By Thomas Garvey
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
When I caught David Mamet’s Race on Broadway, I was puzzled by how flat the production felt — even though it had been directed by its author. It’s true there was a surfeit of funny lines (as we by now expect of Mamet) which together sketched a rough map of the cultural fissures and contradictions surrounding the topic of the play’s title. And the ghost of one of the playwright’s constant concerns — heterosexual man-love — was still discernible in the roles taken by David Alan Grier and James Spader (even though one is black and the other white, and therefore, by the play’s supposed lights, each should have been the natural-born enemy of the other).
Only Spader, however, came through with what could be called a characterization, and it was a furtive one, full of micro-beats and tiny glances, as if the actor was getting away with something when somebody wasn’t looking. The rest of the actors attempted far less, and seemed content to stride purposefully around the stage in clean diagonals as Mamet’s lines kept coming, often at an astonishing clip — although one actor, the lovely Kerry Washington, was clearly at sea throughout, despite beautiful diction and projection.
What’s more, the actors stalked a blank (if expensively appointed) set that was easily the dullest I’d seen on Broadway in years, and which probably counts as Santo Loquasto’s least evocative ever. There was no music, and the costuming was pedestrian. So there was little or nothing to distract the audience from the fact that the plot proved completely predictable — it was far too close to a gloss on Speed-the-Plow, with “characters” serving as transparent devices for the delivery of clever epigrams and convenient climaxes. Indeed, Race‘s big twist is completely dependent on an utterly opaque villain. Thus the title is something of a tease: in the end, Mamet really had nothing new to say about race at all. His play is a well-crafted but obviously calculated reconfiguration of previously-successful commercial elements, like a jukebox musical or a movie sequel.
I was puzzled by all this, I should say, until I read Mamet’s latest book, the simply-titled Theatre. At which point all became clear, or at least clearer: the deficiencies in Race were intentional. In fact, they correlate to a kind of cockamamie manifesto delineated in his book. A manifesto of incompetency, frankly, but a manifesto nonetheless.
Or is “incompetency” the right word? I’m not sure. “Incapability” might be more like it. For Theatre is a relentless attack on, well, much of what we take the term “theater” to generally include. The book is studded with blanket declarations that the many time-honored arts supporting the stage don’t really work at all. In fact, Mamet says, they cannot work. They are incapable of producing the effect we all imagine they’ve often achieved — that is, putting the play at hand over.
Take that surprisingly bland Loquasto set. It turns out that, according to Mamet, “It takes a real [scenic] artist to increase the enjoyment of the audience past that which would be found in seeing the play on a bare stage…” And he reminds us later: “The test, indeed, of a good set is: Is it better than a bare stage? The answer — theoretically, ideally — may be yes, but in the event it is usually no.” Mamet is even more skeptical of clever or “tricky” sets, because they’re positively totalitarian: “The tricky set…is a survival of constructivism…which is to say vandalism.” Wow. Who knew? (Needless to say, tricky costumes are just as bad.)
And that lack of characterization on the part of the actors? It is likewise by prescription. “There is no character,” Mamet declares early, and often, in Theatre. Later, he insists, “…there is no inner life to the character, as there is no character… an interest in the inner life of the character is a form of deconstructionism, which is to say a rejection of the text…” (No wonder Spader looked so furtive!)
As for the brisk, undifferentiated pace of the production, “It is virtually impossible…to speak too quickly on the stage,” Mamet intones. And those clean diagonals the actors relentlessly traced? “[The] one thing I know about directing: Blocking is not extraneous to it but is the essence of the whole thing.” After the director of a play has “blocked the damn thing,” Mamet declares, he should just go out and have a cigarette; there’s really nothing more to do.
Well, Mamet must have smoked a pack a day during the rehearsals of Race. But that’s okay because actors, “left alone,” he chuckles, “will generally stage the play better than it could be staged by all but a few directors…” Although he does admit that a truly talented director can “focus the attention of the audience through the arrangement of the actors, and through the pace and rhythm of the presentation.” (All those diagonals; all that great diction!)
And yet, set in motion on an actual stage, these precepts proved themselves false rather than true in the case of Race — or rather, the truth of the harsh light these precepts shone on Mamet’s play revealed it as inadequate: he undid his own text with his anti-direction.
Not that Mamet was ever much of a director. His films are all solid, but uninspired, and fairly flat in their affect, too (again, he insists, intentionally so). But not until I read Theatre did I begin to wonder whether the playwright was actually engaged in a classic neurotic projection, disguising the gaps in his talent from himself with a peculiarly self-serving ideology. For can he really believe that people like Trevor Nunn have no talent and contribute nothing to their productions? Or that Francis Ford Coppola brought nothing to The Godfather? If he does, then he’s the victim of a strange kind of blindness.
And as I pondered Mamet’s seeming anger at the collaborators and interpreters who helped bring masterpiece status to his early work, I inevitably began to wonder how much weaker those plays might have seemed had the playwright himself directed them, too. Certainly the desperate cases of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross felt like characters, operating behind the scrim of their language. Even in Race, Spader manages something like the same trick: he has to operate behind and beyond the “words on the page,” which, as Mamet says, are “all there is,” yet he pulls it off. With an entire cast composed of veterans as crafty as Spader, who knows how much further Race might have gotten toward the finish line? It’s arguable whether the play is really as derivative and feeble as it seems, or whether it has been inadvertently victimized and denuded by Mamet’s delusional directorial ego.
I say “delusional” because the case of Mamet and Theatre grows stranger still. But hold on, I can almost hear you thinking: Mamet may go a bit overboard in Theatre, but isn’t he simply advocating a stripped-down production style for his stripped-down style of writing? I’ll ponder that, and the other mysteries of Theatre, in the second part of this series.
Thomas Garvey has at various points in his checkered career impersonated a director, screenwriter, architect, strategic analyst, and Boston Globe theater critic. He’s still impersonating a critic at www.hubreview.blogspot.com, where you can read his “cantankerous, but brilliant” reviews of theater, music, art, film and dance.
Hub Hubbub does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.