It will be sacrilege to many, but I’m beginning to see David Mamet as the Andy Warhol of theater. They are, of course, outwardly as different as a crew cut is from a lopsided wig, but they link in the shallow essentials. Both, for instance, claim that their art reflects us, or the culture, or America. And if you find nothing there, so much the better. Mr. Mamet explained to The New Yorker recently, “As Bettelheim says in The Uses of Enchantment , the more you leave out, the more we see ourselves in the picture, the more we project our own thoughts onto it.”
It’s a trick that works (and Mr. Mamet is known to be fond of illusionists and con men). Warhol said about himself that there’s nothing there! Mr. Mamet says the same, only different: Everything’s there, you just can’t see it. It’s all hidden in the coded subtext! You may wonder what’s hidden there, exactly. And the answer is, a projection of yourself!
Where, then, is the drama? It’s up to you! Unfortunately, I didn’t find any drama in Mr. Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood at the Booth Theater on Broadway, but lots of other people have. They find a searing masterpiece. I didn’t even find a play . I saw three separate and inconsequential sketches that had been strung together for 90 intermissionless minutes. The last act, or scene, lasts only 15 minutes. It has its 15 minutes of fame. But the more you leave out, the more we see ourselves in the picture.
We are told that The Old Neighborhood is a play-or, say, a tone poem, a Mametian version of Bach, a Cubist mystery, whatever-and therefore it must be a play. We’ve always been told that Warhol’s nonart is great art because it’s an artful comment on the state of art. Thus The New York Times can describe Mr. Mamet as “this most private of writers” while conducting a major interview with him. He rarely gives interviews, as he also explained in a New Yorker interview. He’s a mystery! Yet we already know all about his difficult upbringing, his divorced parents, his writer sister and his renewed sense of Judaism from his own autobiographical essays. I even know all about his new kitchen-having come across a picture spread of it in Elle Decor . It looks very nice.
Mr. Mamet is a famous private man in the sense that Woody Allen is famously a recluse. It’s the game he plays, like his pretense of being a neo-Brechtian intellectual in disguise. In True and False , his latest book of “ideas,” his advice to actors would dehumanize them ridiculously, but it sounds challenging: “If you learn the words by rote, as if they were a phone book, and let them come out of your mouth without your interpretation, the audience will be well served.”
The audience won’t. But if you’re irritated by Mr. Mamet’s absurdity, you will be told by his disciples that that’s the point! “You see! You’re having a dramatic reaction !” If you found yourself nauseated by the character of the sexually harassed student in Oleanna , you were therefore no better than the usual male pig. If you were provoked into protest by the fake mystery and traditionally oblique Mametspeak of The Cryptogram , you were therefore being callous about the fate of its abused 10-year-old child.
Mr. Mamet likes to put us in a double bind. Here he is, in one of his rare public moments, discussing a production of Hamlet he’s been working on for two years: “I want to see people clawing each other to death outside the theater.” I expect they will be. (Although inside the theater would be preferable.) Mr. Mamet’s old friend William H. Macy is the unlikely Hamlet. We trust Mr. Macy is playing the prince as if he were a phone book. The cast has also included Whoopi Goldberg as the Player King-yeah, sure-the diminutive Michael J. Fox as Laertes-it’s a new interpretation!-and the dramatist is hoping to persuade Steve Martin to play Claudius.
Memo to Steve Martin-don’t do it. You see! Mr. Mamet’s forthcoming Hollywoodized Hamlet is already antagonizing us into a reaction because it will be no Hamlet at all.
When is a play not a play? When it’s The Old Neighborhood . The two-character opener, “The Disappearance of the Jews,” promises much from its bold title. But it just turns out to be a doodle about two middle-aged guys kibitzing about the good old days. Bobby (Peter Riegert), Mr. Mamet’s somewhat droopy alter ego, links the three acts; Joey (Vincent Guastaferro) is his inarticulate childhood friend. “Fuck that shit, fuck that shit,” says Joey, “she’s got a point in my ass, what the fuck did they ever do?”
The laughter comes easily from most of the audience, as if they were attending a ritual. “I should never have married a shiksa,” Bobby confesses, and the word “shiksa” brings smug laughter, too. What’s going on? The guys talk about girls they knew. “And so which broad was mine?” “Rosen … I don’t know … Rubovitch.” “Some Jew broad … Some folk dancer. I don’t know. Some Jap. Some Eskimo … How’s Laurie?” “Fine.”
They don’t seem too bright. They seem merely tired. They shoot the breeze about the past, imagining a sentimentalized version of shtetl life. “They’d say, ‘There goes Rob Lewis, he’s the strongest man in Lódz.’ I’d nod. ‘He once picked up an ox.’ Or some fucking thing. I don’t know if you can pick up an ox, Bob, but I tell you, I feel in my heart I was meant to work out in the winter all day. To be strong.”
Right. Joey the caterer would rather be a rabbi tilling the fields in a shtetl . “Not this, Bobby. Not this.” But neither of them believes it. Nor do we. It’s just small talk. The subtext-ah, that mysterious subtext!-is meant to convey the disappearance of the assimilated Jews and a desperate search for meaning and roots. Big and important issues-reduced to a shrug, a comedy turn, a vague, slack nostalgia.
Act 2, entitled “Jolly,” is the most autobiographical of the evening’s trio. The not so jolly character of Jolly (Patti LuPone) is based-we’ve read widely-on Mr. Mamet’s sister, who’s a writer living in southern California. It’s about a middle-aged brother and sister maimed by uncaring parents. But it could just as well be called, “Why I’m Still Bitter Because My Horrible Mom Didn’t Give Me Skis for Christmas.”
It’s incredible. “Jolly” is little more than a loud, prolonged whine from unforgiving, self-hating, motormouth sis. Poor baby. She wanted skis for Christmas, cocksucker! And she’s a Jew! You think that makes it sleazy? Easy . That makes it fucking easy? Uh-uh. Fuck them. It’s not the skis . It’s what they stand for. They gave her a fucking book bag instead. What are you gonna do? It ruined her life. Schlepping the fucking book bag around all day long, for years, you know, fucking years, because, because she was never … fucking loved .
Get over it! It’s time. On the other hand, if you wish to project your own childhood resentments onto the aggressive little piece, this is the perfect opportunity. There’s much universal material-need for love, understanding, Shabbos candles, haimish food, skis.
I realize it’s all really in the hidden subtext. “Suffice it to say, we are not the victims of a happy childhood,” Mr. Mamet’s sister told The Times about the upbringing of them both. “It was emotional terrorism. In my estimation, we are survivors of a travel route that included a 1950’s version of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, and that we both still bear the numbers on our arms.”
Ms. Mamet-think what you’re saying, for God’s sake. And count your blessings.
As for the slender 15-minute piece of The Old Neighborhood that brings down the curtain, it’s about lackluster Bobby saying goodbye to his wan wife, Deeny (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mr. Mamet’s real-life wife), who comes out with stuff like: “I was thinking of tribes who mutilate themselves …”
All good things must end.