Ghost Stories: The Shawl and Prairie du Chien—Review by David Cote
David Mamet’s belief system, as far as anyone can discern these days, probably does not include the supernatural. He is a moral, not a mystical, writer, keen to expose the verbal and behavioral tactics his characters use to cheat, dominate or out-ideologize each other—he’s into sinners but never salvation. And yet in the Atlantic’s double bill of Mamet shorts, first joined 30 years ago by Lincoln Center Theater, there’s a crackle of the uncanny and unexplainable in the air, amplified by the playwright’s gift for language that enchants by repetition and rhythm.
The first act, Prairie du Chien, is a 30-minute radio drama that Mamet wrote for Earplay in 1979. Aboard a train crossing Wisconsin circa 1910, a game of gin rummy is underway, with an irascible older gent (Jim Frangione) who may be up against a cardsharp (Nate Dendy). On the other side of the car, a Storyteller (hypnotically minimal Jordan Lage) is telling another man (Jason Ritter) about a case of infidelity and murder on a farm that has a spectral, cross-dressing twist. This piece, filled with locomotive noises and the murmurs of card players, is more of an exercise in creepiness than a fully satisfying play, but still agreeably atmospheric.
After intermission, in The Shawl, we get a delicately camp Arliss Howard as a psychic medium consulted by Miss A (Mary McCann, eloquently restrained), eager to know whether she should contest her late mother’s will. The Shawl is another of Mamet’s studies of con artists and slippery marks (see House of Games), and it has its insinuating pleasures, too. Since Mamet’s output in the last 20 years has been very uneven, Ghost Stories is a fine way to get chilled during a hot summer.—David Cote
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By David Mamet. Directed by Scott Zigler. With Nate Dendy, Jim Frangione, Dereks Thomas, Jason Ritter, Jordan Lage, Henry Kelemen, Arliss Howard, Mary McCann. Running time: 1hr 45mins. One intermission.