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David Mamet boxes a few ears

Interviewed on stage by pal Ricky Jay, the famously irascible writer comes out swinging.

May 15, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

David Mamet has little use for political correctness, windy academic theorists or Bolshevik-minded theater directors. He's also not too keen on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or those big, splashy Broadway sets that make audiences go "Ohh."

As Mamet writes in "Theatre," one of two new books published by the prolific playwright-screenwriter-essayist, "When we leave the play saying how spectacular the sets or costumes were, or how interesting the ideas, it means we had a bad time."

But as the author of "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Wag the Dog" and TV's "The Unit" makes plain in "Theatre," he likes strong plotting and the bare-knuckled American vernacular. He likes actors, especially the type of hard-working, cut-the-b.s. troupers ( John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, William H. Macy) he came up with in Chicago back in the day. He's a big fan of John Patrick Shanley's " Doubt."

And he likes Ricky Jay, the master prestidigitator and longtime pal who served as de facto emcee of a provocative, briskly paced two-man rap session at Largo at the Coronet on Thursday night.

Presented by Rare Bird Lit and PEN Center USA, the evening of "literary vaudeville" afforded plenty of verbal showmanship, a bit of jocular banter about Hollywood, glimpses of the two regular guys behind the spotlighted performers, and some affectionate gibing between the artists, seated in matching director's chairs.

Mamet, 62, sporting a cap and a T-shirt and vest over his middleweight boxer's physique, came out swinging, even taking an opening swipe at himself. Apropos of acting, he told the audience he'd be the first person to admit he couldn't act. "Except," he added, scanning the crowd, "Bill Macy's here tonight, so I'd be the second person."

The amiable Jay (for the record, a few months younger than Mamet), nattily attired in suit, tie and pocket kerchief, worked off a set of cue cards that he held in his nimble hands. Looking for inspiration, Jay said that he had Googled Mamet before the show. Some of the search results ran to the ribald.

"Egad," the magician said, chuckling, "some people really don't like you." Mamet, his eyes behind round-framed glasses, looked unperturbed by this piece of information.

Jay's hale-fellow-well-met demeanor had a gentling effect on his tough-talking friend. But those who'd paid their money for piss and vinegar weren't put out.

Mamet disclosed that when Martin Scorsese once asked him to rework the script for a planned remake of a Kurosawa film, he'd told the director to perform an anatomically impossible act.

Scorsese's response? "He took it the wrong way," Mamet deadpanned.

Elsewhere in the conversation, relaying an anecdote about how Mamet had made good on a pledge made years earlier to cast an actor in a certain part, Jay said, "You seem to be — how do I say this? — a man of your word." Mamet half-smiled.

To kick-start the evening, two Mamet volumes chosen were brought into the discussion. They were a curious combination. "Theatre" is a collection of short essays, spiked with personal anecdotes and mordant wit, with such headings as "Totalitarian Tendencies," "The Fallacy of the Director" and "On the General Uselessness of the Rehearsal Process."

It could serve as a primer on how to, and how not to, put on a play, an endeavor that Mamet believes should be accomplished with an absence of self-indulgent Method emoting and pretentious directorial conceits (e.g. setting "Hamlet" in Indiana). It takes a damn good director or designer, he writes, to be better than none at all.

The second book, the comic mock-epic "The Trials of Roderick Spode (The Human Ant)," recounts the adventures of "an accidental superhero" who is transformed into a part-time ant following a magical mishap. A kind of arthropod Odysseus, his metamorphosis is played for breezy charm that should appeal to geriatric as well as juvenile readers.

In a backstage interview before the show, Mamet said there was no connection between the books. But Mamet-ologists may note that Roderick Spode's tale, however whimsical, indirectly conveys one of its author's favorite cautionary themes: Mere mortals should watch out for acts of the gods.

Discerning readers also may intuit a connection between Mamet the macho man of letters and Mamet the father who speaks tenderly and proudly of his children, some of whom are pursuing the career path of their old man and his wife, actor-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon.

The Santa Monica resident cites the primal communicative power of children's bedtime stories as being on par with the Oedipus cycle, or Bronze Age hunters swapping tales around a campfire. That's why, in Mamet's view, slipping a political lecture or a special-interest plea into a play is like a parent ambushing a child by turning "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" into a sermon, or a rabbi or priest pontificating about Bush-Gore from the pulpit.

"Sure thing, it's a betrayal of the audience," Mamet said. "If in the midst of a story you tell them a message, it's a gross insult."

A memorable evening. A pair of cards. A writer in fine aphoristic, irascible form.

He seems to be — how should one say this? — a man of his word(s).

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