7 August 2021 02:06PM
When I listened to David Mamet’s laugh-out-loud funny, irreverent, maybe outrageous, startlingly original interview with Joe Donahue on WAMC last week, I did laugh out loud. Not just because it was funny; because it resonated.
Because maybe the most significant, if not the funniest thing Mamet said was that the only thing that mattered to the success of a play, or any dramatic piece of writing, is whether or not the audience kept on wanting to know what happened next, and kept on guessing wrong. Because if a playwright loses his or her audience before the curtain, or even after it, he loses the game.
The funniest thing Mamet said, only because of the truth that lies beneath its hyperbole, is that critics are like abusive parents who put out cigarettes on a child’s arm. This was in answer to a question about whether or not he reads his reviews.
He also sent mixed messages about the worth of a director to a play. He allowed “The Christopher Boy’s Communion”, the subject of this review (I’m getting to it) to be produced at Jim Frangione’s Great Barrington Public Theater this season, after pandemic postponement last season, because of his forty-year friendship and collaboration with Frangione, whom he clearly loves, but also admires and respects. Five minutes later, he said that all a play needed was a good script and a good case and a director who knew enough to leave them both alone except to say, “Stand there. Say that.” I think he meant that directors who think they are auteurs fail. In the theater, the play’s the thing.
So, to the play. Mamet made me look at what I saw Thursday night at Simon’s Rock, through a different lens. If I dare to comment on the quality of a play by one of America’s greatest living playwrights, I’m going to do so on his terms.
In a preview of the production, Jeffrey Borak, Theater Critic at the Berkshire Eagle (long ago, a metaphorically abusive parent of mine) says the play tries to do many things (unsuccessfully is implied but not stated) and he names them all. But the playwright names one thing, and in my estimation, he succeeds, and Frangione along with him.
Did I want to know what was going to happen next throughout the 75-minute running time? I did. I was curious, sometimes confused, often provoked, but always engaged. I remained engaged after the curtain came down and the house lights came up, and on the ride home, and in the 24 hours since.
It’s an odd piece. Joan, the protagonist, is the wealthy devout Catholic mother of an offstage character, her adolescent son, Michael, who is in jail for the rape, murder and mutilation of his Jewish schoolmate, girlfriend and neighbor.
We learn this in what amounts to a prologue, a conversation, mostly one-sided, between two NYPD detectives, Hollis (Kevin O’Rourke, brilliant at Mamet’s staccato, rapid-fire dialogoue in a drunken rant) and his partner, Burke, who are never seen again. Neither are the other supporting characters, a Jewish lawyer, a Black priest, and a female clairvoyant, played to seductive, chilling perfection by Diane Prusha.
Joan, and to a much lesser extent, her husband Alan, and the unseen Michael and his girlfriend, are the only characters that have throughlines. (It’s not clear whether the dead girl’s name was Jenny or if it’s a Jennifer Lopez reference to call her “Jenny from the building”. Mostly, she gets Joan’s anti-Semitic slurs as substitutes.
Joan has one goal, one reason for being—get her son off and back to his privileged little life—and she will do anything to make it happen, lying and bribing the least of them. The question is what more could anything mean? I won’t answer, because you should see this play. (Trust me; you won’t see it coming.)
You should see what Frangione and Great Barrington Public Theater are bringing to the Berkshires and its astonishingly rich cultural landscape, which you might think doesn’t need another theater, what with Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theater Group, Shakespeare & Company, WAM, and Williamstown Theater Festival. But the mission of this new enterprise is different in important ways. GBPT is committed to presenting new work, often by local playwrights, hiring local actors and designers, and making theatre affordable to local audiences, all at a high level of production. That is worth seeing, supporting, and celebrating. The East Coast premiere of a provocative, startling, disturbing new David Mamet play is a bonus.
In his script, Mamet describes the only previous production, on an almost empty black stage, just a couple of chairs and tables that get moved around with scene changes, each scene with a different large red object, one of which becomes pivotal. Frangione and his set designer John Musall make a different choice: the nearly empty black stage in every location except Joan’s fully furnished living room, which makes sense and resonates powerfully in the end.
As for that title, it has nothing to do with Michael. The Christopher boy’s communion, scheduled on the day that Joan’s story begins, is important to Joan only as a reflection of her faith, and what becomes of it. But I can’t tell you that either.
I usually require, or at least desire that a play make me laugh or cry, preferably both. This one did neither. It made me listen and look hard. And think.
Three more performances. Today, Saturday at 3 pm and 7:30 pm. Tomorrow, Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets at the link above or call 413-707-2901. Or just go to Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road,, Great Barrington, and follow the signs to Great Barrington Public Theater.
PHOTO: Keira Naughton, as Joan and Diane Prusha, as Mrs. Charles