Mamet with heart (and humor) at Aurora

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Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor, center) scolds Bobby (Rafael Jordan, left) as Teach (James Carpenter) smolders in the background in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of American Buffalo by David Mamet. Below: Two Bay Area greats, O’Connor and Carpenter, square off as Donny and Teach. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company concludes its season with David Mamet’s American Buffalo, an early (1975) Mamet play that has all the telltale Mamet qualities (staccato dialogue sprayed in four-letter directions, life among conmen and criminals, pointed criticism of the “great American way,” etc.), but unlike some of the later, more intentionally provocative and disturbing work, this one has a core of compassion and human connection.

Part of that is Mamet’s play and part of it is director Barbara Damashek’s production headed by two Bay Area greats: James Carpenter and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Watching them spar is theatrical bliss.

I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the pleasures of director Barbara Damashek’s production is how much of the humor she and her actors bring out of Mamet’s 1975 script. Sure, there’s rough language and violence and even blood at one point. But after the overly long setup of Act 1, the desperation of Donny and Teach reaches near-hilarious levels in Act 2.

It’s almost like they’re a low-life Abbott and Costello wrangling over an important phone call (the fact that it’s on a rotary dial phone somehow makes it even funnier) or figuring out how to crack a safe, which neither of them can do.

Carpenter and O’Connor know how to find the comedy without losing touch with the grim reality these characters inhabit.

Read the full review here.
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David Mamet’s American Buffalo continues an extended run through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 32 to $50. Cal 510-843-4822 or visit

David Mamet stages a Race to obfuscation

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Race includes (from left) Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler and Kevin O’Rourke. Below: Law partners Lawson (Fusco) and Brown (Butler) square off over a tendentious case. Photos by Kevin Berne

David Mamet never fails to fog me up.

He’s never been one of my favorite playwrights because, although he’s a wizard of compelling dialogue and unquestionable intelligence, his view of the world is just too bleak for me. Finding kindness and compassion and spirituality in his work is never as easy as finding brutality, ugliness and the absolute worst in mankind. I’m not saying he’s wrong in his assessment, it’s just that he makes me feel like Pollyanna in comparison. I don’t need a steady stream of sunshine, flowers and unicorns.

Mamet’s Race is making its West Coast debut in a compelling production from American Conservatory Theater. Director Irene Lewis isn’t messing around, and her quartet of actors attack this too intentionally provocative drama with real courage. They struggle (and partly succeed) to add a needed human dimension to Mamet’s button-pushing editorial cartoon about what he sees as the farce known as the law, the complicated impossibility of human relationships and the insoluble problem of race.

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He gives us a law firm headed by a black partner (Chris Butler as Henry Brown) and a white partner (Anthony Fusco as Jack Lawson). Also in their inner circle is a black junior lawyer (Suysan Heyward as Susan, the only female character and the only one without a last name), and they’re all struggling with a potential client. Billionaire Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke), who is white, has been accused of raping a black woman (possibly a prostitute).

“What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?” one character asks. “Nothing.” But Mamet finds plenty to say, and none of it’s good. Humanity is fueled by coffee and gossip, and the law is fueled by three things: hatred, fear and envy. All of that’s true, but there’s so much more. Not in this 85-minute exercise, however.

Mamet’s language is as sharp as ever, and the actors all attack it with gusto, but it’s all just so much talk without any emotional connection to these people. Mamet is most successful at creating some sense of mystery about whether Strickland is guilty or not and how the trio of lawyers goes about determining whether or not to take his case, and if they did, whether or not it’s winnable.

But then Mamet starts throwing his know-it-all punches. Everyone is smarter than everyone else, and everyone’s playing everyone else in one way or another. There’s no such thing as generosity here or genuine feeling because, in Mamet’s world, that’s all grist for the reality of vendettas and ill will and a shared history that damages rather than strengthens.

Race is fun to watch, mostly because the actors – Fusco and Butler in particular – are so adept at making the Mamet-speak seem so real. But this nonstop parade of ugliness (not to mention the high-powered foul language that Mamet seems to relish bombing the stage with) ends up feeling like a skit designed to amuse already cynical lawyers at a national conference for reveling in hideous humanity.

I didn’t feel as beaten up here as I did at the end of Mamet’s Oleanna, and the lack of compelling emotion made Race easier to shrug off, even if the issues it addresses linger long after the curtain calls. Maybe Mamet is right, and we shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate or trying to sort through our problems or are deeply held issues with one another.

I don’t agree with that, so I guess Mamet can go fog himself.


David Mamet’s Race continues through Nov. 13 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or vsit

Review: ‘Speed-the-Plow’

Opened Jan. 9, 2008, American Conservatory Theater

Mamet plows into Hollywood brio with `Speed’
Three ½ stars Hot he-man hurly-burly

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow may be notorious for allowing Madonna to make her critically reviled Broadway debut in 1987.

But the play, which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, should be better known as one of Mamet’s more enjoyable comedies. To be sure, this is Mamet territory, which means the “comedy” is laced with testosterone-fueled ignorance, misogyny and violence.

