Ambiguity is the name of the game in a David Mamet play. And this time around, The Old Neighborhood is no different. The disjointed, sometimes confusing, dialogue is a staple that at once holds the audience's attention and drives it away with its intangibility. Mamet's lines dance around an unspecified issue of human nature with references to characters in the play to anchor the conversation. But mostly it seems the characters are just spouting their philosophy of life even when their own lives are obviously in disarray.
The frustration for the viewer comes when scenes open in the middle of conversations that are never fully explained. Then they close without resolving the issues raised in the scene. There's an urge to suddenly jump out of one's seat and yell, "What is going on? I don't understand what you're talking about!" Mamet also seems to expect prior knowledge and intelligence from his audience. The first act involves the history of the Jews that I would not have understood unless I had luckily taken Foreign Cultures 56: "Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Before 1914" this semester. After all, would any Joe Schmoe know what a shtetl is? As for the jokes, the one I still could not figure out is the line, "Bushes are steel."
The bare bones of a story are found in the synopsis in the press kit, not in the play itself. A Jewish man (Tony Shalhoub) comes back to his old childhood haunts and visits an old buddy (Vincent Guastaferro), his sister (Brooke Adams) and finally goes back and leaves his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon).
For infrequent theater patrons, the only name that is familiar is Tony Shalhoub, who is a regular as Antonio the cabdriver on the NBC sitcom "Wings" and who played the master chef in last year's surprise hit film Big Night. One might expect then that Shalhoub's role would be the central one, but surprisingly, his presence is only used as a tool to tie the three vignettes together. His role as Bobby Gould is that of an observer, a sponge of sorts that just soaks in what is around him. He engages in conversation with four other people, but they only use him as a means to express their frustrations and anxieties about life and their families. With all this, Shalhoub and all the company do a great job in making this play an ensemble piece.
All the actors give a feel of realism to their characters and yet they are also archetypes projected from Bobby's perception of reality. Guastaferro as buddy Joey does well to rein in his character as an outrageous, obnoxious and prejudiced Jew and gets quite a few guffaws about his quixotic dreams of living in Europe. Brooke Adams as Jolly, the disgusted sister, expresses her character's frustrations about being unloved and neglected as a child very convincingly. Of all the actors, her character is the one who seems most like a neurotic person one might meet on the street. Jack Willis as Jolly's husband, Carl, doesn't have much to work with since he has the fewest lines. But Willis puts enough into those few so that one can get a good sense of Carl's personality and attitude towards Jolly's family.
As for Rebecca Pidgeon as D, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of Bobby, she is the most unrealistic of all the characters. She rants about gardens and masochistic mutilation, but her lines are written in such a convoluted and start-and-stop manner that she is the hardest to understand. Add to that Pidgeon's stiff and formal delivery style reminiscent of Carol in Oleanna. But ultimately she could be nothing but a direct projection of Bobby's warped view of her as the ex-wife.
The set design is dynamic and unique. The ingenious placement of a square platform tilted towards the audience like a baseball diamond symbolizes the off-kilter lives of the characters. The sparse furniture is obvious enough for the audience to readily identify the location of each scene. It's overall an efficient and prop-light production. The only distraction was the cigarette smoke that mysteriously floated away from the audience and upwards towards the ceiling behind the lights. Because the lighting is focused only on the platform, the introduction of such a moving element draws the audience's attention away from the interaction between the actors, whatever the element of reality it contributes.
The Old Neighborhood requires its audience to be attentive and ready for a hour-and-a-half of sheer concentration. It's an interactive experience that can be both fulfilling and exasperating, but it's really a matter of taste whether you think it's worth the effort.