The Woods | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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I have a lot of trouble taking David Mamet seriously. Sure, I recognize his gifts as a writer: I appreciate his ear for dialogue, I enjoy his sense of humor. Still, as a heterosexual male, I find Mamet's idea of heterosexual manhood painfully outmoded. I mean, here's a grown man who says he's a liberal Democrat but who still believes there's something essentially male about smoking cigars, shooting guns, and playing poker late into the night (and something wrong with guys who don't).

Even more troubling is Mamet's less-than-evenhanded treatment of his female characters. Not that there are many to choose from. And even fewer if you eliminate those who never make it onto the stage--like "fuckin' Ruthie" and Grace in American Buffalo and all the offstage wives in Glengarry Glen Ross. Those you're left with--the manipulative bitch Madonna played in Speed-the-Plow, the angry, kvetching shrew who makes even Lucifer's life miserable in Bobby Gould in Hell, the emotionally stunted, mannish woman Lindsay Crouse plays in House of Games--are the uncharitable projections of an angry, not very perceptive, phallocentric writer.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered at the center of Mamet's 1977 play The Woods a living, breathing, three-dimensional female character--a character clearly created to do more than facilitate the plot or underscore Mamet's more Neanderthal notions of human sexuality. Of course there are only two characters in this extended one-act--Ruth and her current lover, Nick--so Mamet had little choice but to make both characters full, compelling human beings capable of holding up their end of the dialogue. Still, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed Mamet could treat a woman so fairly.

For the first half of this play about a relationship that starts well but goes very wrong during a weekend in a cabin in the woods, Ruth is by far the stronger and more interesting of the two. She revels in the beauty of the world surrounding Nick's cabin, burbling in her euphoria "You could live out here. You could." But Nick, who seems incapable of fully investing himself in the conversation, can only come up with comically laconic replies to Ruth's observations: "Tell me." "Yes." "Sure." "I think so." "No."

Only later in the play does Nick, threatened with losing Ruth, reveal that he has feelings. Yet Ruth remains more compelling and human, while the emotionally stunted Nick--in the tradition of those other two great machismo-worshiping writers, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer--resorts to violence when his words fail him: at the climax of the play he decks her with a strong right.

In lesser hands such a moment would seem melodramatic or laughable. However, Carri and Tim Sullens ride Mamet's subtle dialogue with such finesse that we feel every change in their relationship. Carri brings a lot of warmth to her performance in the first half of the play, yet when she has to be firm and assertive in the second half she does so without coming off as either whiny or overly aggressive. And Tim deserves praise for the considerably harder job of making a cruel cipher intelligible, of making Nick's monosyllabic conversational style speak volumes about his repressed inner life. Even when Nick reveals himself to be a total asshole at the play's end, proving himself incapable of maintaining the relationship he clearly needs, Tim still wins a degree of sympathy for him.

Given Mamet's bleak message about heterosexual relationships in The Woods it's not hard to see why this play is so seldom revived. What's harder to understand is why in the 15 years since The Woods premiered Mamet has never created another woman's role as strong or multidimensional as Ruth. That of course is a question only Mamet, or perhaps his therapist if he has one, can answer.

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