AN OCTOBER UNSURPRISE
Scott Zigler learned to direct theater from David Mamet, which is like having David Ortiz teach you how to pitch for the major leagues. A designated hitter thinks every pitch should come right over the plate, and may be excused for only paying attention to the elements of the game that concern him. A good pitcher, of course, will ignore such advice like a hypo full of Parkinson’s extract, not least because a hitter doesn’t realize that reaching for the outside corner keeps him alert. A few games of nothing but sweet-spot pitches could, arguably, put a batter into a coma-induced slump. Mr. Zigler has mainlined the Mametian aesthetic like Human Growth Hormone for theater professionals, and the result is an overdeveloped sense of the text at the expense of nuance elements like theatricality, beat structure, and entertainment value.
A good director is supposed to exploit all the elements in a script, even and especially those the writer doesn’t know are there. A good director frames moments, delineates rising and falling action, and essentially leads the audience to discovery. He helps the actors to character-enriching, story-telling choices. He collaborates with the designers to enhance mood and illuminate theme. He heightens emotion, elucidates philosophy, and facilitates the suspension of disbelief. Then there’s what David Mamet does.
Mr. Mamet, remember, is that very fine late-century writer who, after directing a total of two films remembered by nobody who wasn’t in them, thought the time was right to publish a book called On Directing Film. His advice in this book is the same advice he gave to Scott Zigler regarding theater: shoot (stage) everything in the least interesting manner possible. This is not only terrible advice, it is the sort of terrible advice that even sounds like terrible advice. Director’s Theater may run amok sometimes, and via its constant outrageousness become boring, but to go directly to boring is Kool-Aid of a flavor only a cultist could imbibe. And Mr. Zigler has taken this advice for over twenty years from Mr. Mamet, a man who has proven equally adept at directing boring plays, movies, and television, even when he had good scripts (often his own) to work on.
Mr. Mamet’s preference for words over every other theatrical element is understandable, since his greatest artistic successes have been as a writer. One may make what one likes of the fact that in 2008′s November he merely recycles the form, characters, action, and even some of the lines (mostly about “purity”) from that more profound exploration of human venality, 1988′s Speed-the-Plow. (A hero, given a choice between remunerative debasement and ennobling poverty, is torn between two counselors: a man’s cynicism and a woman’s piety.) It’s not exactly late-career reinvestigation, because making a farce out of a drama merely requires trimming, not expansion (of thought, theme, action, or anything else). But call it a rehash, call it a retread, it’s still very funny in a small way, and has the potential to be a little more than that – squandered in this production, but that’s not Mr. Mamet’s fault. Except … oh well.
The story of a sitting American president (Ed Begley, Jr.) and chief of staff (Rod McLachlan) desperate for campaign cash, the predations they make upon an idealistic speechwriter (Felicity Huffman) and a corruptible lobbyist (Todd Weeks), and the retribution they may receive from an Indian chief (Gregory Cruz), November is as amusing as a slight, nihilistic one-act can be. The wonderful cast, straitjacketed as they are by the Mametian prime directive (the words are gibberish! just keep talking!), manages much; most of these performers are old friends, of Mr. Mamet and of each other, and they know how this talky game is played. But when you’ve seen Mamet directed by someone not beholden to Mametism, you’ve seen Cathay, and to look upon the talents here restricted is to pine for a broader horizon. Mr. Zigler keeps the pace up, all right, but he also hammers all the predictable beats into a flat line and runs Mamet’s patented reversals together so you can’t tell who’s sitting and who’s pulling out his chair. Given the hard, cramped Mark Taper Forum seats, I for one was very glad the show ran faster than its promised 80 extremely glib minutes.
photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on November 4, 2012
for tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org