Center Theater


Parallax Theater Company

at the Preston Bradley Community Center

It wasn’t long ago that it looked like David Mamet and Sam Shepard were going to change the face of American theater. Mamet’s keen wit and ear for street talk and Shepard’s reinvention of the American west set the stage for a new earthy, rough-and-tumble kind of theater that could rescue the seemingly moribund dramatic form and appeal to a wider audience. Well, the two went to Hollywood, and now people are willing to shell out 30 or 40 bucks to watch their poor players cuss and piss away their hour upon the stage. But what was once looked upon as ground breaking or revolutionary now seems just a little bit tame and passe.

Mamet still has one of the most acute senses of rhythm and dialogue in 20th-century drama, but he has also become one of the sloppiest writers around. He is always clever and entertaining, but his plots are frequently contrived and require great leaps of faith. From the slip of the tongue that gives away Lindsay Crouse’s intentions in House of Games to the car key fortuitously discovered on the dashboard of a stolen car in Things Change to the many puzzling offstage decisions in Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s plots bend and scrunch their characters. He’s also given to long stretches of circumlocutory speech making, in which relatively simple ideas are muddled in term-paper language. At his best Mamet’s a modern Hemingway. At his worst he’s my senile Hebrew-school rabbi.

Mamet’s 1989 Bobby Gould in Hell, now at Center Theater, gives us his best and worst. It’s an entertaining little play, but it also feels like something the author whipped up in an afternoon during a break on the Hollywood set.

When the play opens, Bobby Gould finds himself in the title realm, trying desperately to defend the life he has led to an unnamed interrogator, who says Gould has been a very bad man and must suffer eternal damnation for his sins. Who Gould really is and what he has done are described only sketchily. Bobby Gould is the title character in a number of Mamet plays, and his name appears to be just shorthand for Mamet’s everyman character.

All we know is that Gould is in hell. It may be just a mental hell, or it may be the genuine article. We also know that Gould may or may not have shoved a toaster up the hindquarters of the woman he slept with after telling her he loved her. Like most of Mamet’s female characters, Glenna arrives and departs as required by the plot, offering a few glimpses of Gould’s character but nothing conclusive.

Along the way are the predictable hell and Satan jokes, a few literary references, and a lot of wordy, moralistic speeches that strive for great meaning yet wind up saying little more than “Nobody’s perfect,” “The world is a cruel place,” and “Men can do evil when they try to do good.” It’s difficult to come away from the play with much more than a couple of laughs and a few homilies. Countless hell plays have been written by countless playwrights, and this little opus doesn’t add much.

Center Theater gives the play a very good production, probably better than it deserves. Eric Winzenried is particularly good in the title role, and the supporting performers are quite effective. Director Marc Rosenbush keeps the show going at a good clip; the hour goes by quickly, and we keep expecting the amusement to lead to something profound. Unfortunately it never does.

Parallax Theater Company’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love is a nostalgic look at what cutting-edge theater used to be. Shepard’s dreamy landscapes of anachronistic cowboys in strange, desolate western settings have been imitated so frequently that it’s refreshing to see a faithful production of the real thing. The material is no longer shocking, and it’s beginning to look a little dated, but it still grips the audience by the throat and doesn’t let go until the final blackout.

The stormy, incestuous relationship between Eddie, the tough cowboy, and May, the woman who’s run away from him, is played out against a background of surreal monologues and unexpected plot revelations. The couple feud, make up, and use May’s new boyfriend, the oafish Martin, as a pawn–recalling George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All the while their actions are observed and commented on by a strange old man whittling in his rocking chair, who seems to know a lot more about the pair than he initially lets on.

Parallax seems to specialize in high-volume theater, and this megadecibel production continues the tradition. The lighting effects are a little fussy here and there, but for the most part this is a first-rate production.

Daniel Jackson’s spare set captures the lonely, seedy feel of the sleazy roadside motel, and Victor D’Altorio’s direction maintains the mood of foreboding and desperation. Neil Flynn’s excellent portrayal of Eddie is reason enough to see this production, though Thom Vernon’s lobotomized Martin is engaging as well. The other performers are adequate; Henrietta Pearsall’s May seems a little more from the land of Saabs than Marlboro country, and Tom Webb’s mysterious, cackling portrayal of the old man at times borders on stereotype.