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He loves hamlet but can only be Mamet

January 03, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

Wearing dark sunglasses and a black beret, David Mamet jumps out of a BMW convertible at a neighborhood cafe in Santa Monica, where the late autumn sun is slanting in that rakish Southern California way. At breakfast, over a large cappuccino and heaping bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, the 55-year-old playwright and screenwriter is polite but as notoriously private and elliptical as ever, qualities that have led to facile assumptions.

Unfairly or not, Mamet sometimes is described in the same terms as his best-known works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Journalists have spun him as hard-boiled, streetwise and macho, a Chicago native who likes hunting, knives and whiskey, not the type who would note the unfurling of fiddlehead ferns in the woods.

But his bearings happen to be, in fact, in Cabot, Vt., where he is entranced by the changing of the seasons and other markings of country life, he writes in his new book, "South of the Northeast Kingdom." The book includes 22 black-and-white photographs taken by Mamet, who has lived in Vermont off and on for nearly 40 years. He notes the ways in which his work and character have been shaped by life in a community of post-and-beam houses made of first-growth pumpkin pine, hand hewn and framed without nails. (Mamet, his wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and their two small children also have a house on Los Angeles' Westside, though he won't say how much time he spends there.)

"South of the Northeast Kingdom" is part of an ongoing series of "literary travel memoirs" being published by National Geographic Directions. The series, launched last spring, includes an eclectic mix of acclaimed novelists, nonfiction writers, poets and playwrights.

Mamet is a prolific writer, producing work that includes children's books, poems and songs; the plays "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Oleanna"; and screenplay adaptations for the movies "The Verdict," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Wag the Dog." At first, in a telephone conversation, he says he would be "thrilled" to talk about the book. "Oh, goody," Mamet says when an interview is arranged.

But in person, Mamet, a compact man with a trim beard, tends to be terse, uttering sentences of, say, one to three words and not the least bit concerned about the potential awkwardness of using silence as a punctuation mark. He is not unfriendly, and his gaze is direct -- "Hi, I'm Dave," he introduces himself, offering a grin and firm handshake. Occasionally and inexplicably he is expansive, and during those moments, while his erudition is unleashed, he is humble, a man who is wincingly aware of the riches in his life.

Initially, Mamet says, he was a little reluctant to write what he thought might have to be a travel book for National Geographic. "I kept asking them, 'What can I write?' and then I'd reiterate the question in a different way. I didn't want to disappoint them. I said it might be kind of --" he finally settles on a word: "unusual." "They said, 'Great, write whatever you want.... ' So that sounded like a good deal to me."

Mamet even agreed to do a couple readings from the book in Vermont and Massachusetts, though he is busy writing a screenplay on John Dillinger for Warner Bros. and creating a one-hour drama series for NBC. "I love it," he says of "South of the Northeast Kingdom." "I'm just really glad I got a chance to do it, glad I got a chance to take those pictures and put down the things I've wanted to say and, mostly, to discover some things that I didn't realize I felt. One of the things that I hope came out in the book is I'm real grateful to have had many years of life in those kinds of communities, which are, in the course of events, dwindling."

He writes with a lyricism reminiscent of Robert Frost's works on New England (though he is not a big Frost fan), and with a Henry David Thoreau- esque sense of place. His Vermont is a mostly gentle place, populated by straight shooters. "In the cities, words are used to charm, to seduce, to misdirect," writes Mamet, who is known for writing swaggering, profane dialogue that captures the cadence of the streets. "Here, we are expected to say what we mean; those who use words otherwise will be held accountable, perhaps considered fools."

Cabot is the kind of town, Mamet regrets, that is disappearing with the encroachment of city life, which "ensures the transformation of Vermont into Connecticut." He blames himself as much as anyone else for the incursion, admitting that, by his presence, he is an "inevitable part of the cycle of growth and decay."

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