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The Old Neighborhood

Northlight Theatre

at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Albert Williams

In his program notes for Northlight Theatre's beautifully acted production of David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood, director Mike Nussbaum recalls starring in the Chicago-bred playwright's The Shawl at the Briar Street Theatre opposite Lindsay Crouse, Mamet's wife at the time. "We were having the usual difficulty of actors doing Mamet," Nussbaum writes. "What do the words really mean? David never gives such mundane information in the script. [So] Lindsay and I ...came up with some wonderful changes in the blocking...long meditative looks out the window, sharp diagonal crosses of the stage." Mamet's response, Nussbaum says, was to shout: "What the fuck are you doing? This is a play about two people sitting at a table!"

The story's point, Nussbaum concludes, is that "all plays are really about two people sitting at a table." Other directors, actors, and playwrights may differ, thinking this a rule made to be broken. But Nussbaum is right on the money when it comes to Mamet's plays. A spate of earlier Mamet works--recently revived by the off-Loop movement Mamet helped create, in what amounts to a minifest building up to this production, the local premiere of Mamet's latest Broadway play--proves the point. For all their intricate plots and twist endings, outbursts of brutal violence and torrents of raunchy rage, these plays are about pairs of human beings trying (and usually failing) to make a connection through conversation. How people talk to one another is at the core of each play's action: the breakup of two young lovers in the 1974 Sexual Perversity in Chicago (closing this weekend at the Wing & Groove Theatre), a murder spree in the 1982 Edmond (presented last month by the Hypocrites), the ruin of a college teacher's career by accusations of sexual harassment in the 1992 Oleanna (seen earlier this month at Bog Theatre), and the burglary of a real estate office in the 1984 Glengarry Glen Ross (just extended at Raven Theatre).

Mamet is justly famed for his characters' fragmented yet improbably precise language, the verbal equivalent of a scarred minefield: their talk is filled with craters that make us aware of past destruction and wary of new explosions. But just as important is the very act of conversing--how it affects the characters' understanding of each other and themselves, what information they impart or withhold, and how outsiders, including the audience, interpret the characters' words and pauses. By forcing viewers to fill in his carefully selected gaps, Mamet encourages us to consider our own reactions, a tool for self-examination.

Since entering middle age, and especially since the death of his mother several years ago, Mamet (now 51) has pared away many of the melodramatic and mystery-thriller trappings of his earlier plays--what conventional wisdom would call their more entertaining or visceral aspects--and begun to draw more directly on autobiographical material. The Cryptogram, seen here at Steppenwolf in 1996, tells the almost mundane story of a woman's reaction to the news that her husband has left her: fighting to maintain her self-control, she displaces her rage and frustration onto her young son, committing the kind of psychological abuse all too common in well-educated families, where the anger behind lethally articulate criticism goes undetected because it isn't advertised in emotional displays.

The Old Neighborhood brings Mamet even closer to home. Premiered in 1997 at Cambridge University's American Repertory Theatre and transferred to Broadway the same year, it's a collection of three interrelated one-acts--a dramatic triptych performed in an intermissionless 80 minutes. Here a middle-aged ex-Chicagoan returns to his old Rogers Park stamping ground to visit family and friends: a boyhood pal in "The Disappearance of the Jews," a former lover in "Deeny," and his sister and her husband in "Jolly," the evening's central and longest playlet.

These are the people who stayed home while Bobby Gould--previously seen as a self-absorbed wheeler-dealer in Mamet's movie-industry satire Speed-the-Plow--went off to find fame and fortune. Bobby is a Jew trying to come to terms with what it means to be Jewish, a son and brother trying to understand his estrangement from his family, and a heterosexual grappling with his own misogyny and fear of intimacy. Now he's home, reeling from the breakup of his marriage and distressed by the death of his mother--and by his stepfather's hostile dealings with his sister, Jolly, whose own marriage seems destined to fail. ("What a good man," says Jolly of her resolutely supportive husband, with a barely perceptible edge of contempt that signals an ocean of dissatisfaction.) Bobby--played with an oddly bland charm and a sexy yet superficial sensitivity by David Pasquesi--says little of his own troubles. Instead he's an affable but passive sounding board for several characters: old friend Joey (Matt DeCaro), an overweight loudmouth who pines for his footloose youth; ex-girlfriend Deeny (Kelley Hazen), a glamorous, goyish ice princess clutching a green Marshall Field's bag when she meets Bobby for a final farewell; Jolly (Linda Kimbrough), a woman dog-paddling in a psychic sea of self-hatred and festering grief over her loveless childhood; and Jolly's husband Carl (Keith Kupferer).

