Pointe Theatre Company

at Big Game Theatre

When David Mamet first became a national success in the mid-70s (after Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago enjoyed long off-Broadway runs and American Buffalo opened on Broadway to near universal praise) the theater crowd was wont to snort “Oh, Ma-may, he’s just the American Harold Pinter.” By that they meant that Mamet had stolen Pinter’s tricks–his pauses, his dialects, his ability to imply hostility just below the surface of dialogue–and had adapted them to American characters.

This was, of course, grossly unfair, but there was a grain of truth in it: Pinter did, in a sense, make the world, or at least the stage, safe for Mamet–by making long stretches of ambiguity acceptable to audiences, and by showing how much one can imply about a character’s inner life (no matter how impoverished or stunted) with silence and deceptively simple dialogue.

But Mamet is not by any stretch of the imagination just the American Pinter. He is, like all good writers, the sum of his influences–and then some. Nor is he just the Arthur Miller of the 80s, or just the American Chekhov, or just the Hemingway of the theater.

As Mamet’s best work (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) shows, Mamet is his own man. No other American writer has such an acute sense of how sloppy language has become in this postliterate age, as the pressure and pace of life force everyone to think faster and communicate more quickly than words allow. Sentences go half finished as new ones are started and syntax goes to hell as new thoughts crowd out the old ones until meaning spills out more awkwardly than anyone could ever have intended. (“The whole fuckin’ thing . . . The pressure’s just too great. You’re ab– . . . you’re abso- lu– . . . they’re too important. All of them. You go in the door. I . . .”)

So it’s hardly surprising that the success or failure of a Mamet production has everything to do with how well a cast is able to bring Mamet’s dialogue to life. Not an easy thing to do, apparently, as I learned two years ago when I saw the replacement cast for the Broadway production of “Speed-the-Plow” (which included Mamet buddy Bob Balaban as Charlie Fox) completely screw up the play by speaking their lines so slowly and casually they could have been doing it in slow motion. Which is why it was impressive to see that the young, green actors in the Pointe Theatre Company, performing in a Rogers Park storefront, took the brilliant dialogue in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and made it sing on the stage. Much credit, no doubt, is due to Anna Shapiro’s excellent, always on the mark direction. Everyone in this play, about a group of unscrupulous real estate salesmen pushing worthless land in Florida, delivers Mamet’s dialogue at exactly the right pace and tempo, getting laughs when Mamet asked for laughs, and never getting them when the story becomes serious.

Jeff Still plays the top salesman, Richard Roma, with all of the cocky piggishness you’d expect from the top man on the board. In contrast Don Tieri plays the resentful Dave Moss every inch the weasel who would contemplate stealing from his boss. And Tracy Letts, with his strong chin, his classic good looks, and his quiet but strong demeanor, makes a terrific office manager, although his gifts as an actor really don’t get the workout they deserve until the second act, when the pressure is turned up.

Even Martin Duffy, who is too boyish looking to play the 50ish Shelly Levene, turns in a credible performance, though the gestures and expressions he gives Levene, and even the way he shows Levene’s desperation and disappointment, are all those of a young man full of life and energy, not of a burnt-out salesman about to follow in Willy Loman’s footsteps.


Chicago Performance Radio Network

at the Red Lion Pub

Considerably less impressive was Chicago Performance Radio Network’s production of eight monologues by CPRN member Kate McClanaghan, performed in the upstairs bar at the Red Lion Pub.

Gathered under the name “City With Big Shoulders,” these monologues don’t have much to do with Chicago despite the title. Set in Chicago locations–the airport, the YMCA, a Gold Coast apartment–the action could just as well be set at La Guardia or the Winnipeg YMCA.

Nor does it make any difference which order the monologues are performed in, since they are all unrelated, or even if you walk out halfway through, or catch only the second half of the show, or let your mind wander, because no single piece is interesting enough not to miss. Which is to say that Kate McClanaghan’s work has a long way to go before it passes the “Why the hell am I watching this?” test.

Part of the problem is that McClanaghan has chosen to build her monologues around specific characters–a kinda slow busboy, a kinda dull weatherman–instead of around events, which means that her tales meander along from one minor event to another until they, more often than not, wind down with a whimper. But another problem is that director Kevin Peterson and the cast–McClanaghan, Martin John Aistrope, Pauline Lovell Kird, and Jim Schroeder–just flounder along with the material.

It doesn’t help that McClanaghan, the surest performer in the show, delivers the two weakest monologues–the first, a strange one about a nearly deaf woman who likes to sing along with records, the second about an alcoholic woman looking for a new roommate. Nor does it help that the weakest performer in the show, Jim Schroeder, is allowed to make a complete hash of his two pieces–one about a weatherman trying to do a standup routine about the weather and bombing terribly, the other about a priest who lies.

The two Brits in the cast–Aistrope and Kirk–do considerably better with their material, such as it is, although only Kirk’s monologue about an illegal alien from Britain living in Chicago is worthy of a second listen.