Thursday, July 15, 2010


Performance Date: 07.14.10
Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Usually I wait at least a couple days after seeing a play to start writing about it, but today I’m trying a different tack. This afternoon I saw a matinee of David Mamet’s Race, which has been extended on Broadway with a brand new cast featuring Eddie Izzard, whom I adore, Dennis Haybert of “24” and those All-State commercials, Afton C. Williamson, and original cast member Richard Thomas, who, in addition to a vast number of laudable credits, once played John-Boy on “The Waltons”. Now it is a few hours later and I sit on my couch, laptop on lap, ready to jot down some fresh-off-the-presses, probably ill-considered, but certainly genuine thoughts.

The play is about prejudice, so let’s start with some of mine. I was predisposed not to like this play, based purely on hearsay and a bad taste left in my mouth after Mamet spent an hour with us students in grad school. He came off, frankly, as kind of an ass. I mean, I’m sure he’s a really nice man and all, but he came off as kind of an ass. I also find Mamet’s distinctive manner of writing dialogue a hard style to pull off. When it’s working, it’s undeniable and amazing – fast-paced, rhythmic, and satisfying on a deep guttural level. But when it’s not working for whatever reason, it sounds like people throwing typewriters at each other. Or maybe like people printing their thoughts out on dot-matrix printers, ripping the perforated paper off, walking across the room, and reading them aloud in front of the other person.

To add insult to injury, I was further prejudiced by the belief that Mamet’s writing gets the shortest shrift when Mamet himself directs. This is probably residue from the offense I took at Mamet’s oft-cited assertion that since the playwright has already done the work, all actors need to do is just “say the lines.” I think he actually repeated this statement at my grad school which is probably one reason I found him obnoxious. Of course, then I actually read Mamet’s True and False and I now find his advice, when taken in context, rather brilliant. But sometimes I forget I find it brilliant and my prejudice resurfaces.

Oh and then finally, finally, I thought since it was Mamet and the play was called Race and that it was about race that it would be really mouth-piecey and bludgeony and heavy-handed. Don’t know how I formed that assumption exactly, but I guess that’s the deal with prejudices.

But prejudices be damned, I liked the play. It’s imperfect and not Mamet’s most elegant work, but I liked it. Mamet is nothing if not intelligent, and I enjoy the kind of smart debate that is so often featured in his works. This play was no exception. And despite my fears of bludgeoning, I actually appreciated the unabashed and direct approach to a subject – race – that we tend to talk about only indirectly and with great caution. I also liked how, in addition to race, the play spoke to the similarities between the judicial system and entertainment. As Izzard’s character suggests, both arenas hinge on how a narrative is told to a group of people, be they audience or jury, and success depends on how that group receives and judges that narrative. This notion was further highlighted by the set, which takes a typical book-lined, mahogany law office and surrounds it with three huge banks of Broadway flood lights. And finally, I liked the cast. There was some dot-matrix printing happening right at the outset – which had me fantasizing that Mamet actually tells his actors to speak without affect – but they soon settled into a good Mamet groove, which then allowed each actor’s individual charms to shine through.

Funny how that is with Mamet. As an actor, you very often want to tear your hair out when you start working on his plays. His rhythms are so particular that even if you can hear the character speaking in your head, when you yourself try to say the words aloud, it feels stilted and phony. The words seem to block you from your instincts and you find yourself thinking, “Nobody really talks like that.” You feel like a really bad actor. So you struggle and fight with the language, trying to make it your own, but it only gets worse. And then eventually, probably just from pure repetition, you start to tap into the rhythm of his writing. You start to understand how it flows and you begin internalizing it. And finally, once you’ve truly embraced his rhythms, it all unlocks. Your instincts are suddenly available to you again and you’re free to follow your impulses, be spontaneous – you’re free to act. But you have to surrender to the language first. That’s the funny part: only by surrendering to Mamet’s unique, specific style can you bring your own unique, specific self to the role. A very strange but very rewarding experience, and I think partly what Mamet had in mind with his “say the lines” bit.

I think this gets at what I love most about acting. I love collaborating with a playwright, dead or alive, who has a strong take on language. I love the structure it provides, the parameters, the scaffolding it gives me to climb. I love working within those constraints, the constraints of someone else’s aesthetic. Without that force to push against, I often feel lost. Without that flint to strike against, my creativity doesn’t always spark. That probably has more to do with my personal psychology than anything else, as there are plenty actors who feel exactly the opposite. Plenty actors loathe constraint, and feel much more able to express their creativity on a blank canvas. But for me, I need something to grab onto, to sink my teeth into, someone else who will fight back. And if it’s not a playwright, then it’s a director with a strong vision or a scene partner with a fierce point of view. I’m not sure who or what that force will be as I begin writing material for myself. Perhaps that person will be me. I might have to split myself in two and do some battle da solo. Could be dangerous. Could be fun. Could be dangerous fun.

So there’s not going to be a snappy close for me today because, instead, I need to share this bit of information gleaned from today’s Playbill and it has nothing to do with anything. Here it is: Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days for charity. That’s crazypants right there. That’s bananagrams. He’s already the funniest man alive. And the smartest. He needs to stop it. Like right now. Seriously.


  1. This is a excellent piece of writing that I picked up through a google search. I really enjoyed your insights.
    As someone who studied quite a bit of Mamet when I was doing a degree in theater, I think his language, rendered properly, actually ends up sounding very natural. Izzard, in particular for me in this cast, really got that. In truth, very few people speak in complete sentences in every day life.

  2. Oh dear. I wrote a response to your comment last week, but it didn't post! My apologies. The gist of what I wrote was this: thanks for reading, I'm glad you found me and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I of course agree that Mamet sounds incredibly natural when it's rendered properly, but I find that the main challenge is not the incomplete sentences, but rather the word choice and syntax he uses. For the longest time I could not conceive of a young woman saying, "Do you see" as much as the student does in Oleanna. But now, strangely, I find myself saying it all the time!