Speed-the-Plow Credit: Anthony Churchill

The Mamet Repertory American Theater Company

To every big-name playwright there is a season, and a time for every major oeuvre under heaven. Even Shakespeare’s plays were forgotten for years after his death and had to be rediscovered. David Mamet is hardly dead, either as a man or as a theater artist—he put two new plays, November and Race, on Broadway in 2008 and ’09 respectively. But he does seem to have reached that autumnal moment—he’ll turn 63 in two months—when people start seeing an arc in the capital-w Work and reconsidering it. Between November and Race came Broadway productions of three of his older plays, American Buffalo, Oleanna, and Speed-the-Plow (in a staging that became notorious when Jeremy Piven withdrew from it, claiming a mercury overdose from eating too much sushi). A fourth, A Life in the Theatre (1977), began previews in New York on September 21, with Patrick Stewart in the lead role.

There’s a little Mamet gazing going on in the playwright’s native Chicago, too. American Buffalo ran at Steppenwolf last winter, Steep Theatre will mount Lakeboat next winter, and right now Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow are playing in rotating rep at American Theater Company.

If you’re at all interested in how to think about Mamet and his plays, see both entries in the ATC rep. Each has its fascinations, each gets kick-ass treatment under Rick Snyder’s direction—and, thanks to a nice bit of thematic curating, the two together provide a strong sense of the playwright’s talents and preoccupations.

Not that it’ll be pleasant. I’ve found these particular plays hard to watch in the past, but Oleanna was always especially excruciating. An almost scientific demonstration of how to wreck a life, the hour-long piece follows two interactions between a middle-aged university professor, John, and one of his students, Carol, who’s come to him because she feels lost in his class.

John is seriously distracted the first time they meet. Confident that he’s about to get tenure, he’s in the process of buying a new house and spends a lot of time on the phone, either to his wife or to Jerry, who may be his broker, lawyer, or accountant. (Probably the last: Jerry Graff is a retired Chicago accountant who, having done work for Mamet, shows up as a name in some of his plays and as an actor in four of his movies.) As it dawns on him that Carol is genuinely distraught, John does his best to give her some sincere guidance. But he’s a hopeless pedant, full of jargon, arrogance, self-satisfied pronouncements, and pompous chuckles. He’s also completely incapable of making eye contact or letting another person finish a sentence. What with the phone ringing all the time, his efforts do more harm than good.

Exactly how much more harm is made stunningly clear in the second scene. Newly empowered by the feminist group she’s joined, Carol has taken innocent if stupid things John said and did at the first meeting and turned them into the basis for charges of harassment and worse. Now she’s shown up at his office as a magnanimous gesture, to hear his squirming appeals for mercy. It’s less the explosion that follows than its inexorability that makes the play so painful.

Speed-the-Plow takes the same dynamic to another environment. Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox are the smug male petty despots this time—a couple of Hollywood studio execs, cocky in every sense of the word, who revel in their ability to eat shit and come up smiling as they find themselves on the verge of making a lot of money on an ineffably vulgar star vehicle. Into their lair comes Karen, a vulnerable young temp with ideals and aspirations. Bobby wants to fuck her, and she wants him to make a movie based on a fat, serious novel about the end of the world. As in Oleanna, there’s a power struggle in which all parties find out what they’re capable of doing if the stakes are high enough. But the result here is less like an explosion than a knife fight.

The insecurity of authority. The cunning of the obstensibly weak. Social conventions as weapons, or as cover for primitive needs and acts. All these are Mametian tropes as familiar as the weird combination of stilted diction and coarse thoughts in his dialogue. What struck me most powerfully during these productions of Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow wasn’t the presence of those tropes so much as the precision of their unfolding. Precision is craft, and craft is a kind of morality in Mamet. That’s confirmed by his plots—John, for instance, gets sloppy and look what happens. But the equation is also made on a structural level. The leash is tightly held, the system is closed, what happens is surprising, sure, but only in the manner of an exceptionally elegant card trick. It’s almost as if Mamet’s plays are created to be seen in retrospect. All the pleasure comes from recognizing how he got us to the end. I don’t know if this makes Mamet a genius or a journeyman. I suppose at times he’s both.

The power of craft is on full view in Snyder’s cast. Nicole Lowrance is at once transparent and maddeningly opaque as Carol and Karen. Lance Baker is wily as Charlie Fox, making full use of his uncanny ability to ally himself with the audience. And Darrell Cox is just plain something. Snapping his fingers for attention as shaggy John, trying to maintain focus while his sexual quarry bores him as slick Bobby, Cox gives a pair of profound and enlivening performances.