of pain.

The Cryptogram’s beginning is filled with the clipped cadences of Mamet-speak as characters interrogate each other about the simplest events. This may help explain John’s precocious ability to decrypt adult conversation, but it also underscores the artificiality of Mamet’s language: Listening to John metallically bark questions as though he were a real estate hustler from Glengarry Glen Ross, we realize that, while some playwrights strive to be poets of the American soul, Mamet is its stenographer, or at least, its leading journalist. Unfortunately, in Mamet’s reportage the Five W’s are What, What, What, What and What, which often leaves us numb.

Mamet is often compared to Harold Pinter, and it’s true that, besides sharing membership in a mutual admiration society, the two playwriting giants both favor elliptical rhetorical strategies that stress economy and menace. Yet there is one crucial difference: If you read the dialogue in most Pinter plays without knowing which character is speaking, you still have a pretty good chance of identifying individual voices; remove the character names from a Mamet script and all you can imagine is a room full of William H. Macys.

You may not leave the Geffen with a full stomach — this time less really is less, and we get no sense of having done anything but briefly eavesdropped on a few aggravated characters. Perhaps it’s best to regard these plays as opposite ends of a telescope: For 10-year-old John, its eyepiece reveals the future as a big, frightening horizon; looking through the other end, Bobby Gould can only view life pastward, a pinpoint of light too small to reveal details. The implication of this bill is that when we glimpse these two versions of destiny, we are either too young or too old for them to be of use to us. For this reason alone, we suspect that Mamet’s birthday is going to fall on a particularly cold November day.

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