Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet: Keep Your Pantheon and School
Directed by Neil Pepe
September 9 – November 1, 2009, Atlantic Theater Company, New York City
With Jeffrey Addiss, Michael Cassidy, Steven Hawley, J.J. Johnston, Jordan Lage, Brian Murray, Rod McLachlan, John Pankow, Jonathan Rossetti, Jack Wallace, Todd Weeks
I’m all in favor of the New York theater scene being saturated with David Mamet over the past couple of years—I enjoyed last year’s revival of Speed-the-Plow and would relish a fresh production of Glengarry Glen Ross (attn: David Cromer!) or even Sexual Perversity in Chicago—but Atlantic Theater Company’s double bill of two Mamet shorts, School and Keep Your Pantheon, is overkill in the extreme. They are so insubstantial and unnecessary that I assumed they were old projects excavated to give fans a taste of the writer’s juvenilia, slight but hinting at the promise to come. But both plays are new, and the endeavor smacks of lazy writing and producing. Surely there are a few more vintage Mamet plays that are ripe for revisiting and haven’t seen a major New York production in years. As it stands, these arbitrarily bundled pieces—one a dazzling but superficial exercise in style, the other a stale and wearisome dress-up comedy sketch—are, despite clocking in at merely an hour, a waste of time.
Still, I’m glad to have seen the woefully brief ten-minute opener, School, about an elementary school teacher and a principal riffing on the pedagogical merit of an arts and crafts assignment in which kids make posters about recycling. The banter is the gleeful and assured work of Mamet brushing the surface of his unparalleled ability to satirize fast-talking posturing and hypocrisy. The repartee, in which the two nice-enough men try to rationalize through the greater implications of an environmentalist project that wastes paper, is sharp and expertly crafted, and it distills the playful, relentless cadences of Mamet-speak in a way that is pleasurable but tepid. The verbal acrobatics can’t obscure the fact that the play is substantively little more than a chat. There are no stakes or conflict, and the breeziness of the play is a limitation (especially when it weirdly broaches curveball subjects; pedophilia comes up). The play ends much too abruptly and prematurely. And although John Pankow and Rod McLachlan are crackerjack Mamet performers who hit the notes proficiently and without excessive showmanship or indulgence, there are no real shades of subtext or subtlety that label the relationship of the two men as anything more interesting than that of genial colleagues. One imagines that the only direction the actors received was to pick up their cues. That gets you a long way with Mamet, but not far enough.
Keep Your Pantheon is supposed to be a farce, but the wittiest thing about it is the title. A tedious one-act about a hapless theater troupe in ancient Rome, it is like A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum without music or funny jokes (admittedly, a gag involving a prop phallus made me laugh out loud; this was an anomaly). The lewd one-liners sound like they came out of a second-rate 1970s television variety show; it is all hackneyed shtick. It’s nice to see the preeminent Brian Murray play the bawdy troupe leader as a scheming, doddering old man, but his idiosyncratic diction and warmth can’t compensate for the shoddiness of the material; he’s a class act, but the show would have been better served by someone with a lowbrow affect (interestingly, the character was first played on the west coast by Ed O’Neill, who portrayed a slob on the sitcom Married With Children). Perhaps in deference to the Atlantic’s subscriber audience, the tone is arch and bemused, but this ain’t Tom Stoppard. Either go balls-out or get out of the gutter. This whole shindig is far too respectful for a play whose protagonist makes reference to the town of Clitoris, which is just so impossible to find without asking for directions (fine, there were two laughs in the whole thing, but that was it).
When I got home, I reread Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, a luminous, empowering and thrillingly direct manifesto about the purposes and mechanics of art, and the responsibilities of artists, all of which this production entirely neglected. I cherish the book at least as much as I do Mamet’s exhilarating portraits of the savage id of the American male. He is a powerful, plainspoken artist who, considering this production as well as 2007’s disappointing November, has gotten too mainstream and complacent in recent years. He remains prolific (his new Race opens on Broadway next month), so I hope that he resumes writing bravely and ferociously, and finds new ways to commit violence to the American theater once again.