Funny Peculiar

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Seated at a small table at Soho House, David Mamet is his book-jacket photo made flesh: downcast gaze, hair and beard cropped short, plain blazer pulled over a sensible cotton shirt with the second button from the top carelessly undone in the manner of a distracted genius, a decaf Earl Grey tea bag tucked in his jacket pocket. The signature beret and fat cigar are all that’s missing. Tucked under his elbow: today’s New York Times. On A1, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands—a prop for his latest shtick.

“Well, apparently, there’s been this conflict going on in the Middle East for some time; I think it’s even mentioned in the Bible,” he murmurs, coyly gazing down at the paper as he ambles into the setup. “Now, in all this time, nothing has been able to solve it.” Millennia passed and many died, but nothing changed, Mamet says—that is, until he wrote Romance, his new farce about “two fellas who figure out how to bring peace to the Middle East.”

“As soon as one did write such a play,” he says, “the world leaders of these two world factions decided to actually bring peace to the Middle East.” If their plan works, “my play isn’t topical anymore,” he gripes, “proving that old theater adage: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

The next night, Romance begins previews at the Atlantic Theater Company—Mamet’s first premiere at the theater he and William H. Macy founded twenty years ago. And Mamet has figured out a way to use his newspaper bit as a sight gag. Center stage, a weepy old judge (Larry Bryggman) thrusts that same Abbas-Sharon headline at the audience and gushes, “Peace! Is it not the theme of the week?” The judge wipes his eyes and blows his nose, dismissing differences of “religion, or skin color,” and pleads, poetically, “Can we not have peace? … Can’t we love each other?”

In another Pulitzer winner’s drama, audience members might nod approvingly—or roll their eyes. Here, the audience erupts into cackles: Knowing Mamet, things are about to get ugly. And soon enough, a Jewish chiropractor onstage is telling his Christian lawyer that he’d better fetch his son, lest he find him “limping when he comes home from Communion.” And the lawyer—or “child-molester thief goy bastard,” as the defendant calls him—responds by calling the chiropractor a “greasy, hook-nosed … rug merchant.” For starters.

Mamet’s ode to the peace process is part comedy-club pissing match and part South Park episode: an outrageous, hectic comedy composed in the hyperliterate profanity that made him a legend. Mamet haters will find plenty to despise. But for fans of Mamet at his most joyfully vicious, it’s everything you ever wanted: Mamet, South Side tough, plays the dozens; Mamet, Judaic scholar, mocks Middle East politics; Mamet, egghead comic, coins zingers; Mamet, master provocateur, delights in roasting sacred cows. A racist judge quotes Shylock, then Pharaoh, and wonders aloud if Shakespeare was gay. A fey security guard observes, “I never liked the World Trade Center: Too boxy.”

Over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Mamet gives little indication that he’s concocted such a wild ride—only that he’s enjoyed the writing: “Endorphins,” he explains. Far from engaging in serious debate, he’s overflowing with puckish one-liners. “As they age, a lot of writers concern themselves with politics, or cross-dressing, or both. Pirandello, for instance.” (There’s no cross-dressing in Romance, but there is a lavender, leopard-print man-thong.) “It’s not that I like teasing the audience’s expectations,” he says. “I don’t want to bore myself.”

This would be a corny platitude coming from a writer with a less astonishing résumé. Mamet may be best known for the brilliant provocation of Oleanna and the tough Americana of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross (which will be revived on Broadway with Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber in May). But he’s rarely mined the same vein for long. In theater, he’s roamed as far as melodrama (The Winslow Boy) and Edwardian lesbian comedy (Boston Marriage). In Hollywood, he’s scripted action classics (The Untouchables) and absurd Grand Guignol (Hannibal), while writing and directing nine of his own films. In print, he’s written pedagogy, poems, essays, the experimental novel Wilson, a book of Judaic reflections (Five Cities of Refuge, with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)—even the children’s book Henrietta (he’s at work on another). In 1998, he also introduced a small, manly clothing line. (“It came from a desire for loose-fitting, practical garments,” he says, and then wisecracks self-mockingly: “I think that’s how the Ku Klux Klan got started.”) He claims his practical hunting jackets were not only cut from the same cloth as the rest of his projects but are the “best example” of how all his work is part of a unified “aesthetic philosophy.”

At 57, Mamet’s in the latest busy phase of a lifelong tear, gleefully ripping into new creative fields. He’s writing a comic script for a kids’ movie, and, for the Mark Taper Forum, his first musical: a “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Bertolt Brecht” confection, about a waitress “who ends up in Yellowstone Park surrounded by park rangers trying to kill her.” Later this year, he’ll debut as a cartoonist with the collection Tested on Orphans, for which he blames his late friend Shel Silverstein: “He told me, ‘Thurber couldn’t draw, either.’”

It’s tempting to analyze this recent spurt as a turn toward the comic—but Mamet’s always had a bit of the Borscht Belt riffer in him. Even his most venomous rants have scored blows with knockout punch lines. And though he usually counts Tolstoy, Dreiser, Beckett, and Pinter as his most direct literary influences, Mamet got his start as a busboy at Chicago’s Second City comedy club, playing piano for light kiddie revues on the weekends, soaking in the stand-up of guys like David Steinberg, Fred Willard, and Robert Klein at night.

“How dare you—who makes a living making fun of Swedes!—criticize me for my writing, you brain-dead, ridge-running redneck.”

“Bob was very, very dry indeed,” says Mamet, chuckling as he recalls a mock sermon in which Klein played Job, shouting, “What kind of a God is it that would kill my children and spare my wife?” The fingerprints of that era are all over Romance, which is also indebted to the fun he had while teaching theater to William H. Macy at Goddard College.

“One of the first plays we did was an out-and-out Hellzapoppin’ farce about the scenery falling down, called Lone Canoe,” recalls Mamet, munching on cantaloupe. “Later, Macy said, ‘Why do you write this lugubrious bullshit that puts everyone to sleep?’ And I said, ‘What about your acting? How dare you—who makes a living making fun of Swedes—criticize me for my writing, you brain-dead, ridge-running redneck?’ And this went on for decades. So this is it. My riposte, in dramatic form, to Billy Macy.”

Romance is also—in Mamet’s own, profane way—his nostalgic tribute to their good ol’ days, staged on the twentieth anniversary of the theater’s founding. “Before we all left Chicago, what we all had was this: None of us were going home. We were like those Indian stake warriors. You know the phrase staked out? They would go into battle and they would stake themselves out, meaning, ‘I won’t leave this spot. I’m either going to prevail or die here.’ That’s what we all had in those days, and that’s why we’re all doing it 40 years later. We all said, ‘I’m not missing out on this fun.’ ”

Funny Peculiar