The really interesting thing about the play isn’t its skewering of Hollywood. That’s easy. People in Hollywood are shallow, greedy arbiters of cultural taste who willingly sell their souls (if they ever had them) in pursuit of sex, fame and fortune.

No, it seems Mamet is after something altogether different here, and Hollywood is as good as any other manly man playground to explore it.

Director Loretta Greco sets the play (which comprises three scenes played out in about 100 minutes) on a Hollywood soundstage (set by G.W. Mercier). We see stagehands place the cut-out palm trees behind the window in the office set. Carts of costumes are rolled across the stage, and big movie lights (lighting by York Kennedy) re-create the Southern California glare.

This is a play, like so many Mamet plays before and since, that belongs to the men. Bobby Gould (Matthew Del Negro) is the new head of production for a big movie studio. His longtime friend and lackey, Charlie Fox (Andrew Polk), is still toiling in the producer trenches, but he’s lucked onto something big.

One of the major stars – think Tom Cruise – has fallen in love with one of Charlie’s scripts and wants to make the movie. So Charlie takes the project, which will be the making of his career – to his old friend Bobby.

The two producers strike a deal to co-produce and are ready to make the presentation to the studio’s head honcho. They can already taste the filthy lucre that will come pouring into their personal coffers.

They call each other old whores and love it. “They kick you upstairs and you’re still just some old whore,” Charlie says to Bobby. “You’re gonna decorate your office. Make it a bordello. You’ll feel more at home…and come to work in a soiled nightgown.”

But then the woman enters. Bobby’s temp secretary, Karen (Jessi Campbell), brings the men coffee, and thus begins the action of the plot as she, knowingly or not, attempts to break apart the Charlie-Bobby love fest.

Speed-the-Plow really is a love story of sorts between the two men. But they’re not in love. They’re in power, which might be even more bonding. Each of the play’s three characters relishes the notion of making decisions, holding sway over people’s lives and livelihoods.

Bobby has the most power because he has the fanciest job. He can green-light a movie or get a movie green-lighted with just a single meeting. When Bobby spends an evening at home with Karen, she messes with his mind (and, to some degree, his heart). She’s been assigned a “courtesy read” of a popular novel from the Far East about the end of the world. She’s supposed to provide “coverage,” which means a summary, and demonstrate why the book would make a terrible movie.

But she falls in love with the book, which is essentially about confronting mankind’s one overriding fear – fear of death – and making peace.

Mamet would have us believe that Karen, for all her supposed naiveté, is just your average ambitious Hollywood bimbo. But in Campbell’s capable hands (and under Greco’s astute direction), we’re not quite sure where Karen’s sincerity ends and her ambition begins.

But as a woman in a Mamet play, she must be punished for coming between the men. Bobby decides to forgo the big-budget, fortune-making movie with Charlie in favor of the world-healing Eastern novel with Karen. Let the punches fly, the blood flow and the male bonding resume. B’bye, Karen.

Del Negro and Polk have crackling chemistry, though, and this is a strange criticism, Del Negro is just too handsome as Bobby. This guy, if he were really a Hollywood power player, would be dripping in starlets, and his bet with Charlie to see if he could bed Karen would be a total no-brainer.

But where it counts, in terms of dialogue and character motivation, the actors are sharp and effective.

When their relationship is threatened – when their power marriage is upset – they come right back to the “old whore” imagery. Charlie says to Bobby, with venom in his voice this time, “You’re a bought-and-paid-for whore, and you think you’re a ballerina cause you work with your legs? You’re a whore.”

Well, they’re whores for each other, and their commitment to garbage-driven commerce (ie, show business) and to their mutual power-love, is terrifying to behold.

Speed-the-Plow continues through Feb. 3 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Curse like Mamet

For a third time, American Conservatory Theater is asking us to think and write like David Mamet. Hot @#*$in’ dog.

In conjunction with its upcoming production of Mamet’s Hollywood-lambasting play Speed-the-Plow, ACT is now accepting short play submissions in the unique style of Mamet, which is to say, lots of short, spiky sentences, and lots of foul language.

Ten winning scripts will be selected by a panel of judges including ACT associate artistic director Pink Pasdar and dramaturg Michael Paller.

Says Pasdar: “The contest is a great way for new and experienced playwrights to introduce themselves to us by emulating the style of one of America’s wittiest and most distinctive writers.”

ACT’s graduating class of MFA program students will present the winning pieces in public readings in Fred’s Columbia Room at the American Conservatory Theater on Jan. 25 and 26. The public is invited to attend, but reservations are recommended. Call 415-439-2446.

As for enterting the contest, the rules are simple. Submissions may be no more than three pages, include no more than four characters and fit within one of three categories: rewwrite a classic film scene a la Mamet; a scene depicting a Mamet character rexperiencing a “Hollywood” moment; or Mamet characters placed in an iconic film moment (think Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glen Ross as Jerry Maguire).

Deadline for all submissions is Jan. 11 and winners will be announced Jan. 16. Prizes include ACT theater tickets, dinners in fine restaurants and, of course, the chance to have your play performed.

Find more information at