LOS ANGELES — David Mamet has recently unveiled a new play, “Henry Johnson,” at the Electric Lodge in Venice. Tickets have been so scarce for the production, which features Shia LaBeouf in a top-notch cast, that the September run was extended through Oct. 7.
The reason you likely haven’t heard much about this offering is that this is one of Mamet’s clandestine world premieres.
Critics were not invited, even after they politely asked. Perhaps the 75-year-old Mamet has grown tired of getting burned by unflattering reviews. He’s hardly been a critics’ darling in his late career.
But the playwright has never held my profession in high regard. He once called critics Frank Rich and John Simon the syphilis and gonorrhea of the American theater. Believe it or not, this quotable taunt was from Mamet’s more temperate days, before right-wing conspiracy theories and unhinged demagoguery set in.
In 2020, shortly before COVID-19 forced venues to close, Mamet gave “The Christopher Boy’s Communion” a trial run at the Odyssey Theatre. The production featured Rebecca Pidgeon, Emmy winner William H. Macy and stage veteran Fionnula Flanagan — an ensemble to make the Geffen Playhouse and Center Theatre Group green with envy.
Reviewers weren’t invited, but a friend had a ticket and asked me along. Sporting professional that I am, I decided to write up my thoughts in the hope that I could help the play avoid the embarrassing end of so many of Mamet’s slapdash and tendentious efforts since “Oleanna” drew out the playwright’s worst deck-stacking impulses.
When the publicity reps of “Henry Johnson” informed me that there would not be a press opening or press tickets, I assumed that the play was still in the workshop phase and decided not to impose my critical judgments. In 2013, I wrote a piece titled “The Problem With David Mamet,” in which I diagnosed a “hardening in his work not just of ideology but of imagination.” But I have no interest in trolling a playwright of his stature.
His theatrical legacy, apart from his considerable accomplishments in film and television, is prodigious. Mamet’s gift for staccato verbal sparring transformed the way characters communicate on the American stage. “Glengarry Glen Ross” stands as one of the greatest American dramas of the second half of the 20th century.
If anyone could rest on his laurels, he can. So what if I’m not alone in thinking that he should?
In the transition from enfant terrible to elder statesman, Mamet refashioned himself as a neocon crank, sounding off like a regular contributor to the comments section of Breitbart News. In his 2022 book, “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch,” he celebrates Donald Trump (a prototypical Mamet character), dismisses climate change, inveighs against COVID-19 safety measures and categorizes former U.S. president Barack Obama as a “race hustler.”
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