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Enter Scowling : Prolific, Profane and Relentlessly Macho,Playwright David Mamet Does Battle With the Tyranny of Political Correctness

<i> Richard Stayton's last story for this magazine was a profile of playwright Terrence McNally</i>

Why do they think I’m a misogynist? That I can’t write women?” * On a rainy spring day, David Mamet is musing aloud while we walk through Harvard Square. * “Somehow I’ve been stuck with this sexist label.” * Mamet the Misogynist: America’s most prolific playwright and busiest screenwriter can’t escape controversy, not even in his adopted hometown. A journalist dismisses his notoriously profane style as “dialogue with hair on its chest."A Cambridge waiter asks sardonically about “Mamet’s battered ex-wife” (meaning actress Lindsay Crouse, who may have been emotionally but never physically bruised by Mamet).

And now his first major play of the 1990s, “Oleanna,” and his first major attempt to erase the brand of misogyny, is about to premiere in the academic capital of political correctness.

Mamet passes a poster for a play at Radcliffe: “Calling It Rape.” Local bookstore and newsstand clerks admit they “don’t dare” stock a controversial parody written by Harvard Law Review editors titled, “He-Manifesto of Post-Mortem Legal Feminism”; Harvard law students put up wanted posters for the authors. Twenty of the law school’s 59 professors signed two letters accusing the school of “sexism and misogyny.”

“It’s like a witch hunt here at Harvard now,” Mamet is told by his friend Alan Dershowitz, a teacher at Harvard Law School. Many professors stand accused of being “politically incorrect,” “racist” or “sexist"--the very situation dramatized in “Oleanna.”

“I think doing this play in Cambridge is like doing ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ at Dachau,” Mamet sighs.

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“Oleanna” has the potential to do for the 1990s what Arthur Miller’s attack on McCarthyism in “The Crucible” did for the 1950s. It’s Mamet’s most overtly political play, exploring themes that have preoccupied him over the past few years: sexual politics, the role of education in a disintegrating society, male chauvinism versus feminism, censorship. It also boasts Mamet’s most fully realized female character--but a female who might give feminists more ammunition in their case against David Mamet. So this bullet-headed block of a man plunges through the crowd toward the theater like a boxer toward a ring: warily. Visual fragments appear and disappear within the surging waves of students and professors: A skull-tight jock’s crew cut. A stubbly black beard. Mirrored sunglasses. A letterman’s athletic jacket, taut across wrestler’s shoulders that stretch the letters of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” his 1984 Pulitzer prize-winning play. Only a pair of surprisingly feminine Chinese slippers soften the image of a macho athlete poised for conflict--that plus a gentle, low, swift voice.

“Gimme five!” he shouts, slapping palms with the actors and crew waiting on the theater’s porch. Greeting these loyal artists and technicians instantly defuses Mamet’s wariness.

Like a proud job foreman, he gestures for me to follow his team into the theater--a crossing I’ve sought for three years, an exclusive invitation to observe two weeks of rehearsals and witness the world premiere of “Oleanna.” But before I can enter the theater, Mamet abruptly seizes my arm. “Think of someone,” he whispers, “who has psychic weight for both Bill and me.”

“Excuse me?”

Mamet is referring to the lead actor of “Oleanna,” William H. Macy. The pair have worked together since meeting at college in 1971. Much psychic lava has flowed under the Mamet-Macy collective bridge. Even Mamet’s wife of eight months, Rebecca Pidgeon, rehearsing alongside Macy in “Oleanna,” confesses, “I was so scared when I finally got to meet the famous Bill Macy. David talked about Bill Macy all the time.”

“I’m going to try and manipulate Bill,” Mamet whispers. “I’m going to see if he can read my mind. Think of someone psychically significant to us both.”

“Gregory Mosher?”

Mosher is a founding member of “Mamet’s Mafia,” as the elite in-group is known on Broadway and in Hollywood. Mosher’s relationship with both Mamet and Macy reaches back to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1974. Over the past two decades, Mosher has directed 13 of Mamet’s plays, beginning with his first major hit, “American Buffalo,” starring Macy, through Mamet’s Shavian farce, “Bobby Gould in Hell,” in 1989 at Lincoln Center (Macy played the devil).

