The Poet and the Rent
at Covenant Methodist Church
Free to Be...You and Me
National Pastime Theater
Good children's theater is a lot like a Cole Porter "list" song--"You're the Top" or "Let's Do It" or "Well, Did You Evah." The format is straightforward, even predictable, but the ingenious variations produce unexpected delights, turning the mundane into the magical. Of course, children unlock the hidden potential of the everyday as easily as falling out of bed. Give a kid a cardboard box, and the next thing you know he'll be racing in the Daytona 500, opening a bed and breakfast, or touching down on the moon. They don't need a lot of encouragement; to them, the world is wondrous as it is.
For all the cigar-smoking, pool-playing, woman-hating haze that envelops the plays of David Mamet like smog obscuring the mountains around Los Angeles, his writing retains an almost childlike wonder. Though he tends to focus on the seedy and morally questionable elements of American society--from petty criminals in American Buffalo to lurid womanizers in Sexual Perversity in Chicago to crooked real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross--his characters always have the potential for innocence, an innocence that might be recaptured if only the corrupting lessons of privilege, greed, and masculinity could be unlearned. As Mamet said in a 1984 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, "We are spiritually bankrupt--that's what's wrong with this country....The spirit has to be replenished. There has to be time for reflection, introspection, and a certain amount of awe and wonder."
If a child needs little more than a cardboard box, Mamet needs little more than pen, paper, and an empty stage. The short, clipped dialogue, highly charged moments of dramatic stasis, and minimal stage directions of his lean scripts create theatrical worlds of lyric stoicism in the tradition of Beckett and Pinter. To a large extent, language creates dramatic reality, and few American playwrights can rival Mamet in re-creating the poetry of everyday speech. It should come as no surprise that Mamet's published children's plays, The Poet and the Rent, The Frog Prince, and The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock, represent some of the most delightful and inventive work in this genre. All are highly fanciful, refreshingly irreverent forays into magical worlds full of detours in which Mamet's imagination gallops unrestrained. Whether set on the faraway planet of Crestview (a name that its inhabitants hoped would attract investors) or the primeval forest of ancient folklore, his plays create worlds in which loyalty and friendship--so often perverted in his adult plays--are the dearest commodities.
The Poet and the Rent, perhaps the least substantial of the three, follows a hack poet named Dave--undoubtedly an autobiographical character--as he tries to scrape together $60 to pay the rent. He learns he must sink beneath the imagined heights of his station as an artist and actually get a job, working as a night watchman in a factory that houses nothing but a high-speed multitension fractile lathe, over which he rhapsodizes, "The multitension fractile lathe / Makes life a Joy in so many Waythe." When thieves break in, he asks their permission to call for help, then realizes he's the very person he'd be calling.
Everything in the play partakes of this giddy absurdity, which drives the action forward with the speed of a Tex Avery cartoon. Mamet seems uninterested in making a point or teaching a lesson--he wants to debunk the self-importance of theater, and especially the precious moralizing of so much children's theater. The Poet and the Rent is self-
consciously awful, full of dreadful cliches (like the policeman Spuds O'Malley, who can talk of nothing but the great Irish potato famine), cheap jokes, and intentional blunders. In fact, at the play's dramatic high point, when the poet and the thieves square off, one of the actors onstage gets a phone call from his mother: "Hello? I'm working. Around nine...I'm doing a show." And Auntie George, the patronizing narrator who continually interrupts ("Now, children, initiative is what made this country what it is"), gets creamed in the face with a pie almost every time she opens her mouth. Such mischief making replenishes the spirit, especially at a time when there's so much insulting, unoriginal children's programming.
Director Eric Wegener and his cast of eight wear Mamet's theatrical irreverence like a well-tailored suit, rarely missing an opportunity to point out just how hokey their production is. In order to break into the factory, for example, the thieves have to haul out a window unit from backstage and hold it for each other while they climb through. Once "inside," they're left stupidly holding the window, which they have to dump stage left before the play can continue.
