Goodman Theatre

It’s a rare festival that ends up deflating the reputation of the artist it’s supposed to celebrate. But after seeing the first two of five offerings, I thought the Goodman’s David Mamet festival might actually accomplish that Pyrrhic feat. Although tenderly directed and performed, the festival’s first selection–A Life in the Theatre, from 1977–showed nothing more than a clever young playwright’s ability to deploy sentimental tropes about the stage. The next show–the 2005 political farce Romance–felt like a cranky old playwright’s flailing, failed attempt to capture the current zeitgeist. Despite a few great punch lines, Romance reminded me of nothing so much as watching my dad try to do the twist at my bar mitzvah.

Rather than demonstrate his brilliance, the festival seemed doomed to prove that you don’t have to wander far from the handful of famously great Mamet plays before arriving at his mediocrities.

Now there’s hope for a happier ending. A program of three short pieces, presented under the title “Homecomings,” gives us a Mamet who not only had it back in the day but can still find it under the right circumstances.

Gives it to us two-thirds of the time, anyway. The first and oldest of the three pieces, The Duck Variations, gets badly loused up here. A sweet nothing under the best of circumstances, this precocious 1972 effort comprises 14 querulous, whimsical dialogues between Emil Varec and George S. Aronowitz–a couple of old-school alte cockers who wax philosophic (and not a little crackpotish) while sitting on a bench in a “Park on the edge of a Big City on a Lake.” Expounding on the eternal war between ducks and blue herons, railing against the “messy” stratosphere, referencing eternal verities and nonexistent magazine stories, Emil and George are charming less for anything specific they have to say than for the clear delight and talent the twentysomething Mamet lavished on them. At least in retrospect, they’re all about the exuberance of their creator. Which may be why Howard Witt feels free to play George as if he doesn’t really exist, mugging and winking and generally making it known how much he delights in Mamet’s delight–leaving the rest of us with nothing to do but watch him be delighted and wonder what it’s like, while Maury Cooper’s beautifully scrunch-faced, quixotic Emil goes to waste.

Things get much better, and much darker, in The Disappearance of the Jews. Not yet 40, the men in this 1983 two-hander are still a little young to be alte cockers. Bobby and Joey are just cockers: friends from the old Chicago neighborhood who get together when Bobby comes to town. Over beers and something amber from a flask, they sit, not unlike Emil and George, misremembering their past, trying to figure out which of the two Debbies they used to date. But where Emil and George no longer have anything to lose and can therefore maintain their addled good humor, Bobby and Joey see their lives hardening into something inescapable.

Secular Jewish men like Bobby and Joey will sometimes “play Jew” among themselves. Slip into old-world inflections. Indulge a bit of nostalgic tribalism (often involving heavy use of the word shiksa). Temporarily negate the irreligious trajectory of their lives. Mamet understands the deep seriousness of this game as well as its absurdity. The genius of The Disappearance of the Jews lies in his ability to embody both. Yes, Bobby and Joey are objects of satire as they flirt with the world of their fathers, and yet there’s also a deep longing underlying Joey’s hair-raisingly naive speech about his vision of shtetl paradise. Even the Pale of Settlement can look like a haven if you’re desperate enough.

Joe Dempsey and Keith Kupferer play Jew exceedingly well, hitting notes all across the longing/absurdity continuum. Kupferer, who resembles Jeff Garlin, is the perfect vessel for Joey’s angst: a formidable schlemiel, big enough to imagine himself as the strongest man in Lodz, hangdog enough to want to do so. If Dempsey’s Bobby is mostly a foil and audience for Joey’s pain, he’s highly evocative in that role. Just the evolution of his posture through the piece–and the way Rick Snyder’s direction gives it visual emphasis–speaks volumes.

The last and bleakest play is also the most recent. Premiered in 2005, Home is set around a kitchen island where Robert and Claire wage what one hopes are the final battles of their marriage. Robert has a job offer that requires moving; he wants to take Claire and their daughter with him, but Claire is militantly opposed. Shit hits fan.

As in Oleanna, the chasm of gender politics yawns before us, wide and unbridgeable by any means–physical, intellectual, emotional. This is just the sort of thing that reinforces Mamet’s reputation for misogyny. But the struggle in Home goes beyond mere ideology or prejudice. Claire’s pitilessness, power, and will are breathtakingly elemental. She’s a smarter Medea who doesn’t have to stoop to slaughter to achieve an identical end. Arguing with her is like bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to a knife fight.

Mamet sketches all this in with an efficiency reminiscent of late, loose Picasso. No wasted strokes, no filigree, no coy pretense. Darrell W. Cox and Laura T. Fisher are similarly straightforward under Louis Contey’s direction. The only question left unanswered is how Romance could have come from the same pen.

When: Through 4/15: Sat 4/8, 8 PM, Wed 4/12, 7:30 PM, Fri 4/14, 8 PM, Sat 4/15, 2 PM

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Price: $15-$35, festival passes $70-$205

Info: 312-443-3800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow.