The Woods typifies the theatre of David Mamet, taking us into the depths of postmodern relational angst. Cristopher Scully's Leverett House production presents the emotional isolation of a man and a woman whose love affair becomes destructive at worst, tenuous at best.
A couple in love at the beginning, Ruth (Karen Todd) and Nick (Ian Lithgow) indulge in an idyllic weekend retreat. In classically structured form, Mamet moves to the moments of crisis in which the dissolution of their relationship is most pronounced. Then focuses on achieving resolution--structurally of the play, and literally of the relationship.
Nick's sporadic violence is the only action in the play; all else is dialogue that often appears pointless and incoherent. Mamet's critics often consider this ultimate realism--the diminishing of action into perpetual, unconstructive, oververbalization.
Mamet, like Philip Roth, justifies his oververbalization within the script. Ruth declares to Nick in the third act of the play: "You're so fucking corny." Writing off Nick and Ruth as corny characters may redeem many corny lines that are obviously unnatural. "We put on clothes, we can not make out what we look like...It's very lonely and we all get desperate to be warm. We have to find our lovers when it's warm."
However, the realist label is a simplistic description of Mamet--and too unfair. Mamet does not write realistic dialogue unrealistically because he lacks the ability to transfer literal modern speech onto the page, nor does he do it solely to make his characters seem sentimentally corny. Mamet himself decried the critics who called him a magnificent realist, only to turn around and say that he seemed to forget himself at times and wax poetic.
His fervently declared intention to be a poet is strikingly clear in The Woods. This is no direct transposing of dialogue--this is crafted language that strives for balance and rhthym, and that is deliberate in its formality.
Like Mamet's poetic dialogue, his characters are allegorical, pointedly representative. Nick and Ruth, a "Man" and a "Woman", divulge no specific information about their families, their jobs, or the earlier history of their relationship. Their stories do not contextualize their existence, instead they echo an earlier, mythically romantic, generation when people did love generously.
Those stories and their setting demonstrate neither the arbitrariness nor the happenstance of realism, but rather the symbolism and metaphor of poetic art. We are not just in a late autumn of crunchy leaves, but also the autumn of a relationship.
Nick talks about his father's friend who used to beat his wife up, and Ruth talks of people escaping and hiding them under petticoats and taking them to safety through the forest. These stories have a figurative purpose: Ruth and Nick are the babes in the wood, yet simultaneously mother and child and also the ones who have lost their way. Mamet deftly weaves these layers of imagery into the dialogue.
This production obscures Mamet's brilliance because it focusses its attention on realism. The weakness of the Scully production is that Lithgow and Todd are allowed to forget they are engaged in theatre.
Underacting--a much rarer, although equally unsatisfying, fault as overacting--undercuts the potential energy of this production. Lithgow, whose impressive performances in Three Sisters and The Foreigner prove him to be talented, wears a blank expression for much of the play which is only interrupted in instances of rage or assault.
Todd does not project her voice enough to overcome the acoustics of the room, and her delivery is, almost without exception, unvarying. Worst of all, the most poetic lines of the play, when constricted by a solely realistic interpretation, appear to be embarassing instead of poignant in their formality.
"If it's not poetic on stage," Mamet once said, "forget it." The Leverett House production of The Woods lacks exactly this crucial element of poetry.
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