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Mamet's Minimums

Reunion and Dark Pony Directed by Sam Samuels At Winthrop House

By Sarah L. Mcvity

MINIMALISM is the reduction to the essential. In theatre, the minimalist sifts through the rubbish heap of human existence, grabbing out the sparse edible pieces and tossing the rest back into the pile to rot. These few scraps, rare moments when people step out of their well-worn, meaningless grooves and follow instincts and impulses represent the minimalist thesis that most lives reduce to a few short intense moments. Gripping the production of David Mamet's Reunion tightly as a pack of howling canines chasing an axe murderer, director Sam Samuels and actors Alice Brown and Ralph Zito prove, with their restraint, the minimalist theory.

Including Mamet's Dark Pony, sandwiched around Reunion, seems, on the other hand, antithetical to the minimalist premise. Nearly identical versions of a single scene, one before and one after Reunion, comprise the play, although the first version is listed, enigmatically, as a "Prologue." Alone, Dark Pony works as a stark portrait of two people without really succeeding, as Reunion does.

Each play involves only two characters: a father and daughter. In Reunion,a married daughter meet with her middle-aged father for the first time in about 25 years. Without the poignant sensitivity Brown and Zito bring to their roles, even Mamet's extraordinary script and Samuel's tight directing would have no effect on an audience. From the first moment Brown walks on stage, she fills the room with tension and suppressed hatred, anger and deeply buried love. The utter awkwardness of her character's situation increases and emerges more clearly as the dialogue continues. Compulsively smoking, fidgeting with suppressed awkwardness, and the pained twitching of her face impress the overbearing difficulty of her decision to do what she has put off for 25 years.

Zito, as the father, complements Brown precisely, his pent-up guilt and lonleiness spilling over as he rushes through the apartment attempting to bring a vestige of normalcy to a hopelessly uncomfortable situation. The complex role never eludes him, and his grasp of the intricacies of this 53-year old divorced ex-alchoholic is astounding for someone Zito's age.

Not content to reduce these tangled relationships to one conversation, Mamet has chopped out parts of the afternoon by periodically fading out the stage lights. Mamet meagerly doles out the snips of dialogue between fadeouts, but the impact of each line becomes tremendous. The characters do not merely bounce lines off each other, they rip savagely but subtly at each other's hearts, rending them with tense words and rebuilding cautiously and slowly at the same time. "I never had a father...it's my right, isn't it. Isn't it?" the daughter demands, unassailable in her emotion, inconsolable in her situation. "There's no way I can repay you; there's no use trying. Let's just try to forget everything and start over again," offers the father, desperately. And the daughter assents with her silence, turning her back on a void that will never be filled, looking ahead. There is no neat ending here; no banality heaped upon ugliness, thankfully.

Samuels has not turned to visual minimalism for this production; a bare stage and black costumes suggest themselves to such austere lines, but they would only denigrate Mamet's subtler minimalism. While set and costumes are uncluttered, they afford details that allow the lines their bareness, filling in little gaps that the dialogue leaves ambiguous.

As the set changes to the single automobile seat of Dark Pony, the gaps of ambiguity widen. A father recites a familiar fairytale to his young daughter as they drive home in the car. Brown and Zito are convincing enough, but the point of the play is muddy. When they repeat the same scene after Reunion, the tale is again unclear, and a little annoying. A juxtaposition of two stages of a relationship, maybe, but they are not even the same relationship. Perhaps Samuels thought Reunion too short and heavy in its transcendant minimalism, and so included the other; otherwise, there seems little reason for this redundant sequence.

The minimalist risk, of course, is chopping away the meat with the fat. Syrie Maugham, the great minimalist interior designer, discarded her earliest works, stark unpainted rooms devoid of furniture and even windows, for what later became her classic minimalist style, rooms done completely in white in which enormous windows played a crucial role. Likewise, Mamet progresses in Reunion to achieve the depth that got lost in Dark Pony, and expands his message to the maximum.

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