at Victory Gardens

I’m glad to have David Mamet around. We need someone to rage about capitalism’s dehumanizing aspects, to show us how exploitation and greed have seeped into our most intimate relationships. He’s smart, he’s articulate, and sometimes he writes good plays.

But still I marvel at the feeble, pretentious stuff he occasionally puts on the market. It makes me wonder if he isn’t, in fact, an unscrupulous capitalist himself.

I’m thinking of plays like The Spanish Prisoner, staged in Chicago in 1985. In this brief dialogue, two men sit in overstuffed chairs and talk about a Spanish galleon that disappeared in a hurricane more than 300 years ago, laden with treasure taken from exploited people. The language is turgid and impenetrable, and the central anecdote seems utterly pointless. One critic called it Mamet’s attempt to pass off a few pages from his journal as a play. Mamet’s essays can be equally awful. His recently published collection, Writing in Restaurants, contains sentences like this: “It is not the theme of the play to which we respond, but the action–the through-action of the protagonist, and the attendant support of the secondary characters, this support lent through their congruent actions.”

Obviously, being smart and articulate does not automatically lead one to insight and eloquence. Perhaps it’s the Pulitzer Prize he’s been given that has validated all of Mamet’s work as art.

Including All Men Are Whores. This collection of 17 scenes, first produced in 1977, picks up Mamet’s theme from his first big hit, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. That play, written in 1974, deals with the maddening inability of potential lovers to connect in a truly intimate and meaningful way. The two protagonists, Danny and Deborah, have an affair and even move in together, but their relationship is undermined by misunderstanding, anxiety, and the jeering of cynical friends.

All Men Are Whores features several couples, played by three actors, who always seem to be at cross-purposes. A man picks up a sexually aggressive woman at the Art Institute, takes her home, has sex with her, and then watches her scurry nervously out of his life. A woman wants to have sex with a man, and then doesn’t. A man suggests a bit of bondage to heighten his lover’s pleasure, and she agrees–but he keeps escalating the degree of pain he plans to inflict.

Some of the scenes function as fairly full dramatic units. Others are as brief and isolated in their effect as haiku poetry. Scene three, for example, consists of two lines: “If we could reproduce like paramecia, do you think that we would not? When the secrets of the age were clear to him, he took it like a man, which is to say as one who has no choice.”

Because the scenes are autonomous, they build no dramatic momentum, and quickly become tedious. An ordinary production of All Men Are Whores would be more like a poetry reading than a play.

But this production, being staged by a new theater company called Posse, is no ordinary production. Director Lila Mirochin has dug deep and tried to extract all the meaning that may be embedded in Mamet’s ponderous prose.

For example, she’s broadened the meaning of the title by assuming that all people are whores, casting a woman in the male role of Sam. Remarkably, this change in gender makes no difference to the meaning of Sam’s lines. The only speech that might have sounded masculine actually swings both ways: “I like a nice ass,” says Sam in the three-line speech that comprises scene six. “I like a nice ass and legs. The ass is the top of the legs.”

Mirochin has also stretched out this brief play by inserting a short black-and-white film called Take Off, which shows a stripper doing her act. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but the film has a brilliant punch line that underlines the emptiness of so many sexual relationships.

The Posse production benefits from three fine performances. Amelia Bornstein gives Sam sophistication and a touch of sass–a combination perfectly calculated to incorporate the masculine overtones of her lines into the distinctly feminine way she delivers them. Karrin Sachs plays Patti as vulnerable and slightly confused by the demands made of her in sexual relationships. And Thom Vernon uses his high energy and sincerity to create male characters who range from wide-eyed sexual neophyte to veteran of the war between the sexes.

The Posse press release asserts that All Men Are Whores “is essential to anyone who is seriously interested in understanding David Mamet’s work.” That’s probably true, but anyone who’s merely looking for an interesting play had better look elsewhere.