Friday, June 26, 2009

The dick variations

The "sitting ducks" of "The Duck Variations" at the ART.

I caught up with the finale of the ART's "Mamet Celebration" last night - after seeing Romance toward the end of its run - and began to wonder if the whole effort hadn't begun to turn into a "condemnation" rather than a "celebration." It's true that half of the program - "The Duck Variations" - was generally charming (if slightly over-rated by the local critics), but the other half, a new version of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" starring and directed by ART Institute students, proved so bizarre that it was hard not to take it as some sort of ironic parody of the playwright, or at best the most back-handed compliment imaginable. And what kind of "celebration" doesn't include the centerpieces of a writer's achievement (which must count as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross)? Indeed, as I left the theatre I began to wonder if I was wrong in my esteem for even those plays - if staged afresh, would they look as sketchy and thin as much of the "Mamet Celebration" has? In other words, are we overdue for a Mamet "re-calibration"?

Well, perhaps; but first the good news. The ART has done well by "The Duck Variations," an early Mamet piece which showcases his budding talent, but never quite coalesces into the bittersweet gem we keep hoping it's going to prove to be. The one-act is a long consideration of two elderly gents kvetching on a park bench (clearly in Chicago, clearly on Lake Michigan) about whatever passes by: boats, the occasional blue heron, but mostly, yes, ducks. And as these two ramble on, via "variations" that are structured like vaudevilles, we sense their own fears and concerns, often expressed through subtle ellipses (any direct mention of avian death, for instance, draws anguished protest from one of these "sitting ducks"). At the same time, we can perceive an unusually benign, even rueful variant of Mamet's trademark lean staccato taking shape; the script is a lovely exercise in masculine elocution, but it remains, I'm afraid, an exercise - and a somewhat overlong one at that (although its length is partly redeemed by a haunting final scene).

And the ART production, while certainly strong, isn't quite perfect. Director Marcus Stern has conducted the all-important rhythm of the dialogue superbly, and Thomas Derrah and Will Lebow play against each other with precision and generosity - as a tennis match, this production could never be excelled. But it must be pointed out that Derrah depends on technical contrivance much of the time - he connects with the emotional core of the character only intermittently - and some of his technical tricks (lolling tongue, bulging eyes) seem to have been borrowed from Carol Burnett. Meanwhile Lebow works his customary double magic, maintaining a pristine technique while never losing touch with the inner life of the role. So in the end, this tennis match has a clear winner.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Although perhaps there is something wrong with the ART's set - they've once again re-purposed chunks of the Onion Cellar's cabaret décor, which feels, well, cheap, and completely inappropriate to the play at hand. (Ditto the clink of beer bottles and the whispering waitress.) The design works better, however, for the second "vaudeville" on the program, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," perhaps because many of its black-outs and sketches actually occur in a bar. Too bad nothing else works well, however. Indeed, this must count as the biggest belly-flop at a local professional house in years - the show isn't just miscast, it's also mis-directed (and mis-costumed). The production's embarrassing enough, in fact, that you kind of feel these kids should all get their very-advanced tuition back.

"Sexual Perversity," to be fair to the students attempting to resuscitate it, feels very much of its era (the mid-70s), and thence further away from us than, say, Chekhov or Shakespeare. Which isn't to say that in it Mamet doesn't flex his chops - many of the lines are still funny, there are one or two muscular flights of monologue, and there's clearly a sharp intelligence shaping its many Pinteresque lacunae. But the play's formal interest is undercut by the fact that in it, Mamet had his finger on the pulse of a now-vanished cultural moment - i.e., the sexual revolution in mid-thrash. And no doubt in 1974, the play's frankness, as well as the misogyny and anger that came with it (the "c-word" figures prominently) counted as shocking, and its whole sense of masculinity-at-sea seemed urgently Important. Today, however, it feels passé, and thanks to the Internet sex itself has lost much of its mystery and power; therefore sexual anxiety seems faintly ridiculous, too. Just chill, dudes, we keep wanting to tell the on-edge protagonists of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" - and somehow you get the impression that's what the actors and director want to tell them, too.

But stripped of its animating spirit, the play's thin construction suddenly collapses, and we feel intensely the lack of dramatic back-up for its two female contrivances (you can't call them characters), man-hating cynic Joan (Laura Parker) and intentionally-blank sexual slate, Deborah (Susannah Hoffman; both above left). Even within what Mamet gives them, however, neither actress makes much of an impression; Parker seems unwilling to bestow on Joan her bitter due of misogynist cliché, and Hoffman holds back from even the playful sensuality that Mamet affords Deborah. The men fare a little better - partly because they simply get more stage time - but really, not all that much. Tim Eliot is so strangely miscast as the lying lothario Bernie that we spend much of his many monologues simply scratching our heads; we should be watching a highbrow version of one of those National Lampoon louts from Animal House, not an ironically self-aware wit from Metropolitan (costumed in a bizarre pink-and-gray-plaid ensemble, no less). Somewhat stronger is Scott Lyman, who's roughly right for the seemingly-innocent Dan, but even Lyman basically misses the giddy arc of sexual connection (followed by emotional frustration) that's one of the few structural elements in the script.

Even in its current flattened state, however, that arc lands him in something like a younger version of the duo from "The Duck Variations" - alone with his fucked-up buddy, ogling babes (rather than ducks) at the lake. In this version, we get to ogle them, too - they're in their best Fire-Island speedos, in an apparent gesture toward the incipient sexuality of their emotional arrangement (not coincidentally, both have had homosexual encounters in the past). I'm not sure, however, that actual homosexuality is quite what Mamet had in mind (although I'm sure he was conscious of this possible interpretation); I think that, as usual, he is instead hinting at a kind of virtual homosexuality, in which hetero-sex is experienced as an aspect of male camaraderie, as the natural state of his not-so-noble savages. That camaraderie, of course, is also reminiscent of the slur-fest that climaxed Romance; it's kind of the flip-side of the absurdist desert that Mamet sees as the battleground of the sexes.

Indeed, what the ART's "Mamet celebration" has at least made clear is that Mamet is rather like an insecure, putatively straight Edward Albee, only with mating rituals in his absurdist sights instead of the bourgeoisie. And it's interesting to note that one of his great themes has always been ignorance; his characters don't really know or understand the world, or each other, or even themselves. And they're inarticulate to boot. Thus the famously sculpted staccato dialogue is an attempt to create a kind of meaning out of scraps, to will into being a livable environment from nothing. The pathetic humor of this gambit certainly retains its appeal, but it's already been imitated throughout the general culture, which may be why much of even Romance felt oddly dated (while parts of "Sexual Perversity" now play like bad Seinfeld). And beyond that, the plays generally don't have all that much richness, or texture, or even plot, to offer - and thus it's hard to see what "new angle" can be found on them. Maybe that's what the Institute kids eventually discovered about "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."

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