“Greg?” Mamet ponders my choice. “Good. You think of him, too. Clear your mind of everything but ‘Greg Mosher.’ Concentrate. Keep focused on Bill.”

Feeling absurdly vulnerable, I follow Mamet into the shadowy interior of Harvard’s 19th-Century Hasty Pudding Theatre. Peeling paint dangles from the old-fashioned proscenium arch above Macy and Pidgeon. While studying their scripts, the actors gradually grow aware of Mamet and me standing like statues, staring hard at Macy. The stage manager and understudies, perplexed, also watch us.

Pidgeon gasps: “Ooooooh! David looks so scary!”

From the stage, the lean, angular Macy glances at Mamet, strokes the beard grown for his role as a college professor, mutters “Greg Mosher” and resumes studying the script as if such a petty challenge had insulted his telepathic powers. For a moment I believe that David Mamet is psychic.

I stumble to a seat next to Patricia Wolff, a savvy, intense 28-year-old from Santa Monica. Mamet elected Wolff as his partner for his new Cambridge-based production ventures, the Back Bay Theater Company and Bay Kinescope.

“All I know is they call it mentalism,” Wolff answers. “I’ve seen them do it before. I watch David for some clue or signal, but he never moves.”

“Mentalism?”

Wolff is no spiritualist. She’s another workaholic member of Mamet’s Mafia. She’s been with Mamet since 1985, first as a student at New York University, then as director-producer of the Mamet-inspired Atlantic Theatre Company, finally as production assistant when Mamet directed his original film scripts “House of Games” and “Things Change.”

Wolff notes my skepticism and answers emphatically: “How do they do it? By reading minds.”

Welcome to David Mamet’s house of games, I think, where con men cavort and the sleight-of-hand cheat is a sign of virility. Mamet delights in theatrical tricksters, populating his work with scam artists. It’s an American tradition, the salesmen’s confidence games of “Glengarry Glen Ross” or the pseudo-psychic’s manipulations in “The Shawl” or the Hollywood pitch in “Speed-the-Plow.” It’s no accident that Mamet’s movie “House of Games” involved an elaborate sting operation played on a woman psychiatrist by male thieves. He even managed to slip a con job into his much-heralded script of “The Untouchables” (Eliot Ness’ debut bust left him holding Japanese parasols). And in his most recent movie, " Homicide,” a cop unwittingly cons himself.

“Drama,” Mamet has said, “is basically historically about lies, somebody lying to somebody.”

Mamet’s next script to reach the screen, “Hoffa,” starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Danny DeVito (opening this winter), is structured around a ploy in which the Teamster boss’s disappearance results from a movie-length sting, a sting unfolding in a labor world almost barren of female characters. For if the con is a Mamet trademark, a male-dominated story is certainly another.

“There’s one thing that David has not done up to now,” observes Dershowitz, author of the bestsellers “Reversal of Fortune” and “Chutzpah.” “He hasn’t written a fully fledged, believable female character. This woman in ‘Oleanna’ is very strong. This is an adversarial play about men and women seeing the world differently.”

Just when audiences and critics have grown accustomed to his virile male-only arenas echoing with obscenities, here comes “Oleanna,” a three-scene, two-character play with a mere four expletives. All the action occurs in a college office between a professor and his young student. It’s classic in form, moving from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, full of reasoned arguments and scholastic debate. And yet it’s also Hitchcockian in its shocking psychological twists, plunging from a tender tone of a teacher-student relationship into a nightmare scenario of 1990s paranoia and fears of intimacy.

Greg Mosher sees in “Oleanna” some of the old Mamet but a lot of the new: “These two extremely earnest people are both very articulate, and neither is a wisecracker. So you have these two people speaking from their hearts all the time. You don’t have the cynic or the manipulator (as in Mamet’s previous plays).”

But there will be many who mock Mamet’s female character. Even Pidgeon admits that after her initial reading of her husband’s first draft, “I threw the play across the room. I hated this character.” The lead is an intellectual femme fatale, even more provocative than the on-the-make secretary portrayed by Madonna on Broadway in “Speed-the-Plow.”

“I identified immediately with elements of the woman’s position,” Wolff says of her first reading. “David told me it’s upsetting to be a man in our society, that men and women often don’t connect and don’t understand each other’s needs and don’t listen. He thought it was a very upsetting play, too.”

Mamet says that the script has changed “40%" from that first draft. A legendary rewriter and perfectionist (actor Robert Prosky remembers seeing Mamet at the rear of the theater during rehearsals, counting on his fingers the number of iambs in one speech), Mamet sighs wearily that he wrote “about a million drafts” of “Oleanna” before letting anyone else read it. Shortly after that, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings began. Since his play dramatizes the very themes the Senate committee was investigating, Mamet marveled that “I might be doing something right.”

MAMET’S BUSINESS OFFICE IS A CRAMPED, NARROW, THREE ROOMS ON THE TOP floor of a wood-frame turn-of-the-century building, its clapboards painted a garish yellow. The ground floor is occupied by a squalid liquor store and an eccentric toy outlet for twisted humorists. No other building on the fringes of Harvard Square resembles this structure’s working-class Angst. Mamet loves its cozy, ramshackle style. He’s occupied this space for the last four years.

On its chipped walls are photographs of Pidgeon and drawings by his two children. A Mamet motto is tacked above Wolff’s desk: “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” The fax machine ceaselessly chatters out correspondence from around the world: Woody Allen regrets that he can’t act in Mamet’s scheduled film of a Jewish fable, “Russian Poland” (Mamet had a cameo in Allen’s “Shadows and Fog”), and the note goes into Mamet’s Woody Allen file. The phone rings constantly: Now director Mike Nichols is calling from Paris.

Wolff must deal with a multitude of possibilities. New York theater owners continually call, asking for the rights to co-produce “Oleanna” in New York in the fall. After many negotiations, they select the Orpheum for the Off-Broadway premiere this October. The Mark Taper Forum has given Mamet a $25,000 production grant to direct his play “The Old Neighborhood” and conduct a workshop adaptation of “Hamlet” in Los Angeles next spring. Another screenplay has been commissioned, “Charlie Chan.” Andy Potok’s memoirs, “Ordinary Daylight,” are being adapted for Warner Bros.

Wolff and Mamet plan to generate film and video versions of Mamet’s plays, and these, too, require phone discussions. Piles of Mamet scripts hover under tables, tumble from cabinets, lean against his battered portable typewriter. It’s a family-run factory, all serious business and definitely no house of games.

Mamet is consumed by the work ethic in both practice and theory. Many of his plays are about the act of labor or concept of business. He approaches the craft of writing like a blue-collar laborer punching a time clock. “It’s good to have work habits,” he says. “Like they used to say in the Victorian times: ‘If you support the conventions, then the conventions will support you.’ ”

At age 44, Mamet’s labors have resulted in an unparalleled literary lineup: two volumes of essays with a third scheduled for publication this Christmas, two children’s books, five adaptations, at least 13 screenplays (three of which he’s directed), more than six teleplays, two anthologies of stage sketches, a book of poetry (with another due out later this year), song lyrics, an opera, uncounted fiction and a minimum of 44 plays.

When Mamet can’t work, he suffers. Entering the office one morning before rehearsal, he grumbles: “I go to sleep at 9:30, wake up at 9:45 and think I’ve slept eight hours. I just lie there. I’m not working. I’m not thinking. My mind’s just racing.”

In his “spare time” Mamet collects knives and pistols, practices pistol marksmanship, helps raise two daughters, does carpentry, works out at a gym, studies Hebrew and French, plays poker aggressively and reads voraciously--with a particular affection for paid-by-the-word Victorian novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Samuel Butler and the equally verbose Theodore Dreiser. (Mamet estimates he’s read Dreiser’s immense “An American Tragedy” more than 10 times.)

Plus, Mamet directs, raises money for future productions, plays the guitar and piano (often blues tunes) and teaches workshops all over the country in acting, directing and writing. For a “man’s man,” Mamet surrounds himself with women: two daughters, Willa, 10, and Zosia, 4; his wife; his co-producer, Wolff; his assistant, Harriet Voyt; his stage manager, Carol Avery; his interns. Probably the person closest to him is his sister, Lynn.

