Who’s Conning Who? Rebeck Does Mamet Lite

A couple of smackdowns liven things up a bit—Jackie flattens big sis with a punch to the jaw, and we’re meant to feel glad. (We do.) Mr. Abraham’s frustrated Sterling beats up the newly manipulative Jackie, and we’re meant to feel shocked. (We don’t. Well, I didn’t.) In any case he apologizes sweetly, which makes everything okay.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything for you by adding that everyone in this cast of familiar characters double-crosses everyone else, and that nothing actually makes any sense you’d care a jot about. Mauritius, the ersatz David Mamet drama, ends up as a lame comedy caper, with happy ending attached.

 

HOWARD BARKER, LITTLE KNOWN YET highly acclaimed, is being given an ambitious showcase by an adventurous troupe that’s new to me. The Inner Circle Theatre Company’s New York premiere of his 1987 The Possibilities reminds us of the uncompromised possibilities of theater itself.

Mr. Barker is one of the post-Osborne generation of British playwrights that includes activists such as Edward Bond, David Edgar and Howard Brenton. Mr. Barker’s urgent polemical essays about theater damn the commercial bourgeois dramas of no surprises (and happy endings), while taking no prisoners in his opposition to the liberal pieties that merely comfort or preach to the choir. His fierce intelligence and talent aren’t without humor, but he doesn’t see life as a comedy. (Even Chekhov is too sentimental for him.)

Mr. Barker is a playwright who believes in the darker places of the soul, in moral speculation and ambiguity, in confronting the pain of being alive. In his stories and fables, he’s daring to reinvent the theater experience.

The 10 short plays in the The Possibilities evening at the Sargent Theatre on West 54th Street are outwardly naïve, timeless parables of war and deception and wounds. In a Middle Eastern war, a weaver ecstatically discovers that real blood dyes wool in a spectacular way—and is killed. A married woman is deceived into opening the door of her home to terrorists. A timorous emperor shits in his pants with fear, but flogs the loyal servant who sympathizes with him. A paranoid hobo is a bookseller convinced that all books will be burned. A torturer, new to town in search of confessions, not truth, rents a room. The biblical story of Judith turns into a tale of a woman’s unforeseen, obsessive love for her conquered enemy. A wounded soldier returns home with a sack of severed heads and seduces his wife.

Some of these stories, which have been ably directed by Albert Aeed, work better than others, and some among the committed, multicultural cast need a little more experience. No matter. The veteran actor Angus Hepburn gives a wonderful performance as the deranged bookseller, and we’ve been introduced to Mr. Barker’s compelling, self-described “Theater of Catastrophe.”

This remarkable evening of playlets prepares the way for the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s New York premiere later this month of Howard Barker’s 1992 A Hard Heart, starring Kathleen Chalfant.