Theatre: The playwright as a young man

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The Independent Culture
the fastest way to get up the nose of a playwright is to pigeonhole one of them as a "gay playwright" or a "female dramatist". After all, no one describes Alan Ayckbourn as a white-collar, middle-class male playwright, but that's his world. Until now, describing David Mamet as a Jewish playwright seemed massively beside the point, but his new 70-minute trilogy The Old Neighbourhood finds him investigating his roots. It widens our view of one of America's most important writers for it's the closest he's got to an autobiography.

To prove the point, Patrick Marber's British premier production even dresses the central character, Bobby, to look like Mamet, furnishing actor Colin Stinton with his cropped hair and beard and only stopping short of his owlish spectacles. Bobby is on a trip home and in the first part he and his old friend Joey are having a drink and chewing the fat beneath hanging gauzes of family photographs in the Chicago of their childhood.

The most exciting thing about Mamet's writing for both actors and audiences lies in the pregnancy of what is left unsaid. Joey, (bluff, energetic Linal Haft), is voluble and highly animated in typically foul-mouthed Mamet manner, but it is Bobby's reticence that quietly grips and his clipped intimations of his unhappy marriage speak volumes. Given the title of the first part, The Disappearance of the Jews, it's no surprise to find their conversation slipping away from hearty and honeyed reminiscences to reveal the complications and losses of their adult lives as Bobby reveals: "I should never have married a shiksa". Does this make his son not a Jew?

This is thrown into perspective in the second and most successful part of the evening where Bobby goes to stay with his sister Jolly. Whether she's rejecting her mother's strict discipline or yearning for her lost love, Zoe Wanamaker is fiercely funny and moving as she catalogues the woes of their fraught upbringing at the hands of their remarried mother. Edging around Jolly's rage at the suggestion that she has raised her own kids badly, Mamet writes eloquently of supportive Bobby's fear that divorcing his own wife will lead to history repeating itself. Yet in the elegiac final part his feelings are tested as he has dinner with an awkwardly off-key childhood love.

Marber, who as a writer is heavily influenced by Mamet, goes to some lengths to eschew stereotypical "Jewish" acting but it's possible to be too discreet. From time to time, the exacting Wanamaker excepted, speech rhythms and inflections are slightly off, thus draining the idiomatic writing of its humour and contrast.

On a recent Face To Face interview, Mamet dodged nearly all of Jeremy Isaacs' questions and when asked about his own difficult upbringing with an unsympathetic step-parent he simply clammed up. Happily he is more forthcoming in this beautifully written, tough-talking affectionate portrait.

This review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper