Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

In the very first scene of Edmond a fortune-teller reveals to the protagonist, Edmond, “You are not where you belong.” It strikes a chord, and in the next scene Edmond leaves his wife and begins a feverish journey into the ugly heart of New York City looking for something. Himself? Truth? A sense of place or meaning? It’s hard to say, but we all know what that thing is; it’s the thing that’s missing from our lives. Until we find it, we’re tortured by this horrible anxiety; there’s an intolerable gap between the unknown state of grace (to which we all somehow feel we’re entitled) and the nagging reality of where we actually stand. I imagine that few of us ever find that thing and hang onto it. Most of us get by with a little fix, a lie, or a complex of internal buttresses to keep us from caving in. Generally we find something that works. Because if we don’t we get sucked into the great existential whirlpool, like the man in The Stranger–or like Edmond.

Edmond’s first stop, of course, is a bar. Here, a man who raves on about how “niggers have it easy” (whatever that means) advises Edmond to get laid. And off Edmond goes, first to one of those Times Square masturbatoriums that house naked women in Plexiglas cages, then to a more upscale “health club,” and finally to a street pimp. Every step of the way Edmond is thwarted and ripped off. And the soup of Edmond’s desire is distilled from sex, into anger, into hate. Somewhere along the line he acquires a big knife at a pawnshop. He eventually connects with a waitress and goes home with her. She’s an acting student, and Edmond can’t abide her claim to be an actress. He urges her: “Say it with me. I am a waitress.” She doesn’t, and he kills her.

Punishment follows the crime. Edmond is arrested, imprisoned, divorced by his wife, and raped by his cellmate. During one scene–a visit from the prison chaplain–it looks like Edmond’s headed for a nervous breakdown. He still doesn’t know why he killed the waitress. The truth is elusive, but he knows the shape of the lie, and he flings the chaplain’s “bullshit” back in his face. In the final scene, the best one of the play, Edmond and his cellmate philosophize. Someone somewhere, maybe a space alien or a kid just being born, must know “what’s going on.” And then the two kiss good night.

I don’t feel bad about giving the plot away here. Most of it is a foregone conclusion, like in a Hitchcock movie, and the suspense lies not in what happens so much as in how it happens. And in the hands of playwright David Mamet–our best and brightest, perhaps even our nemesis–it happens like twisting a piece of wet laundry into a club. What I like about Mamet is that when he hits you with that club, he’s not beating a dead horse. It’s more like when Philip Marlowe gets sapped with a blackjack: “A black hole opened in front of me. I dived in.”

Edmond isn’t what people consider one of Mamet’s more mature works. It’s as relentless, unsympathetic, and violent as you may have come to expect from him, but unlike his later plays Edmond doesn’t spin a web of bewildering dialogue and trap you in a world you’re barely ready to cope with. Mamet moves fast here, makes his point and moves on to the next point, racing through 22 scenes in barely more than an hour. Edmond has the style of a morality play, although it pictures a world without morality. As such, you’ll find it less complex and overpowering than Mamet’s more recent plays. But I don’t think you’ll walk away feeling deprived.

Edmond is a good choice for a company like Mary-Arrchie, which isn’t quite mature itself. That is, the play is within the company’s artistic reach. The couple dozen small parts allow the cast of 13 to exercise their talents without overexposing or embarrassing them to the detriment of the production. Even the show’s major inadequacy, its direction, doesn’t prove to be crippling. The problem here is the pacing–it’s very hurried. The script is already fast, and Matt O’Brien’s direction is at its heels with a stick. The actor playing Edmond, Richard Cotovsky, sometimes seems like he’s psychologically still in the preceding scene, trying to catch up with the present. And with the overall rhythm of the play flattened out in a sprint, the production picks up a kind of jittery edge. What’s odd, and fortunate, is that this nervous performance tension isn’t all that inconsistent in tone with the script’s dramatic tension. Another play might have cracked up under the strain.

Cotovsky–a small, gaunt man, and apparently Mary-Arrchie’s most accomplished actor–certainly looks right for the role of Edmond. He’s believable. But regardless of Cotovsky’s ability to internalize his role and mold it into a creepy Everyman, he isn’t particularly fascinating to watch. He strikes me not as an actor who makes scenes, but as one who shares them. But Edmond is the sort of character who requires not just a scene maker, but a play maker.

There’s a fun mixture of performances, ranging from good to indifferent, offered by the supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Terry Muller plays the saloon racist as a man who’s at least as loud as his necktie. Shaila Zellman is so versatile that I didn’t realize until afterward that she plays three parts, the best of which is her hypnotic fortune-teller. Jennifer Halliday surprised me as extremely invulnerable and composed considering that she appears nude in a Plexiglas booth. Best of all is Gabriel Pillars (as Edmond’s cellmate whose character is alternately horrifying and lovable. Pillars is a strong enough actor to impose a rhythm on the two scenes he shares with Cotovsky, which grounds Cotovsky and in turn improves his performance.

I can’t say I quite know what to make of Edmond’s rite of passage, and Mamet doesn’t attempt to help me make up my mind. After all his frustration, violence, and punishment, Edmond’s no closer to knowing “what’s going on” than he was before. But he does seem resigned to the intangibility of truth. And when he kisses his cellmate it’s as if he’s embracing the object of his hate and source of his oppression. Maybe he has come to where he belongs in the end. So is that kiss good night a flag of grace, or the ultimate compromise? I doubt even Mamet knows.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dave Clark.