However, he’s often compared to Ernest Hemingway, feminism’s favorite symbol of literary manhood gone wrong. Alas for Mamet, the comparison is inevitable. Like Papa Hemingway, also a Chicagoan, Mamet explores male camaraderie, is a gun lover, outdoorsman and amateur boxer. Hemingway wrote standing up and used a pencil; Mamet always uses a manual typewriter or pencil, never a word processor, and prefers writing in a crude cabin outside his Vermont home, a cabin without electricity that smells of “gun oil and kerosene for the lamps, wood smoke from the stove and the smell of cigars in everything.” When the writing is going well or ill Mamet fires his pistol at the nearby woods.

“I think there are a lot of demons that he chases,” Joe Mantegna, Mamet’s favorite actor, has suggested, “and a lot of pain and a lot of blood on the typewriter that nobody sees. He’s very good at covering up.”

Mamet will only shrug: “Nobody who had a happy childhood ever went into show biz.”

DAVID ALAN MAMET GREW UP IN A JEWISH COMMUNITY ON CHICAGO’S SOUTH Side. His labor-lawyer father tormented the household with what his sister has called “an almost pathological emphasis on semantics.” To avoid becoming “dead meat,” she says, the “correct” expression was crucial. “We liked to wile away the evenings,” Mamet once reminisced, “by making ourselves miserable, solely on our ability to speak the language viciously.”

It is no accident that such a semantic cradle would give birth to Mamet’s acutely tuned ear for speech. Nor that Mamet would develop an imagination provoking criticism from his mother, who accused him of “dramatizing things, making up stories.”

His parents’ divorce was a wrenching rupture for the 11-year-old, and those memories made his own divorce three decades later doubly devastating. Mamet divided his life between his mother in a brand-new suburban housing development (“a Martian landscape”) and his father’s Chicago home. Physical and psychological abuse became routine, especially when around his stepfather--mind games and violence heartbreakingly recalled in his memoir “The Rake” and his unproduced play “Jolly.”

In high school, Mamet worked as a busboy at the seminal Chicago comedy club “Second City,” absorbing its famed improvisational blackout format, a style adopted in his initial plays. However, it was not dreams of becoming a writer that sent Mamet to Goddard College in Vermont. His ambition was to become an actor.

“So many of us suffered under bad teachers as young actors,” remembers Mamet. “It makes a big impression to have people humiliating you all the time. That’s always the trick that bad acting teachers use: They make themselves incomprehensible, and they humiliate you.” More than 20 years later, Mamet’s memories of this humiliation fuel the student’s outrage against the professor in “Oleanna.”

After graduation, the unemployed actor worked as an assistant office manager for a Chicago real estate company dealing in worthless land. “I was supposed to go work for these guys for three days, and I ended up staying there about a year,” he says. He adds that the cutthroat behavior of his salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross” was “less desperate” than the actual experience.

In 1971, Bill Macy was an undergraduate theater student at the laid-back, alternative Goddard College when Mamet arrived on a teaching fellowship. “He was outrageous,” Macy remembers. “Everyone was wearing tie-dyed this and tie-dyed that, and David came in wearing sailor pants that he had tailored and looking so fit and so trim. In his first class he said, ‘I assume you’re here because you want to learn how to act. If you want to learn how to act, stay. If you don’t, leave right now. Class starts at 8. Get here at 8:01, don’t come in. You come in, I’ll throw you out.’ ” Mamet fined latecomers $10, then burned the bills in class.

Then, as now, Mamet emphasized voice training. When his students fail to enunciate with power and clarity, they’re immediately ordered back to their seats. “If you don’t use your voice, what are you doing?” Mamet asks. “No voice means it’s all about idolatry. It’s: ‘I can’t express myself yet, but there must be something in me, this inchoate wonderfulness of me.’ ”

At Goddard, Mamet still retained dreams of becoming an actor. But he began writing sketches for his students to perform. The first drafts of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “The Duck Variations” took shape. Mamet, Macy and director Steven Schachter formed the St. Nicholas Theater Company, named after the patron saint of troubadours.

“Like partners embarking for the Klondike,” according to Mamet, they migrated to Chicago, a city where a vibrant theater community was experiencing a cultural gold rush. However, when “Sexual Perversity” won the Jefferson award for best new Chicago play in 1974, Mamet finally admitted that he was a “terrible” actor and not a “part-time” playwright.

