For years now I have made it a rule of my blogging that I don’t talk smack about local theater productions. If I like them, I write about them, and if I don’t, I say nothing. There are a variety of reasons for taking this position, which I won’t go into here, except to say that I am primarily an educator, not a critic. But suffice to say, my resolve is wearing thin. And ACT seems to be doing well enough that I am no threat to them or their viability as an institution. So I am breaking my silence about the recent production of November by David Mamet that I saw there.
Full disclosure: the set designer, Erik Flatmo, is a friend of mine, and I went to grad school with Rene Augesen, who plays the speechwriter in the play. I thought Erik’s work was gorgeous, even if I missed the spectacular finale because I didn’t stay past intermission. Rene acquitted herself well enough, I thought. The two supremely disappointing things about this afternoon at the theater were the leading actor and the play.
Mamet is no favorite of mine, but what happened, Dave? There was a poisonous pleasure to the swagger and betrayal of Glengarry Glen Ross, but that is a thing of the past. Mamet wants to be taken seriously as a writer of comedy, and the result is much ado about nothing at all. A protracted gag about the pardoning of turkeys? (And what kind of electoral timetable, pray tell, has turkeys being pardoned BEFORE the presidential election?) Whaaat? And the rendering of the figure who seems to be some kind of George Bush figure is so clownish and simplistic that I started to feel irritated that I was starting to feel indignation for Bush, and for myself. Am I supposed to believe that the former President was anything like that? Why extreme caricature, when accurate portraiture would have been much more devastating? Not funny, not politically incisive or illuminating, just a chance to allow audiences to pat themselves on the back for their infinite superiority to such a buffoon. In a word, pandering.
The leading actor adds insult to injury. He has timing and plays the role expansively, commandingly, but there is no insight into why someone would need to comport himself in this way. There is nothing that invites us to care about this man in any way at all. His unapologetic boorishness wears thin very quickly, so we assume there must be something more in the offing. Alas, there isn’t.
What was even more disturbing was that at the preview matinee I attended, the theater was packed with patrons who were yucking it up at this tedious display. I won’t specifically identify the demographic, as I don’t want to offend anyone, but here’s a hint: it was a matinee. So, it seems, ACT is mounting productions which are artistically bankrupt, and finding an audience for that! The circle is complete! Alack and alas, this is my experience of regional theater in this country generally. Institutions need adults to run them, to see that the mortgage is paid, to make the schedules and budgets and spreadsheets and raise money, but somehow, the juice and the life and the integrity and the passion and the madness and the bloodiness of real theater gets lost in the shuffle. I’m not saying it has to be this way. I think there are regional theaters that avoid this fate. But they are the exception, not the rule. Our artistic life, as a civil society, I fear, is in as ruinous a condition as our economy. Where will it end?