'Hood Winks

THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
By David Mamet
Off the Cuff

David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood starts off with a couple of Jewish guys sittin' around talkin'. It is, indeed, the old neighborhood, very familiar Mamet turf. The two men go on about the girls they had in high school and what's happened to the guys they hung out with, speaking those familiar Mamet rhythms of broken sentences laced with vulgarities that come together in the playwright's hands into a stage poetry. It's so familiar that at times it veers dangerously close to parody, in part because the one-act form Mamet uses here doesn't give him much room to develop depth in these characters.

One of the two, Joey, does elaborate on his fantasy of how much better his life might have been if he'd grown up in the old country, working as a blacksmith in a shtetl, close to the earth -- never mind pogroms and holocausts. It's a small character sketch, but Christopher Reilly, who's playing Joey in Off the Cuff's production of the play, finds the need and the longing inside the man and brings them to the stylized Mamet surface.

Listening to Joey is his old buddy Bobby. Bobby's popped up in Mamet's work before, as a Los Angeles man-on-the-make. Here, marital troubles have driven him back to his old Chicago neighborhood to try, maybe, to pull himself together by connecting with his roots. Bobby's on the stage through all three episodes of The Old Neighborhood. Mostly he listens to the other characters talk. Wayne Salomon, who plays Bobby, listens very well -- not an easy task. At play's end, Bobby remains a mystery.

In the second episode, Bobby visits his sister Jolly. She vents at length about the condescending treatment she's been given by their stepbrother, who took charge when their mother died and saw to it that Jolly got none of the things she wanted. Her childhood memories, too, are almost all bitter ones. But she brags that she's giving her girls the happy childhood she never had, and she has her comforting fantasy about the warm memories they will have of her. Mamet gives Jolly more size and depth than any of the play's other characters -- she may be the best female role Mamet has written. Kari Ely grabs every explosive twist and turn in this woman driven to the edge of madness by envy, frustration and bitterness, and Ely shakes the theater with them. As he did in Off the Map last season, John Contini plays Ely's silent, long-suffering husband; he does it very well.

In the third episode, Bobby meets with an old girlfriend. She also has her fantasy of a better life, this time the simple one of having a backyard garden. But if Mamet has created any kind of reality for this character, Charlotte Dougherty hasn't found it (neither did Mamet's wife, who played her in the New York production). And the director, Edie Avioli, who has made graceful, focused use of the stage space in the other episodes and of the rhythms of Mamet's dialogue, seems at a loss here.

Jim Burwinkel has aptly appropriated an Edward Hopper painting of a row of brick buildings for his backdrop, in front of which he shifts ingeniously flexible gray units for the various scenes. Michele Siler's costumes capture the characters with accuracy and wit.

Mamet often seems to be on automatic pilot in The Old Neighborhood. But he wakes up now and then to flash his unique brand of theatrical fireworks. Those moments, and the acting in the first two parts of Off the Cuff's production, make it worth a visit for those who care about this playwright's work.

-- Bob Wilcox

AN EVENING WITH QUENTIN CRISP
That Uppity Theatre Company

At stage center are a plush upholstered chair, a tasteful side table with a drink that will go untouched; behind is a folding screen with a floral pattern. Quentin Crisp enters from the wing precariously. He's 90, and the walk from stage left to the chair provides the greatest suspense of the evening.

Once he's settled and under the lights there's the opportunity to have a good look at him. He's splendid, dressed in the basic-black uniform of the New York artiste: A black hat with a Western-style brim is set at a rakish angle; a jaunty scarf is held together with a glittering, studded brooch. Crisp's nails are long and well-tended.

His voice is a deep, melodious rumble, like that of a wise old grandmother who commands complete attention. And because this black-clad crone has not only a sensational streak of eccentricity in his favor but also a masterful storytelling ability, he gets that attention.