Mamet's dialogue never imparts any more information than would a real-life conversation between intimates; it's up to the audience to make sense of the characters' allusive, alternately--or simultaneously--painful and hilarious reminiscences. Yet nothing extraordinary is revealed. Bobby and Joey's bawdy banter ranges from a dispute over the location of a favorite deli (Devon or Peterson?) to a recollection of a double date with two Debbies (Rosen and Rubovitch, but which girl went with whom?) before turning to the guys' shared identity as Jews. Joey yearns to attain the strength and wisdom inherent in his ancestors' notion of manhood, while Bobby is preoccupied by his failed marriage to a non-Jewish woman ("I should never have married a shiksa"). In Bobby's rendezvous with the flaky Deeny, she philosophizes about science versus faith and crows self-consciously about her own success as a retail buyer--"I have got good taste...and they like me." But underneath her hilarious ramblings is a poignant undercurrent of sadness for the failure of her affair with Bobby.

Jolly--a housewife determined not to be an aloof perfectionist with her kids the way her mother was with her--kvetches about mistreatments present and past. As a child, she got a book bag as a present from her mother instead of the skis she wanted; yet when she asked her mother for shoes for her own children, the old lady gave the kids a useless vanity kit. Jolly accuses Bobby of not "being there" for her when they were children--then tells her husband that she prefers Bobby's company to his because "he's the only one who knows, 'cause he was there." The absurdity of her parents' insistence on "a Complete and Contrite Apology" for every childish misdeed is comical, but Jolly's inability to heal the wounds left by such insults is pathetic. The brilliance of The Old Neighborhood lies in Mamet's ability to stir both comedy and pathos without resorting to dramatic contrivances like a breakdown or a fight, creating instead a pervasive disquietude that leaves viewers looking inward to comprehend their own responses.

The characters' old grievances, while specific to the people recalling them, are universal almost to the point of banality: mom loved you better than she loved me, I never understood what you wanted, sex was a lot more fun before I got married, and so on. That's the point--Bobby's journey into the past is a search for something unique about himself, yet all he finds are patterns of dysfunction whose very familiarity brings cold comfort to him as he sits alone at play's end, his pensive half smile suggesting an inviolable emotional isolation whose causes the three playlets have suggested.

Material like this--verbally precise and visually spare, minimal in movement yet full of delicately nuanced emotional shifts--requires first-rate acting, and this production delivers. Nussbaum understands Mamet deeply: the two are longtime friends and colleagues dating back to the mid-60s, when Nussbaum was an aspiring actor in his early 30s and Mamet a teenage apprentice at the old Hull House community theater at Belmont and Broadway. Better known and more highly regarded as an actor than a director, Nussbaum has coaxed out of his actors here the same understated honesty that marks his own performances. The most powerful impressions are left by the two women. As Jolly (a role played on Broadway by Patti LuPone and in London by Zoe Wanamaker), Kimbrough's girlish buoyancy when the character remembers long-ago happiness--Saturday matinees at the theater at Jeffery and 71st, clandestine visits to the South Shore Country Club--makes her present paralysis all the more troubling. And as Deeny (a role created by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon), Hazen's segue from distracted chitchat into a long, defeated silence brings the play to its stunning climax. But the whole ensemble is superb, ably supported by Linda Fuelling's costumes, Joe Cerqua's music, and evocative lighting by Charles W. Jolls and set by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod: they summon up Bobby's faded old neighborhood with a metal silhouette of rows of apartment houses, the old kind with wood-railed back porches to keep the kids safe--at least from outsiders, though no one could protect them from the damage done inside their homes. Before this sculpture sit two chairs and a table--the essential props for this simply staged, emotionally dense work of theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Michael Brosilow.

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