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C.A.T.F. and Thoughts on David Mamet

July 25, 2011 - Austin Porter
In 1965 or 66, in Boston, when I was 15 or 16, I was introduced to live theater, The Apple Tree, with Barbara Harris and Alan Alda. In the third act, on a bare stage, in a garden defined only by a trapezoidal spot of light, Mr. Alda bent his knees and picked an imaginary flower. Magic! For me, the theater has always been about performance. I know that actors need a script to perform, but if you’ve seen several different productions of the same piece, there’s a strong argument to be made that the actors make the play.

C.A.T.F. has not only the uncanny ability to consistently hire top notch actors, but also to select plays that almost make me question my preference. The playwright or the player conundrum becomes a toss-up.

Of the four plays I’ve seen so far, From Prague and We Are Here are starting to sell out so don’t put off getting tickets. And except for July 28th, David Mamet’s Race is, oddly enough, sold out for the entire run. Oddly because it is the weakest of the four, the other being The Insurgents. Mr. Mamet knows his craft. He knows how to manipulate, how to get a rise out of people – the second act does end with a kick – but to what end? An emotionally simpleminded, cynical entertainment that needs race to make it seem more important than it is. In this country, a discussion of race deserves better. For example, contrast it with We Are Here, an emotionally complicated, brutal yet hopeful investigation of loss where race is touched upon but only in the context of a family struggling with grief and the small loses one encounters throughout life. For Race, the actors make the play and that’s a testament to there skill. In the other three plays, the level of acting and the quality of the writing create very special duets.

Am I the only person who is tired of Mamet’s tough guy persona? You have to wonder, has he ever been in or even seen a real fight? Not a couple of Harvard Grad students rolling around the floor, pulling each other’s hair, but a spleen rupturing, permanently disfiguring or disabling fight? He sounds like someone retired from the military who glorifies the pomp and circumstance of war while spending his career running Unisys computers in South Korea and the Philippines.

And as a courtesy, Mr. Mamet, let me humbly inform you that the “C” words, both of them, aren’t nearly as shocking as they were 35 years ago when Teach uttered one of them. You’ve got to come up with another gimmick.

In Mamet’s American Buffalo, Teach, before throwing a tantrum and wrecking his friend’s junk shop, shouts, “We live like Animals.” Teach may be many things, funny, lonely, self-dramatizing, laughable…, but in our anything goes, dog eat dog, winner take all form of Capitalism, if he’s an animal, he’s a chipmunk not a wolf. How do I know this about Teach? I know this because I grew up with people like Teach. My college classmates after seeing the play told me that these guys sound like your friends.

Which makes me wonder,does Mamet agree with Teach’s braggadocio and baloney? That we all lie - all the time. That we all look to take advantage of people - all the time. That we live like animals – all the time. That only the strong survive. BlaBlaBla. It seems like he does. But let’s get real; most of us lie, some of the time. But many of us tell the truth or struggle to know what the truth is at least some of the time. And when we do something, it’s usually informed by a variety of motives, some shameful and ugly and self-serving, some altruistic, and others somewhere in between. Why is only the negative motive valid? I would argue that it is the act itself, the final act, and its overall goodness or badness that matters. It’s not what you think or feel, or all the mental machinations that bring you to a decision, it is, in the end, what you do.

Mamet likes to rile people up. He’s the type who would sneak one out in church and feel smug if someone complained about the noise and the smell. He fancies himself a real provocateur. I’ve read that he claims that Ms. Palin is admired and liked because she is a worker, unlike Karl Marx who never worked a day in his life. Bit of a stretch, doncha think? Ms. Palin may indeed work hard, but so did Karl Marx and for a lot less money. And why choose Marx? Why not Adam Smith, or Greenspan? The obvious reason is you don’t foul the pool you’re swimming in. He could have chosen John Galbraith or John Keynes? But no , Marx, even for those who haven’t read him, is the easily identified boogeyman of the right. The person whose ideology is destroying our country. Not corrupt mortgage brokers, loan officers, rating agencies and the like. Not derivatives. Not Wall Street and the likes of Rubin and Summers. But Marx, the God incarnate of the secular left.

Having said all this, I must admit that I haven’t seen or read everything Mamet has produced. I don’t know him personally; we don’t travel in the same circles. And even if we grew up in the same town, the son of an attorney probably wouldn’t associate with the son of a factory worker. So I might be way off base. It won’t be the first time. Nor the last. Forgive me.

And to be honest. I’d give my…well a very important part of my anatomy to play Teach. I’d dye my hair, shave my beard, and even learn my lines. Just saying.


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