Is Broadway’s love affair with Mamet over?

As the curtain comes down early on ‘A Life in the Theatre’, Sarah Hughes charts the popular playwright’s fall from grace

He's America's best-known playwright, a man whose works actors queue up to star in and whose dialogue has been so celebrated that it earned its own adjective. Yet the news that the most recent David Mamet revival, A Life in the Theatre, is set to close in New York next Sunday (28 November) after poor ticket sales has led people to ask a previously unthinkable question: has Broadway fallen out of love with Mamet?

For A Life in the Theatre, which starred Patrick Stewart and the popular former Grey's Anatomy actor T R Knight, is not the only recent Mamet revival to have had its Broadway run cut short. In 2008 a star-studded revival of Mamet's breakthrough work, American Buffalo, featuring John Leguizamo, Haley Joel Osment and Cedric the Entertainer, closed after only a week, and last year a much-hyped revival of his sexual harassment drama Oleanna, with Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, shut down a month early after a critical mauling and poor ticket sales.

At the same time the playwright's newest offerings have received decidedly mixed reviews. The most recent, 2009's controversial legal drama Race, starring James Spader and David Allen Grier, was described by The New Yorker's John Lahr as "offering nothing but cynicism" and was dismissed by Variety as "slick but hollow".

Race went on to recoup its investment running for 297 performances, but it has been hinted that the 62-year-old Mamet's increasing involvement in film and a brief detour into television, with the military drama The Unit, has lessened the impact of his theatre work.

In June this year the critic and playwright Mark E Leib remarked: "Maybe it was too much crowd-pleasing work in the movie business, maybe it was artistic exhaustion, but Boston Marriage was a grandiloquent soap opera... and Romance had so much cheap slapstick, it seemed the work of another writer... If he'd written only plays like these over the years, no one ever would have heard of him."

The Boston Globe's former chief theatre critic Ed Siegel was equally scathing. Reviewing Mamet's recent essay collection Theatre, he wrote: "There may never have been a playwright more dependent on directors than Mamet... a well-directed version of one of his plays... might lead you to think he's one of the most gifted American writers working today. A poorly directed version... might make you conclude he's more dated than daring."

It's arguable, though, that his recent Broadway failures are more a sign of the increasing importance of celebrity. For while it's true that Mamet's most recent works have failed to hit the earlier heights, not every recent revival has flopped: two years ago a high-octane take on Speed The Plow starring Raul Esparza, Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and Jeremy Piven, played to packed houses and rave reviews. And remember that A Life in the Theatre is an intimate affair, which works best in a small setting (as in its initial, off-Broadway run in 1977).

"The problem with this production was, for me, its scale," says Ben Brantley, the chief theatre critic for The New York Times. "It's a slight, sentimental play that relies on a kind of intimate connection with its audience that this team wasn't able to achieve in a Broadway house."

For Brantley the problem isn't so much with Mamet as with Broadway itself. "I don't think Broadway audiences have turned on Mamet – he's one of the few living American playwrights with 'brand name' recognition," he says. "I do think – and am sad to say – that no non-musical, non-epic play is going to make it on its own these days on Broadway without stars with very high Q ratings [ie high celebrity recognition]. And Mr Stewart, Mr Knight, Ms Stiles and the boys of Buffalo... don't have that kind of clout."

In other words, it's not what's being said but who's saying them that matters. An observation that Mamet, who made his name by exposing worldly cynicism, might just ruefully understand.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on