As a full-time playwright, Mamet soon garnered international attention. “‘American Buffalo” went from Chicago to Broadway, earning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. But the play’s hints of misogyny, its candor about the language men use to describe women, began to form Mamet’s public image. This, coupled with the simultaneous Off-Broadway success of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” with its genital jokes and pathetic pickup rituals, became the first steps leading to “Mamet the Misogynist.”

In his defense, Mamet points to his 1976 play “Reunion” and to his 1977 effort “The Woods”; in both, women have primary roles. “People do not understand ‘The Woods’ very well,” Mamet said in 1988, “I think partly because it is a play about heterosexuality, which is just not a hot theatrical topic in the U.S. It is something that you look at in the popular media, a subject that people would rather not address: why men and women have a difficult time trying to get along with each other.”

But “The Woods” and “Reunion” were quickly eclipsed by Mamet’s next major effort, “Edmond,” a starkly expressionistic fable about a white-collar worker’s descent into urban hell.

Mamet’s first filmed script, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” has Jessica Lange’s initial seduction by Jack Nicholson occurring after a near rape. It’s a violent assault, similar to the failed sexual encounter at the cabin between the two estranged lovers in “The Woods.”

But to the 1970s Mamet, love was rough and tough. During a rehearsal, the subject of sexual harassment in “Oleanna” comes up. Attorney Dershowitz compares it to the situation of his client Mike Tyson.

Says Mamet: “When I was single and teaching 20 years ago, I didn’t know a professor who wasn’t having an affair with a student. . . . If they’re going to put Mike Tyson in jail"--Mamet and Dershowitz believe Tyson is innocent of rape--"then put me in hell (for what I did in my early days).”

So often in Mamet’s love scenes, the men assault and the women defend. The coupling is primitive, clumsy, urgent, harsh. And when betrayal occurs, usually the male’s response is to insult or even hit the woman.

In Mamet’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of “The Verdict,” attorney Paul Newman reacts to his lover’s betrayal with a fist to the jaw--a pure Mametism absent from Barry Reed’s novel. Again and again, women in Mamet’s works are referred to as epithets; often, his women mirror this disdain with equally dismissive comments about men.

Mamet has always been sympathetic and alert to male-female conflicts. During an interview in 1976 after the New York opening of “Sexual Perversity,” he admitted, “It’s just, unfortunately, tales from my life. My sex life was ruined by the popular media. It took a lot of getting over.”

When Mamet examines relations between the sexes, he’s most revealing in his increasingly confessional essays. “True Stories of Bitches” is a self-deprecating, humorous examination of the “bitch” in everyone, not least of all men like Mamet.

After their divorce in 1990, Lindsay Crouse observed that, although she’d portrayed many of Mamet’s women on stage and screen, “I see them as very embryonic. They have no point of view, but they gain one during the process of the play. They’re just about to be born when the play ends.”

Mamet hopes “Oleanna” changes that reputation. “This is a woman who is legitimate, this is a man who is legitimate,” he says. “Nobody’s perfect. Neither being young nor old is a cure for being imperfect. Human beings are just human beings.”

But he still expects Harvard feminists to picket the theater once they judge his play to be “politically incorrect.”

No stranger to academic politics, Mamet has taught at numerous universities, including Columbia and New York University. But now Harvard Law School secretaries refuse to post “Oleanna” ads unless Mamet submits a synopsis for approval.

“America doesn’t want a democracy,” Mamet responds. “It wants a priesthood. It wants to be told what to do.”

AND SO IN REHEARSAL Mamet commands: “On Page 51, cut out the word ‘dyke’ and put in the word ‘bitch.’ ”

Macy explains: “Dave and I were just saying they’ll look for any excuse not to take this play seriously.”

“Oleanna” was partly inspired by Mamet’s early career experiences with manipulative acting teachers and misguided educators and by an item in the New York Times. That item described a moment during a feminist performance artist’s show when a man murmured to his wife, “Come on, baby, let’s get out of here.” As they rose to exit the theater, the performer commanded loudly from the stage, “Don’t call your wife ‘baby.’ ” The incident is dramatized in “Oleanna,” with violent consequences.

