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A CurtainUp Review

The Old Neighborhood
By Les Gutman

Even if you've never been in David Mamet's old neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, you'll feel at home in his new play, The Old Neighborhood. It may not be a warm, secure feeling: it treads in the space where sentimental, glorified nostalgia collides with middle-aged reality. What you will enjoy is the sheer pleasure of watching a confluence of talent, dedication and craftsmanship: playwright, director, actors and designers, all understanding exactly what is expected of them and delivering it simply, perfectly and honestly.

The Old Neighborhood is described as three one-acts, but it is really more interconnected than that description would suggest. On a trip back to Chicago, Bobby (Peter Riegert) -- unquestionably representing Mamet himself -- visits a boyhood friend, Joey (Vincent Gustaferro); his sister, Jolly (Patti Lupone) and her husband, Carl (Jack Willis); and an ex-love, Deeny (Rebecca Pidgeon). With each, Bobby has shared certain life-defining experiences.

Mamet's writing in the first two acts reminds us of why he was noticed in the first place: crisp, unique, focused dialogue. He captures an enormous range of ideas with precious few words. As imitated as his style has become, he does not imitate himself. His classic starts and stops he has now interpreted in a quieter, more contemplative tone.

The third act is more of an existential riddle (and closer to his more recent work like Cryptogram). Although it may prove less satisfying to audiences (primarily because it requires so much attention), it lacks none of the brilliance displayed in the first two.

Director Scott Zigler understands Mamet's words and his punctuation. He directs it with precision. Nothing is forced; his hand is delicate. Even entrances and exits are handled in a ghostlike silence. It is easy to underestimate the sensitive calibration going on here: no one simply stands, sits or turns; no prop is just picked up or put down; even the slightest action (or pause) has layer upon layer of meaning. The same can be said for Kevin Rigdon's seemingly straightforward, but oh-so-meaningful set designs.

The first act, entitled "The Disappearance of the Jews," is set in Bobby's Chicago hotel room. Bobby and Joey had the kind of adolescence together that produces a lifetime of stories. The varnish of many retellings is washed away when the two friends, now about sixty, reconnect, bringing the foundations of their values and attitudes into sharp relief. Gustaferro, an actor Mamet could not have invented to target this role, gives what can only be described as an amazing performance (the first of several here): tender but sometimes brutal, solemn yet painfully funny.
The second act, called simply "Jolly," takes place in the sister's kitchen where she and Bobby have spent the night confronting the familial ghosts. Patti Lupone perfectly displays every texture in the fabric of her relationship with her parents, her brother and her husband. For any doubters, she has now established quite unequivocally that she is a superb actor who is also successful in musical theater rather than the other way around. As husband Carl, Jack Willis has the smallest role, but executes it with the same joyous excellence that permeates this cast. He is able, with very few words, to interpret a character with enough definition that it could fill its own act.

The final act, "Deeny,"rounds out Bobby's visit home by satisfying a bit of his curiosity. Having learned from Joey the whereabouts of a girl he dated, he meets her in a restaurant. Deeny not only opens a window into the romantic part of Bobby's youth, she congeals the theme that is at the heart of The Old Neighborhood: perceptions are relative, and one's focus, in time or space, affects what one sees. Rebecca Pidgeon succeeds at the difficult task of laying bare her perceptions and simultaneously confounding their meaning. If there is a criticism of the cast in this play, it is that Ms. Pidgeon, in her early thirties, seems too well preserved to have dated now sixty-ish Bobby.

Bobby is not the "star" in any of the three acts, but is nonetheless the star of the show. Peter Riegert plays the role so passively that the significance of his performance could easily get lost; he sometimes seems little more than the set-up man for his colleagues. Yet what he does is listen, absorb, learn. These are hard things to do in life, and even harder to do on stage. Riegert's accomplishment is that he succeeds in letting us watch him in these invisible acts.

The Old Neighborhood may not be the stuff one describes as thrilling or spellbinding but it is enormously moving. Above all, it is as an exhibition of the highest levels of contemporary talent one is likely to encounter in a theater any time soon. That, I find thrilling enough.

Although not addressed in detail in this review, The Old Neighborhood also represents a significant statement of Mamet's coming to terms with his Jewishness, Reform Judaism and Jewish culture. Revealing quotes excerpted from his Some Freaks are included in the Playbill.

by David Mamet 
Directed by Scott Zigler 
starring Peter Riegert, Patti Lupone, Vincent Gustaferro and Rebecca Pidgeon 
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th S. (212/ 239-6200 
Opened 11/19/97

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