The cast have difficulty with Mamet's language, however, a problem that causes much of the play's humor to fall flat. Despite its playfulness, the text demands an inordinate clarity, precision, and stillness, just as Chuck Jones's version of the Grinch needs those few carefully restrained takes to the camera in order to come fully to life. Mamet in essence writes a series of minimalist comedy routines in The Poet and the Rent, as when the thieves finally begin to prowl around the factory: "Where's the safe?" "Don't know." "Any ideas?" "We could look for it." Ba-dum bum. Timing here is everything. As Mamet told the Village Voice in 1976, a year after writing the play, "My main emphasis is on the rhythm of language--the way action and rhythm are identical. Our rhythms describe our actions--no, our rhythms prescribe our actions."
This minimalist style, characteristic of all Mamet's work, was forged early. In college Mamet studied with acting teacher Stanford Meisner, who stressed honest, immediate contact between actors who stay fervently "in the moment" and craft a scene beat by beat. The actors Mamet uses again and again in his plays and films--Joe Montegna, W.H. Macy, Lindsay Crouse--exploit this sparse yet supercharged technique, locking eyes, never wavering from their steely intents, intoning their deceptively simple lines. Wegener's cast, by contrast, tend to wander about the stage, too often focusing on everything but each other, cluttering their dialogue with a lot of fussy stage business. Mamet's stichomythic dialogue tends to get lost in the mush.
Only Carmine Grisolia as Spuds O'Malley and Danny McCarthy as Sergeant Albert Pressman, a Cana-dian Mountie cum Marine drill sergeant, fill their characters' voluminous clown shoes, transforming themselves into explosive caricatures of men of authority. If everyone else could rise to their level, playing upon Robert Poe's ingenious pop-up, fold-out set, this production would be dynamite.
I fear that if the eight-person cast of National Pastime Theater's Free to Be...You and Me appeared on the stage of The Poet and the Rent, any one of them would be creamed with a pie almost immediately. In some ways, Free to Be is precisely the production The Poet and the Rent satirizes.
Originally a landmark book-record-television-special package spearheaded by Marlo Thomas in the early 1970s, this work offers an antidote to the stringent gender stereotyping found in so much children's literature. As Thomas writes in the foreword to the book, "I started to look through stores and found shelf after shelf of books that told boys and girls who they should be, who they ought to be, but seldom who they could be." Bringing together songs, poems, and stories by artists like Carl Reiner, Shel Silverstein, and Sheldon Harnick, performed by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, and Tommy Smothers, Thomas created something of a masterpiece of juvenile consciousness-raising, informing us that boys can play with dolls, crying doesn't make us sissies, and being a perfect little lady might just turn us into objects of universal disdain. Its message is every bit as vital 20 years later; if you don't believe me, take a stroll down Rush Street any Saturday night and watch the clanking armor of gender roles on parade. Thomas's project stands out not only for its desperately needed social agenda but for its creative and intelligent performances, full of catchy tunes, snappy phrases, and commitment.
Adapter and director Beth Lynch does a fine job of intercutting a dozen or so of the book's best pieces. But too often she opts for theatrical cli-ches instead of heartfelt commitment (and given the cast's decidedly amateur singing and acting skills, such commitment is essential). With a few notable exceptions, such as a pair of ingenious costumes that turn adults into magically suspended newborns, Lynch's production is unsurprising, marked by a lot of forced enthusiasm, skipping, and jumping. It's as though the cast were hell-bent on convincing us they're having the wonderful time we imagined our admission price would let us have. Rather than grounding the performances in
some sort of emotional reality--who doesn't know the frustration of having our options limited because of our gender?--Lynch encourages her cast to turn up the cheeriness and forsake the substance. Most problematic is her insistence that the cast act out nearly every line, as though we couldn't imagine "doctors or teachers / or cleaners or bakers" without the help of some halfhearted hand gestures. Even singing "Sad and grumpy / Down in the dumpy / Snuggly huggly / Mean and ugly," those gorgeous lines from "It's All Right to Cry," the actor pulls a big face for each emotion, cheapening the feelings the song hopes to validate.
The result is the ultimate sin of children's theater: condescension. In order to reclaim the innocence necessary to do this material justice and replenish our spirits, the National Pastime cast need to unlearn an awful lot of bad habits. Children listen to adults who maintain a sense of wonder, not adults who act like ten-year-olds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Brian McConkey.