Crisp speaks from his chair for about an hour without notes. He's obviously working from a prepared script -- at times he pauses blankly when he's momentarily lost in transition, or when the elocution of phrase isn't just right. The script is made of some well-selected material from Crisp's various works such as How to Have a Life-Style and How to Go to the Movies. No matter; the true performer always makes the words fresh, as does Crisp in the timing of such directives as "Never try to keep up with the Joneses" (pause), "drag them down to your level" (longer pause as he awaits laughter to subside), "it's much cheaper" (a sly recognition of the audience's appreciation before the next story).

Crisp's theme for the evening -- as the tilt of the hat and the perfect scarf and pin should make obvious -- is the attainment and use of style. It is style, and only style -- Crisp takes special pleasure in noting -- that has brought him from New York City to St. Louis with his fare paid. He holds up as paradigms of style Joan Crawford and Bette Davis ("I remember when she was a nice girl") as they evolved from actresses playing roles to stars who filled the screen with their being.

Style, then, might not become substance, but it contains substantial power. Crisp charms with wit and the precisely phrased epigram, but the evening's entertainment is more than light banter. Although he says he has no interest in politics, he is also fond of saying, "People are my only pastime." What this Englishman brings to the American body politic gathered in a small theater in St. Louis or Manhattan is the reminder, even the challenge, of individualism -- an individualism not of the libertarian mode but one tempered by civility and caring.

Another stylish New Yorker, Walt Whitman, had dreams of touring America and speaking to the people of his vision of democracy. Crisp, a chosen son of Manhatta, is akin to Whitman in a homoerotic spirit that has as its dual nature the capacity to both say, "I celebrate myself and sing myself," and to embrace the bustling multitude. Or as another iconic diva of the homoerotic imagination would say, "People, people who need people, are the luckiest ... "

-- Eddie Silva

BONJOUR, LA, BONJOUR
By Michel Tremblay
HotHouse Theatre

Like a lot of people, I've been enjoying the development of HotHouse Theatre, a group of serious actors staging serious plays. I'd never heard of Michel Tremblay's Bonjour, La, Bonjour, but I was eager to see it, especially when I noticed, on opening the program, that director Marty Stanberry had cast some of the town's best actors in the play's eight roles.

The actors played handsomely -- I mean, isn't that what we expect from the likes of Lavonne Byers, Sally Eaton, Mack Harrell and Donna M. Parrone? In addition, Scott DeBroux's set is elegantly conceived and executed, and Thomas W. Quintas' lighting is first-class.

The problem is, Bonjour, La, Bonjour, at least in the translation HotHouse Theatre is using, just sucks. Its poor, nasty, brutish and long single act mimes the homecoming day and evening of doltish, inarticulate Serge (Brian Patrick Healy), the 25-year-old son of a family that makes Mr. and Mrs. Oedipus look like Ozzie and Harriet. The elderly, sadly deaf paterfamilias (Mack Harrell) lives with his two feuding sisters (Diane Peterson and Eaton), and three of Serge's four older sisters (Parrone, Byers and Stephanie Beschta) live with unsatisfactory husbands. The youngest of his sisters, 30-year-old Denise (April Eaton), has been living alone for the three months of Serge's absence in Europe, but before that she was living and lying with her brother. Two of the other three, at least as Stanberry directs it, certainly like touching, gazing at and otherwise crypto-molesting Serge, too, although the eldest is making do with taking one of his friends as a lover.

Will Serge and Denise take up where they left off? What's going to happen to Papa, and will somebody tell him what his two youngest are up to?

Who cares? Save for Harrell's Armand, none of the characters is appealing. Indeed, Parrone's Lucienne is malevolent, and the power Parrone brings to the part made me want to run for the exit -- I didn't want to be in the same room with somebody so unpleasant. Serge and Denise are kind of milk and water, and everyone else just whines and whines and whines -- but with great skill.

Why HotHouse Theatre chose to present Bonjour, La, Bonjour is utterly confounding. It's annoying, too, that such uniformly competent people -- actors, director, technical staff -- would subject themselves and the rest of us to such a river of snot. What's the point of all that art being spent on so miserable a play?

-- Harry Weber

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