Friday, October 2, 2009

Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet

Grade: B-

By David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. At the Atlantic Theatre Company. (CLOSED)

Despite writing some bona-fide classics, David Mamet hasn't written a good play since The Cryptogram, devoting most of his time to creating a third-rate 24, excoriating Jews who aren't into ethnic cleansing as self-hating and-- in his essays in the Times and the Voice-- doing his borscht-belt imitation of Ann Coulter's schtick. Ah well, he has a banner season ahead of him anyway, including a revival of Oleanna (the first step in his artistic downfall) and a new play called Race, both of which open on Broadway this season. But before either of those happen, audiences get a little taste of the playwright's latest work with this double-bill of one acts at the Atlantic. Did he break his creaky streak? Critics for the most part are underwhelmed on substance but too busy laughing to care. Elisabeth Vincentelli, who has recently been on a self-described negative streak feels that if anyone other than Mamet wrote these plays, they'd never have gotten produced. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Backstage finds the plays a hilarious departure.

Backstage A
(David Sheward)Directed with perfect timing by Neil Pepe [Keep Your Pantheon] centers on a down-at-the-heels acting troupe as it chases gigs and keeps one step ahead of the landlord. The running gag is the amorous interest that almost every character -- all of them male -- takes in young Philius, the troupe's handsome but talent-free boy apprentice. This time, Mamet is not out to make points about power, greed or sex (gay or straight); he just wants to tickle the funny bone.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) Pantheon may be a trifle but it's nice to see Mamet willing to indulge in a bit of frivolity that has no more ambition than to amuse, which this comedy certainly does...School, a world premiere, also is a wisp of play, a work in which Mamet seems to be parodying himself. Call it a playlet, one in which McLachlan and Pankow portray teachers bantering about the absurdities that often accompany the efforts people make to go green. Here, it's a "Save the Trees" poster campaign-a campaign that destroys trees to make its point about saving trees.

Time Out New York B+
(David Cote) Slight but chuckleworthy...Performed by a lesser cast, the night would be underwhelming (and not even very “Mametian”), but director Neil Pepe has assembled a robust all-male ensemble, including Mamet veterans Jack Wallace and J.J. Johnston... Keep Your Pantheon is the main course, a breezy farce about a third-rate Roman acting troupe starved for gigs and running afoul of the army. It’s a wafer-thin diversion full of halfhearted gay jokes and anachronistic gags, proving mainly that the playwright has plowed through Livy and Tacitus. Still, the clowning is delivered with gusto and élan, and you can’t fault a great writer for skipping class and goofing off.

CurtainUp B
(Elyse Sommer) The cast overall, and Murray in particular, manage to milk this familiar old theatrical cow, the backstage comedy, for maximum laughs, with a pure Mamet closing punch line. But the cast and excellent production values notwithstanding, I would be more apt to recommend this highly if it were priced so that we could tag it with one of our bargain-flagging piggy bank icons.

TalkinBroadway B
(Matthew Murray) In both School and Keep Your Pantheon, Mamet has delivered complete and fulfilling plays that suffer primarily because of their direct comparison with each other. But even that’s acceptable - Pepe and the Atlantic obviously thought that two new “unrelated” Mamet plays were better than no new Mamet at all (at least until Race opens in December). That’s hard to argue with, regardless of where you stand on the use of recycled paper in schools.

NYTimes C+
(Ben Brantley) There’s no doubting the affection behind Keep Your Pantheon for both one of the oldest traditions of comedy and one of the oldest professions. But despite his proficiency and versatility as a Hollywood screenwriter, onstage Mr. Mamet isn’t really at home in any voice but his own. Despite the warming presence of the admirable Brian Murray, as a dirty old thespian in love with his craft and his male bimbo protégée (Michael Cassidy), Pantheon creaks with a stiff-jointed artificiality. And the rim-shot jokes — many of which center on the lust-provoking presence of Mr. Cassidy in a toga — tend to land with a thud. The essence of the play’s wit, such as it is, is in its punning title.

Variety C+
(David Rooney) The Atlantic serves up an amuse-bouche that goes down easily enough but leaves little aftertaste in the double bill Keep Your Pantheon and School. The latter, up first, is a 10-minute verbal doodle in search of a punchline; the hourlong morsel that follows sees Mamet in ancient Rome continuing to indulge his recent taste for farce after “Romance” and “November.” The one-act yields a decent share of chuckles, many of them fueled by the droll delivery of Brian Murray.

TheaterMania C
(Andy Propst) Despite the handsome physical production and the well-crafted performances -- particularly Murray, Pankow, and J.J. Johnson, who plays a hard-nosed Roman soldier with panache -- these amiable plays really only serve to whet the appetite for the more substantial Mamet plays (Oleanna and Race) being presented in New York this season.

NYpost D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) If these flimsy one-act plays weren't by David Mamet, they probably wouldn't have been produced by the Atlantic Theater Company. Both works amount to the kind of flimflam the author used to write about....Some of the gags land, and the dependable Murray displays a true mastery of the eye roll. But director Neil Pepe should have pushed his cast into a higher gear. At the end, we're left feeling that Mamet didn't try quite hard enough. Why should we bother if he doesn't?

BS A 13; AP B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; CU B 10; TB B 10; NYTimes C+ 8; Variety C+ 8; TM C 7; NYPost D+ 5; TOTAL = 83/9= 9.22 (B-)


Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I'd like to specify that my negative streak hasn't been due to me being in a unfairly foul mood. I just happened to see a string of bad shows. My negative reviews only reflect that, not bias on my part!

Anonymous said...

I like the site and everything, but is it really necessary for you to go so far in attacking Mamet in your introduction for this set of reviews? Is that really what you want this site to become? And don't you take John Simon to task for exactly that sort of out-of-context sniping all the time? And is there punctuation or something missing in "Ah well, he has a banner season ahead of him anyway, including a revival of the first play in his artistic downfall Oleanna"? That doesn't make much sense as it is.

Parabasis said...

Hey Elisabeth,

Didn't meant to imply otherwise!