After rehearsing just such a sequence, Mamet’s wife moans during a break, “Oh, David, I’m so sore.”

“Oh, baby,” Mamet purrs, enveloping her diminutive form within his wrestler’s arms. “I’m so sorry.” They discuss getting her a padded costume to cushion her fall to the stage.

Pidgeon again tries to fall but admits, “I’m too scared to go down like that.” Mamet, holding her, lets her slowly slip to the stage floor. They resemble two dancers in a gentle tango.

When the rehearsal resumes, Mamet orders: “Go from the ‘doubtful sexuality’ bit.” He turns to his stage manager and whispers, “I love this bit.”

Pidgeon adjusts her spectacles, assumes the stance of a militant feminist student and declares to Macy: “You think I am a frightened, repressed, confused, I don’t know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality who wants power and revenge. Don’t you?”

Macy, the antithesis of an absent-minded professor, pauses. He trembles with impotent rage before finally answering: “Yes. I do.”

“Isn’t that better?” Pidgeon’s student cries. “And I feel that that is the first moment which you’ve treated me with respect. For you told me the truth.”

Once the rehearsal is over, Mamet drops the director role. He’s again a husband. “Are you exhausted?” he asks his wife. Pidgeon nods. “The whole key (to surviving rehearsals),” Mamet tells her, “is to take it easy. Take it by the numbers.”

Mamet and Pidgeon embrace, kiss. During rehearsal breaks, they’re often in one another’s arms. Married last September after meeting in 1989 when Pidgeon was cast in “Speed-the-Plow” for its London premiere, they’re still hugging like newlyweds.

“I’m sorry I spoke brusquely to you about the lines,” Mamet says to her. “I was caught up in the play. I hope you forgive me.”

Dershowitz offers an explanation for Mamet’s recent changes: “His marriage allows him to create more fully fledged female characters. Rebecca’s introduction into his life has made a profound impact.”

Pidgeon is a raven-haired, razor-sharp 26-year-old with a model’s beauty but an unassuming style. She was raised in Scotland, where her father was a physics professor and her mother taught yoga. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and by the age of 21 was working professionally on stage and screen.

“I loved the part of the girl, actually, and believed everything she said,” Pidgeon says of her work in “Speed-the-Plow.” “It turned out most people really didn’t. But I really did. I thought what she said she completely believed in. I think Dave wrote it that way as well.”

Imagine Mamet’s introduction to his future wife: on the National stage he was at last seeing a woman who saw the character as he did--"a latter-day Joan of Arc.” The London Guardian critic Michael Billington described Pidgeon’s work as “all spirituality with a hint of metal.”

Pidgeon used to sing for a British-based band called Ruby Blue. After meeting Pidgeon, Mamet composed lyrics for her, among them a song titled “Primitive Man.” During a frenzied London visit, he also wrote “Bobby Gould in Hell” as an exorcism of his first marriage and guilt over divorce.

Mamet conceived the role in “Oleanna” for Pidgeon--a role that may be an outgrowth of “Speed-the-Plow’s” wily secretary, except this time she’s much more powerful.

“No, I’m not playing her the same way (as the secretary in ‘Speed’),” Pidgeon says of the student in “Oleanna.” “As Dave says, there’s truth in what they (the professor and student) both say, and it’s a tragedy because they’re two people desperately trying to connect, and in the end they just can’t. All because of this war (between the sexes). This political correctness thing.

“Women are so angry and men are so angry,” she continues. “Very odd, to me. Very odd. I grew up in an environment of families, where I was taught to respect men and women. And respect the family. And the man’s role in the family and the woman’s role in the family. I like my husband to call me ‘baby.’ ” The exchange is mutual. Mamet welcomes her feedback in rehearsals, sometimes altering his direction to fit his actors’ styles, sometimes even changing the punctuation and famous pauses. “Keep it simple,” is his rehearsal refrain. But he never compromises his personal vision of the play, exploring numerous ploys to achieve his aims.

Sometimes Mamet the Director is macho:

“I feel I’ve pushed (Macy) into the ground,” Pidgeon complains during rehearsal.

“Don’t be polite about it,” Mamet responds. ‘This is not Britain. This is the wild and woolly America.”

