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San Francisco by Richard Connema

David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood
is a Confronting Drama

Also see Richard's review of West Side Story

The Old Neighborhood
Michael Santo (Bobby) and Amy Resnick (Jolly)
David Mamet's most recent Broadway drama, The Old Neighborhood, opens the Aurora Theatre Company's 12th season. Confrontation is the playwright's specialty and this is one of his most head-on dramas. It is a mesmerizing 85 minute no intermission presentation about a middle aged man's trip back to his roots in Chicago. The famed master of dialogue is angry, sorrowful, pungent and moving - this is quintessential Mamet. This is my third version of the drama, starting with the New York production during the winter of 1997 with Patti LuPone and Peter Riegert in the leads. During the winter of 1999 we saw the Geffen Playhouse production starring Dennis Boutsikaris and Christine Dumford with Ed Begley, Jr. in the small role of Carl.

The Old Neighborhood is a collection of three playlets linked by Bobby (Michael Santo), who has left his wife and returned to Chicago after a long absence to meet with high school buddy Joey (Ron Kaell), his sister Jolly (Amy Resnick), her husband Carl (Tom Darci), and his ex-girlfriend Deeny (Delia MacDougall). Bobby wants to find some meaning in his life. (David Mamet has described this work as a somewhat autobiographical tale).

The first playlet, called Joey, shows typical Mamet male characters "kvetching" about the post Holocaust world and their own empty lives. We have the typical foul mouthed machismo dialogue that is the playwright's trademark. There are prosaic sentence fragments and disjointed delivery between the two old friends. They talk about friends, sexual conquests, family and their youth. Joey gives voice to his deep well of unhappiness about his enfeebled lack of Jewish heritage. He somehow seems regretful for not have been in Europe during the Holocaust. He believes he would have survived and says he "would have been a great man in Europe."

The second playlet, called Jolly, takes place during the evening in home of Bobby's sister Jolly and her husband. This is the longest and best of the trio. David Mamet has created one of the most memorable characters in the role of the bitter sister Jolly. Jolly is a tough woman, but she is also excruciatingly vulnerable from a childhood with parents who were self-centered. She has established a stable family life through sheer willpower but at a terrible psychological cost. She seethes with an obsessive fury about her deceased mother and goyim stepfather. She says "One thousand generations we've been Jewish, my mother marries a "sheigetz" and we're celebrating Christmas." Jolly's husband Carl just adds a little flame to the fire and goes along with whatever his wife says.

Deeny is the third playlet. This is the shortest and weakest of the triptych and the whole drama would have played better if this short piece had been the second of the three one act plays. Deeny takes place in a coffee shop with Bobby and ex-girlfriend Deeny discussing her wrecked marriage and impending divorce. The 15 minute piece has Deeny in a soliloquy on ambiguous ideas on life, and she says almost out of nowhere "I was thinking about tribes that mutilate themselves." This final short piece proves nothing and it is time wasted. They chat about nothing and there are no revelations. This is Mamet at his most vacuous.

Director Joy Carlin has assembled a cast of commanding actors who do an astonishing job with Mamet's material. Amy Resnick gives a stunning performance as Jolly. She is forceful in the role of a frustrated sister who puts on a valiant front when discussing her various family relationships. She uses her flaming anger to spell out her disappointments in throbbing tones. She has the fast, choppy sentences down pat. Delia MacDougall gives a beautiful performance as girlfriend Deeny, even though her monologue has very little movement.

Michael Santo plays Bobby as a conduit for all of the characters. He is a perfect listener and his short sentences to each of the characters are right on the mark. This is a mild Bobby, and he is almost a cipher, but he underplays the role brilliantly. Ron Kaell's muscular Joey is bombastic as blows apart the myth of a scholarly Jew. He shows the unhappiness of his life since he would rather have been working a forge in another time in Europe. He shows the true nature of the character when he says "Every night I pray I can get through life without murdering anybody," and he means it. Rounding out the cast is Tom Darci in a small part as Jolly's husband Carl. He has little to do but agree or goad his sister in her anger.

Director Joy Carlin's approach is fresh. She gives the actors the speech patterns of Mamet's dialogue and they are excellent with the rhythms of the playwright's words. It is a tight, fast-paced production with limited roll-on sets for the arena style theater.

The Old Neighborhood runs thru October 19 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.aurorattheatre.org. The next production will be the Bay Area premiere of Kenneth Lonegan's off Broadway hit Lobby Hero opening on November 14th.

Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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