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
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The Independent Culture

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.