Pidgeon, irritated, speaks in an ironic lilt: “It is?”

“It is,” Mamet continues. “Welcome to America. You’ve made it.”

“OK, then shut up!” Pidgeon again faces Macy while Mamet smiles.

Sometimes Mamet the Director is sarcastic:

After struggling with a difficult monologue, Macy complains, “If the sentences were written in correct grammar, I could get it.”

Mamet is not amused. “Well, maybe we should make up dialogue,” he mocks. “Or insert some lines from some lesser writer.”

Sometimes Mamet the Director is manipulative:

“For the last 2 1/2 weeks,” Mamet sighs at the end of one long day, “I’ve been mucking up the script.”

Macy and Pidgeon immediately come to the doubting playwright’s rescue. “No, it’s much clearer,” Macy says.

“Oh?” Mamet opens his script. “Then just two small cuts on Page 36.” “Oh, he set me up,” Macy sighs to Pidgeon. “I fell for that.”

And sometimes Mamet the Director is gentle.

“The play’s a tragedy about two lovely, smart, intelligent thoughtful people,” he insists while explaining the male character’s motivations. “Sometimes as a man, you’re just wrong. Even when you’re trying to do the right thing. I’m taking Willa home. We get out of the car, I’m going to the mailbox so I tell her to go on into the house. She starts to cry. ‘What’s wrong? It’s your house, go on in. I’ll be right in.’ I don’t want her to be afraid to go into her own home. I want her to be independent. But she keeps crying. Finally she says, ‘It’s the alarm, I’m afraid it will go on.’ So there I’m trying to be a good teacher, but I forgot about the alarm.

“It’s like building a piece of furniture,” Mamet says of the rehearsal process. “You build a door out of oak for a cabin in Vermont. It sounds like the right idea: heavy, thick wood for the winter. But you get up there and find it doesn’t work. You need a soft wood, pine, that will expand in the wet and cold.

“Stan the Man (Russian stage pioneer Konstantin Stanislavsky) said the last 90 seconds are the most important in a play,” Mamet concludes, “and he should know. That’s the toughest part, whether movies or plays, to get that last 90-second part right. I find it’s impossible. But that’s how you tell the men from the boys.”

FINALLY, THE FIRST PREVIEW night arrives. There are no pickets. The theater is packed with invited friends. Mamet introduces the play, then sits in the front row to observe his actors. Afterward, he stands in an aisle and talks to a class of students from Brown University who admit they’re confused by the play.

“People in my generation use the word provocative,” Mamet responds, “and you use the word confusing. The kind of drama you’re used to is like cartoons where the good people wear white hats and the bad black.”

“But this issue of date rape,” interjects a woman in her early 20s: “Is this play politically irresponsible? An audience, seeing her. . . .”

Mamet doesn’t allow the student to make her point: “Politically irresponsible?! We call that art. Women by their sex are not debarred from making a false accusation. Your generation grew up with nothing to look forward to. My generation is trying to hold on to what we have. What you look out and see is a complete lie. The society is falling apart--but as Spengler says, this happens to all societies--but you ask, ‘What is there fun to do out there?’ Sex is terrifying. Friendship is terrifying. There are no jobs. You can’t talk to your parents. This play is about two people trying to make sense of life.”

But the students don’t buy it. In their reactions to the play, they imply Mamet is politically incorrect, sexist, chauvinist--the same accusations hurled by the student in “Oleanna.” Even though Mamet is an experienced teacher and an expert at leading students toward understanding complex ideas, he’s clearly upset by this group’s accusations. He reacts much like his play’s professor, baffled by a young woman’s anger.

“Comedy ends in a marriage, tragedy ends in a funeral,” Mamet concludes. “If ‘Doll’s House’ were written today, Nora would storm out, then come back in and say that was a foolish idea--and they’d kiss.”

But after the students from Brown exit the theater, an ashen Mamet mutters: “For the first time, I’m really scared for this country.”

The next day, Mamet remains upset and enraged. On the phone in his Cambridge office, he discusses the incident with Harold Pinter, who has called from London.

“Politically irresponsible!” Mamet repeats into the phone. “Can you believe a college student said that?”

