"I always had an acting bug," Clara Mamet declared recently during a rehearsal break at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.
The confession wasn't exactly startling, coming from the newest member of a growing family dynasty of writer-performers. Clara Mamet, the daughter of actress Rebecca Pidgeon and author David Mamet, grew up reading a play a day and watching her parents shuttle between stages and film sets.
One of her half-siblings, Zosia Mamet, also is an actress, portraying Joyce Ramsay on "Mad Men"and the nerdy Shoshanna on "Girls,"HBO's new outer-borough retort to "Sex and the City."
"It's nice growing up knowing exactly what you want to do and just figuring out a way to make it happen," said Clara Mamet, who's five months shy of her 18th birthday.
Even for the well-connected and genetically gifted, breaking into the entertainment business is far from a sure thing. Then again, not many teenage playwrights possess skills that might make writers two or three times their age turn the shade of a lime chiffon pie.
Audiences can judge for themselves this spring at the Ruskin, where Mamet is sharing the lead role in the premiere of a pair of one-act, two-character plays, "Paris" and "The Solvit Kids." Mamet wrote "Paris" herself and co-wrote "The Solvit Kids" with another young performer of blue-chip Hollywood pedigree, Jack Quaid, the son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, who's making his feature film debut this season as the none-too-swift tribute named Marvel in"The Hunger Games."
Both plays will run through May 19 at the theater, which occupies a renovated building a stone's throw from a busy Santa Monica Municipal Airport runway.
The Ruskin's double bill brims with precocious talent. In the scrappily satirical "The Solvit Kids," two preternaturally jaded young stars of a movie series based on children's books must decide how to keep cashing in after the books' author suddenly drops dead. In "Paris," a young woman pining over a disinterested guy-friend gets a pep talk over coffee from her wise, acerbic father.
In both playlets the terse dialogue crackles with allusive wit and sly psychological insight, the characters are original and memorable, and the story lines kick rapidly into gear and surge forward with a kind of implacable self-assurance.
Among those impressed when they first read the scripts were John Ruskin, the founder and artistic director of the theater and acting school that bears his name, and the show's director, Paul Sand, who in 1971 won the Tony Award for best featured actor in the musical play "Paul Sills' Story Theatre."
"To me, it's un-self-consciously deep. And it's interesting and very human," Sand said. "And then you meet the writer — because I thought it was like a 31-year-old smart woman, who could pare away all the fat and sort of get down to what people really feel, etc., etc. And here's this 16-year-old adorable... kid."
Despite her conspicuous surname, Mamet said she "really had a hard time" getting her writing produced until now. She was pleasantly surprised when the Ruskin agreed to stage her first finished plays.
"She was almost like, 'Really? You guys'll do it?'" recalled John Ruskin, a Sanford Meisner protege. But for the theater, Ruskin said, the decision "was a no-brainer."
Mamet, a friendly and polite young woman whose voice bears faint echoes of her mother's native British accent, said she began writing plays so that she could create stage roles for herself. She started auditioning for acting parts when she was 14, but "nobody had ever hired me before. So I thought I'd hire myself."
Making a play's delicate machinery function properly is anything but child's play, she found. "I don't like going back and fixing it. Fixing it is the most painful thing in the world to do, for me anyway."
"The Solvit Kids" went through more than 30 drafts before she and Quaid submitted it to the Ruskin Group.
On the other hand, Mamet batted out "Paris" in one day last summer while working as a production assistant on an upcoming HBO biopic about legendary music producer Phil Spector that her father wrote and directed.
"I had spent that summer with my dad in New York, so I was thinking a lot about him and about stuff that he'd told me, and I was nursing a broken heart," she said. "I was feeling dramatic and slightly sorry for myself. So I wrote this play, and that helped."
Actor John Pirruccello, who appears in the yet-untitled Phil Spector film and plays the role of the father in "Paris," said that Mamet evinces the sophistication of a much more seasoned writer. "The sharpness and speed of her mind is just massive," he said.
Mamet said that she and Quaid met at a summer acting camp in Santa Monica, when she played the cardinal in a student production of"The Three Musketeers"and Quaid worked as a fencing instructor.
"And then about a month later I was bored, so I said, 'Maybe we should write a play, 'cause I like you and we know each other and let's go.'"
The friends had planned to perform together in "The Solvit Kids." But Quaid, a student in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a member of the Hammerkatz improv group, wasn't available, so the role instead will be filled by L.A. actor Sol Mason.
Mamet, who also plays bluegrass banjo in a band with one of her sisters, spent her early childhood in the Boston suburbs before moving with her family to Los Angeles when she was 7. She readily credits her parents' influence with helping her learn the essentials of stagecraft.
"My mom did a production of [David Mamet's] 'Boston Marriage' at the Geffen, when I was littler, and that was so magical. I would go to the theater with her every night and watch backstage."
Her father, Mamet said, used to give her a play a day to read, never his own work, but "a lot of Terence Rattigan." "The Front Page"is among her all-time favorites. She's also a devotee of classic British TV comedy like "Absolutely Fabulous," "Fawlty Towers," and anything by Ricky Gervais.
When writing comedy, her father told her, get to the point, fast, and make sure you have a plot. "He's told me more stuff about acting than, I think, about writing. He says: 'Stand up straight. And end the sentence. And speak up.' So that's what I do."
Mamet hopes to take "Paris" and "The Solvit Kids" to the Edinburgh Festival next year. She'll have more time to do that now that she's dropped out of her Santa Monica public high school, a decision her parents enthusiastically supported.
"My dad has been wanting me to drop out since birth. He's always said, 'You don't need school.'"
"We're a weird breed," she continued, referring to her family. "And I think we say what we want too much. And my little brother is going through that a little bit now. He's 13 and also a genius and speaks his mind. It's not always a good thing in school."
She paused. "Maybe we're not that weird. We're quite, sometimes, kind of introspective. We're the Addams family a little bit, or I sort of like to think. My dad calls me Wednesday."