Mamet puts spotlight on himself

First Night THE OLD NEIGHBOURHOOD, ROYAL COURT, LONDON
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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, calling David Mamet a Jewish playwright seemed beside the point, but his 70-minute trilogy, The Old Neighbourhood finds him investigating his roots. It's the closest he's got to autobiography.

Patrick Marber's British premiere production even dresses the central character, Bobby, to look like Mamet, furnishing actor Colin Stinton with his cropped hair and beard. In the first part Bobby and his old friend Joey are chewing the fat beneath family photographs from their Chicago 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 animated, but it is Bobby's reticence that quietly grips, and his clipped intimations of his unhappy marriage speak volumes. Their conversation slips 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. Edging around Jolly's rage at the suggestion that she has raised her own kids badly, Mamet writes eloquently of Bobby's fear that divorcing his own wife will lead to history repeating itself.

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. In a recent interview, Mamet dodged nearly all of Jeremy Isaac's unsearching 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.

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