Mamet’s relationship with Pinter is both professional and personal. He credits the British writer’s early sketches with inspiring his first playwriting efforts while at college. When he finished “Glengarry,” Mamet felt it was a mess and mailed it to Pinter with a note asking for suggestions as to what the play needed. Pinter replied that the only thing “Glengarry” needed was a production, then arranged for its world premiere at the National Theatre in London.

“I almost lost it; I regressed,” Mamet confesses to Pinter. “I felt like the professor in my play. ‘Politically irresponsible.’ Can you believe it? I wouldn’t have felt more shocked if she’d said it was too Jewish.”

After the phone call, Mamet, tense before opening night, crouches at the upright piano squeezed between a file cabinet and a desk. He plays a ragtime number that evolves into a Chicago blues song.

That night, despite the packed theater, Mamet is calm, almost aloof to the presence of critics and professors and students and friends from New York and Los Angeles.

At intermission, listening to the audience discussing the first act’s seemingly routine romantic interplay between professor and student, Mamet happily observes, “Aren’t they in for a shock?”

Afterward, many of the women in the audience are quietly furious. Or baffled. The critics rush from the theater: at last, something controversial to review! Gradually, the lobby echoes with complaints, arguments between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, students and professors. The majority exit in stunned shock. (The reviews, though, are mostly positive.)

But the following night no feminists gather outside to protest the play. Although Mamet had expected demonstrations, co-producer Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theatre has a different fear. “I’d welcome protesters,” he says. “What concerns me is the apathy of today’s students.”

I sit at the back of the auditorium. Mamet takes a seat next to me and whispers excited comments throughout the first act. “I love that line. . . . Aren’t they great actors. . . .”

During intermission, the stage manager tells Mamet that, just as ordered, she’d started the play precisely at 8. And once again, more than 40 people had arrived after 8, stood around perplexed in the lobby and finally walked out. Those tickets would amount to much lost revenue.

“F--k ‘em!” Mamet snaps. “They get to movies on time. The play starts at 8.”

When the houselights go down for Act II, I point out that several patrons left during intermission.

“I’m not worried,” he whispers. “This play will find its audience.”

A large, round, white shape materializes in the pitch-dark theater. This shape balloons up the aisle toward us, gaining form. Suddenly we realize it’s a man rushing to the exit doors. He loudly bangs them open. A beam of lobby light slices down the aisle.

In the eerie mix of light and darkness, we make out a huge figure seizing the house manager and appearing to choke her. Before she can react, Mamet is out of his seat and plunging into the fracas.

I rush into the lobby, pulling shut the theater’s doors. The play resumes while I watch Mamet, the house manager and a bizarre-looking stranger wrestle across the lobby and out the front doors.

On the theater’s porch, the man moans: “Are you not human?” His eyes actually bulge in comic-book rage. “Have you no feelings?!” His strangely round, white, bald head looms over Mamet.

“You touch her again,” Mamet is warning, equally enraged, “and --"

By now student ushers have crowded onto the Hasty Pudding Theatre’s decaying porch. Mamet is coiled, ready to attack. In the murky mix of box-office light and street light, the man looks bilious. Now I notice sweat cascading down his smooth moon face, soaking his business suit.

The man hisses: “What kind of monsters are you?”

Mamet is on him like a middleweight going for the knockout. The man meets the challenge, but before any blows can land an usher squeezes between them.

Two Harvard policemen trot up the steps, dripping with rain, alerted by the box-office manager. “What seems to be the problem?” asks the female officer.

“Inside. That. So-called. Theater!” The man gulps for oxygen like a hooked fish flopping on a ship’s deck. “They’re! Tor-tor-turing people!”

I wait for the inevitable political diatribe. But Mamet is no longer angry. Instead, he has a peculiarly placid expression: His face is a tabula rasa. His eyes remain riveted, probing.

Then I get it: He’s absorbing the bizarre speech patterns. There is poetry to be heard here, work to be done.

“Inside,” the man continues, “there is. No. Air. A hundred degrees. People--suffering! Where is--why is--no--these beasts! Monsters! Won’t open doors, let people breathe! Suffocating us!”

The man has been raving about the theater’s lack of air-conditioning. Furious, he stalks off the porch.

Mamet snaps out of his reverie, stares up at the falling rain and mutters, “Is there a full moon tonight?”


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