Teaching Mamet-Speak in School 

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The Atlantic Theater's production of Two Unrelated Plays: School and Keep Your Pantheon by David Mamet, directed by long-time collaborator Neil Pepe, arrives at what some critics consider a moment of crisis in the playwright's career. The plays coincide with a Broadway revival of his Oleanna that's met with a decidedly lukewarm reception despite (or perhaps because of) its big-name cast, and an upcoming Broadway premiere of his new play Race. One immediately wonders if Mamet isn't trying to make up for the tepid reactions to Oleanna, last year's Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo by adding some new pieces to the conversation.

As a long-time fan of the playwright's irreverent and caustic dialog, I laughed quite a bit at the Two Unrelated Plays' typical Mamet-speak and Mamet-wit. Aside from one major quibble in the longer piece, Keep Your Pantheon, the plays work well and provoke a kind of thirst for more Mametâ�‚��€œYou know, a couple of quick hits to whet our whistles and get people talking about him ahead of his Broadway premiere. Not surprisingly, then, I felt that these two (truly) unrelated plays lacked a density that I had come to expect from Mamet, a hunger to attack very troubling emotions and situations head on and not have any qualms about the outcome. As a result, these plays are filled instead with language and subject matter that risk nothing, and in doing so allow the audience to gain just as much.

School opens the evening on a sparsely appointed stage featuring two men, one brown desk and two chairs. From the props and simple brown background, as well as the absent-minded-professor wardrobes of the two men, it's conveniently apparent that we were in a school. As the lights go up, Rod McLachlan and John Pankowâ�‚��€œwho appear on the playbill as merely A and B, respectivelyâ�‚��€œimmediately dive into a hurried exchange that begins from the question of how to best dispose of a wall full of posters created by studentsâ�‚��€œbecause that's all students really do anyway, make postersâ�‚��€œveers haphazardly into an argument for and against recycling, hair-pins into a physics discussion of matter, loops back around to question the verdict of the Dresden bombings in regards to said physics, and finally T-bones into the conundrum of who in the school actually has control of the custodians. I don't think there has been a more high-octane 12 minutes (roughly) of Mamet-speak since Glenngarry Glen Ross, and I found myself smiling and trying to listen as hard as I could so as not to miss a witticism.

With characteristic verbal gymnastics, the typical misappropriated phrases of a less existential Becket, and self-referential riffingâ�‚��€œlike a musical loop played by a two-man band being built upon until it becomes an entire orchestrated movementâ�‚��€œSchool ultimately focuses on the way that information is transmitted, or rather, the way information is not transmitted and lost in the translation. The performances of the two veterans of the stage are bright and solid, and their timing perfect, but the material lacks that depth seen in previously Mamet plays. Everyone knows that recycling is a double edged sword (where does the energy come from to recycle the recyclables, etc...), unions are a pain in the ass to deal with as an administrator, and that matter (such as the city of Dresden) can neither be created nor destroyed. In the hands of Mamet, these hackneyed notions are portrayed as significant revelations, like he had just discovered them on Wikipedia and was really excited to tell us all about it. Though very entertaining, after the sprint of a play I felt no different about any of the issues raised and really felt nothing at all except happy from laughing. If this was Mamet's intention then it was a success, but if he means for us to come away with something new it didn't work so well.

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