Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Old Neighborhood"

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entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark

"The Old Neighborhood"

by David Mamet
Directed by Scott Zigler

Set Design by Kevin Rigdon
Lighting Design by John Ambrosone
Costume Design by Harriet Voyt
Stage Manager Tara M. Galvin

"The Disappearance of The Jews"

Bobby.............Tony Shalhoub
Joey............Vincent Guastaferro


Bobby.............Tony Shalhoub
Jolly...............Brooke Adams
Carl...................Jack Willis


Bobby.............Tony Shalhoub
D. .............Rebecca Pidgeon

David Mamet's logorhoeac babblers talk --- endlessly, eliptically, compulsively, spontaneously --- in order to keep from saying something. Often they blurt it out, eventually, or they make it obvious because of the pauses and evasions around what's not being said. But there is always something, no matter how well- hidden, buried in the welter of words.

But the words Mamet's characters use, though full of non- sequiturs, emphatics, f-words and c-words, asides, over- explanations, and droppings and restatings of apparently irrelevant subjects --- those words mean something to the characters, as well as mimicking realistic patterns of speech.

And so any actor attempting to make a Mamet play work must create a believable surface of bubbly banter that would seem ludicrous or boring if mouthed without nuance and conviction, while at the same time creating the unsettlingly fascinating suspicion that, whether it is ever articulated or not, a secret of incredible power and importance lurks behind each seemingly meaningless phrase.

These comments would be obvious to anyone who saw the production of "Speed-the-Plow" at The Lyric Stage last year that Spiro Veloudis directed, or Rick Lombardo's production of "American Buffalo" at The New Rep. And so the prospect of the world premiere of a new work by David Mamet directed by long time Mamet expert Scott Zigler for the American Repertory Theater over in the Hasty Pudding Theater was so momentous press passes were restricted one to a customer and the run was extended several days to let eager hordes in on the historic event. The world premiere performance, the program asserts, was on the 11th of April.

"The Old Neighborhood" is apparently a meditation on the fickleness of memory, the discontents of encroaching middle-age, the impossibility at some point of starting over, and the inescapable pernicious effects of Jewish families --- mostly mothers. Rather than a three-act play, its form is three bitten- off vignettes in which a central character visits old friends, old family, and old flames, all with bleakly unsatisfying results. At least it might be, if this production were not a considered effort to make David Mamet boring.

In the first playlet Tony Shalhoub and Vincent Guasaferro sit in a living-room trading man-talk memories of mis-spent youth to avoid admitting they married badly. The two of them spit out their lines as though trying to prove they have memorized every syllable, and that they have very clear diction. The surface of this dialog is as flat and opaque as possible, with never a hint that either might possibly be thinking about what's said, or about anything else for that matter. They don't even give any evidence they're even hearing, let alone listening to one another.

The three scenes of part two have Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, playing his sister, dissing Mum and occasionally Dad, remembering all the insults and discontents, vowing never to bring up kids so heartlessly, and insisting that whatever failings they might have are just filial Hebraic insensitivities poisoning their psyches. Jack Willis, playing her Catholic husband, emits a handful of short, sepulchral lines as though he were a fog-horn on an iceberg. At least Adams manages a one-level animation, and the siblings actually do talk to one another, but never with any indication that their lines should build toward something.

For part three Shalhoub sits listening to an incomprehensible monolog from Rebecca Pidgeon --- who would have more warmth and dimension were she a computer-translating program- voice. He occasionally mouths a desperate monosyllable full of inarticulate angst, but otherwise he appears almost as bored as the audience.

It's hard to believe that this is the very same company that got so much out of "When The World Was Green (A Chef's Fable)" on this very same stage less than a month before. Of course, Joseph Chaikin directed that show. "The Old Neighborhood" was insultingly directed by Scott Zigler, who may have been bent on proving an essential existential aloneness in Mamet's characters by sucking out of them any human contact whatever.

The play and the playwright deserve better. "The Old Neighborhood" may be a shapeless boring spew of pointless nothings. Certainly that last playlet could benefit from some re- writing with a meat-axe. But unless the cast is made to reach for other possibilities, no one will ever know whether they may be there or not. Perhaps David Mamet will have to wait a year or two until Rick Lombardo or Spiro Veloudis dust it off, roll up their sleeves, and give it a genuine world premiere.


"The Old Neighborhood" (till 4 May)
Hasty Pudding Theatre, 12 Holyoke Street, CAMBRIDGE

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide