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Enter Scowling : Prolific, Profane and Relentlessly Macho,Playwright David Mamet Does Battle With the Tyranny of Political Correctness

August 23, 1992|Richard Stayton | Richard Stayton's last story for this magazine was a profile of playwright Terrence McNally

Why do they think I'm a misogynist? That I can't write women?" * On a rainy spring day, David Mamet is musing aloud while we walk through Harvard Square. * "Somehow I've been stuck with this sexist label." * Mamet the Misogynist: America's most prolific playwright and busiest screenwriter can't escape controversy, not even in his adopted hometown. A journalist dismisses his notoriously profane style as "dialogue with hair on its chest."A Cambridge waiter asks sardonically about "Mamet's battered ex-wife" (meaning actress Lindsay Crouse, who may have been emotionally but never physically bruised by Mamet).

And now his first major play of the 1990s, "Oleanna," and his first major attempt to erase the brand of misogyny, is about to premiere in the academic capital of political correctness.

Mamet passes a poster for a play at Radcliffe: "Calling It Rape." Local bookstore and newsstand clerks admit they "don't dare" stock a controversial parody written by Harvard Law Review editors titled, "He-Manifesto of Post-Mortem Legal Feminism"; Harvard law students put up wanted posters for the authors. Twenty of the law school's 59 professors signed two letters accusing the school of "sexism and misogyny."

"It's like a witch hunt here at Harvard now," Mamet is told by his friend Alan Dershowitz, a teacher at Harvard Law School. Many professors stand accused of being "politically incorrect," "racist" or "sexist"--the very situation dramatized in "Oleanna."

"I think doing this play in Cambridge is like doing 'The Diary of Anne Frank' at Dachau," Mamet sighs.

"Oleanna" has the potential to do for the 1990s what Arthur Miller's attack on McCarthyism in "The Crucible" did for the 1950s. It's Mamet's most overtly political play, exploring themes that have preoccupied him over the past few years: sexual politics, the role of education in a disintegrating society, male chauvinism versus feminism, censorship. It also boasts Mamet's most fully realized female character--but a female who might give feminists more ammunition in their case against David Mamet. So this bullet-headed block of a man plunges through the crowd toward the theater like a boxer toward a ring: warily. Visual fragments appear and disappear within the surging waves of students and professors: A skull-tight jock's crew cut. A stubbly black beard. Mirrored sunglasses. A letterman's athletic jacket, taut across wrestler's shoulders that stretch the letters of "Glengarry Glen Ross," his 1984 Pulitzer prize-winning play. Only a pair of surprisingly feminine Chinese slippers soften the image of a macho athlete poised for conflict--that plus a gentle, low, swift voice.

"Gimme five!" he shouts, slapping palms with the actors and crew waiting on the theater's porch. Greeting these loyal artists and technicians instantly defuses Mamet's wariness.

Like a proud job foreman, he gestures for me to follow his team into the theater--a crossing I've sought for three years, an exclusive invitation to observe two weeks of rehearsals and witness the world premiere of "Oleanna." But before I can enter the theater, Mamet abruptly seizes my arm. "Think of someone," he whispers, "who has psychic weight for both Bill and me."

"Excuse me?"

Mamet is referring to the lead actor of "Oleanna," William H. Macy. The pair have worked together since meeting at college in 1971. Much psychic lava has flowed under the Mamet-Macy collective bridge. Even Mamet's wife of eight months, Rebecca Pidgeon, rehearsing alongside Macy in "Oleanna," confesses, "I was so scared when I finally got to meet the famous Bill Macy. David talked about Bill Macy all the time."

"I'm going to try and manipulate Bill," Mamet whispers. "I'm going to see if he can read my mind. Think of someone psychically significant to us both."

"Gregory Mosher?"

Mosher is a founding member of "Mamet's Mafia," as the elite in-group is known on Broadway and in Hollywood. Mosher's relationship with both Mamet and Macy reaches back to Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1974. Over the past two decades, Mosher has directed 13 of Mamet's plays, beginning with his first major hit, "American Buffalo," starring Macy, through Mamet's Shavian farce, "Bobby Gould in Hell," in 1989 at Lincoln Center (Macy played the devil).

"Greg?" Mamet ponders my choice. "Good. You think of him, too. Clear your mind of everything but 'Greg Mosher.' Concentrate. Keep focused on Bill."

Feeling absurdly vulnerable, I follow Mamet into the shadowy interior of Harvard's 19th-Century Hasty Pudding Theatre. Peeling paint dangles from the old-fashioned proscenium arch above Macy and Pidgeon. While studying their scripts, the actors gradually grow aware of Mamet and me standing like statues, staring hard at Macy. The stage manager and understudies, perplexed, also watch us.

Pidgeon gasps: "Ooooooh! David looks so scary!"

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