LOS ANGELES -- You might be surprised to learn that David Mamet recently tested a new play he wrote and directed at the Odyssey Theatre with a mouthwatering cast that included his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, Emmy winner William H. Macy and stage veteran Fionnula Flanagan, who was nominated for a Tony Award last year for her performance in "The Ferryman."
I was surprised to find out about "The Christopher Boy's Communion," which ended its two-week run in a hush on Sunday. Word about the production came to me not through the show's publicist, who normally isn't shy about sending me information, but through that harder-to-control pathway of rumor.
I got the skinny a few weeks ago at a dinner party attended by some prominent members of the L.A. theater community. The friend seated next to me, an arts patron with adventurous taste, said she would arrange tickets. Usually, I'm the one extending theater invitations, but I was glad to be the plus-one for a show in which my professional presence wasn't being actively courted.
It's odd for an artist as high-profile as Mamet to be trying out a new work in this independent fashion. He could have called any artistic director in town and arranged a reading or a workshop or even a public viewing.
Perhaps, after having been burned in recent years on prominent stages, he thought it best to opt for a discreet trial run. "Bitter Wheat," the play he opened last year in London, occasioned the Vanity Fair headline: "David Mamet's Harvey Weinstein Play Signifies Nothing." (And that was the good news.) There are no better notes for a playwright and director than the reactions of a paying audience. There's also nothing more stifling than critical condemnation.
I'm going to respect the tacit wishes of Mamet and not review the play as I would if it had had an official press opening. A work that's still being tinkered with before it's shipped to New York deserves the chance to evolve in peace even if it's charging $50 a ticket to L.A. theatergoers. But the experience reminded me of what I admire about Mamet's talent -- the vigor and cunning of voices in all-out attack -- and what I have found so off-putting since "Oleanna" -- the stacking of the deck in ideological blood battles.
"The Christopher Boy's Communion," the latest offering of a genius who is also a bit of a crank, both fascinated and repelled me. But the play's dark Faustian allure is too provocative to dismiss even if the rancorous treatment of religious conflict between Christians and Jews devolves into ludicrous caricature. The feedback that follows is offered in the spirit of collegiality from a critic who would like to see Mamet tighten the screws of a work that doesn't deserve to go out into the world unhinged.
Those who remember the broadside I published in these pages seven years ago titled "The Problem With David Mamet" might wonder why I'd go out of my way to check out the still-germinating effort of a dramatist whose anti-PC animus, I've said, has warped his pugnacious imagination and whose clipped verbal style, I've further contended (adding insult to injury), has hardened into shtick. Haven't I complained that Center Theatre Group under Michael Ritchie's leadership has given us too much middling Mamet and too little of the new generation of American dramatists who are following in his early footsteps by reinventing the way plays sound?
Dismissing the hobgoblin of consistency, I drove to the Odyssey on Saturday afternoon with a feeling of genuine excitement. These are politically and culturally strange times, and as a theater critic ensconced in the coastal progressive echo chamber, I thought it might be useful to hear what's on Mamet's mind these days.
Not that I expected political topicality from a playwright more drawn to fundamental divisions. But the zeitgeist has a way of coming through Mamet's unique lens, as it does in the opening scene of "The Christopher Boy's Communion."