KPBS AIRDATE: April 29, 1992
David Mamet can’t write women. In his pointed, satirical plays, he often — wisely — leaves them out. Or he gives them insubstantial characters, enigmatic and unfulfilled.
Seeing a double-bill of Mamet one weekend night, at two different theaters, I was struck most by his misogyny. I’d always felt it before — subliminally — but in tandem, it was blatant. And one of the pieces — “A Life in the Theatre,” a Gaslamp Quarter Theatre production — didn’t even have a woman character. There are two in “Sexual Perversity in Chicago ” — currently at The Fritz Theater downtown. But in both plays, Mamet can’t help but refer to the other gender by a word even my loose lips and public radio’s tolerance won’t allow on the airwaves.
And in “A Life in the Theater,” that’s purely gratuitous. The play has nothing whatsoever to do with women. It has everything to do with theater. And, although it was written in 1977, it’s pretty timeless in its message. It’s also pretty narrow, but if you love live theater, there are all kinds of little gems hiding here, in this backstage view of a rising star and a fading star, two actors in a repertory company.
The Gaslamp’s production is delicious. Director Will Roberson has added all kinds of little theatricalities — to highlight the trials and tribulations of playing a different piece, a different genre, in wildly different costumes almost every night, despite all kinds of prop, set and character fiascos.
Jonathan McMurtry was born to play this role, and he milks every word, with that affected whine that San Diego audiences seem to love. He drags out every vowel until it begs for release, and then clamps it off with final consonants that hang in the air for seconds after they’ve left his lips. Goooood-uh is an oft-repeated favorite. But it’s gooood in this play, and McMurtry’s jaded exhaustion is as palpable as his pronunciation.
David Ellenstein’s role isn’t an easy one. More often than not, he just plays off McMurtry, but he does it to very fine effect. Mamet’s points are made repeatedly — so what else is new? — but the friction between these two prima donnas, as they sit before the makeup mirror, really sends out sparks.
With an eight o’clock curtain for “A Life in the Theatre,” there’s no problem making the ten o’clock show of “Sexual Perversity.” But be prepared. There’s enough obnoxious, foul-mouthed male machismo and enough female bitchiness to choke even David Mamet. This was Mamet’s first Off-Broadway endeavor, in 1976, satirizing the skirmish between the sexes. But it’s heavily skewed combat. And it’s dated. Although none of the four characters is in any way likable, Mamet, predictably, gives the men the edge, because they get all the laughs. He puts nothing even vaguely funny in the women’s lines or perspectives, and little that they say is believable. They’re just bitchy. In Mamet’s view of women, you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live with ’em. ‘Nuff said.
Given very narrow boundaries in a talky, repetitive hour, director Duane Daniels has assembled a very competent ensemble, and moved them energetically about, as each strains to make music from a one-note character.
This two-course Mamet meal left me feeling bloated. I’m not sure I can swallow more Mamet — coming to the Big Kitchen in early May.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.