Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bad Day at the Mamet Court

In April 2003, I saw Eddie Izzard in his Broadway debut, starring in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. He was terrific, and so was the show, but I'm really only bringing it up now because I want to share with you his bio from the Playbill of that show:
EDDIE IZZARD (Bri). West End: Henry IX, The Two Losers, Geoffrey of Kent, The Death of Everything (Brixton drama nomination), Give Me Some Soap Mister, Jack and His Bench (from the German), Let Go of My Head, What! (RSC), Bad Day at the Kangaroo Court, That's My Lung, Good God Give Me Gravy (Trevor) and Sod Off.
Funny, right? I bring it up to contrast it with his bio from the Playbill for David Mamet's Race (which closed last week, but that's okay because I wasn't going to recommend it anyway). That one plays it straight, listing his legitimate stage credits (including his Tony nomination for Joe Egg) and his film roles from Secret Agent to Valkyrie. It mentions the FX TV series The Riches -- although describing it as "hugely successful" is a stretch, and I say that as someone who loved that show (or at least the first season) passionately. But one little thing goes unmentioned, and that is Izzard's career as a highly successful and very influential stand-up comedian. If you had your own special on HBO, wouldn't you mention it in your official bio? I would. If I were responsible for something as terrific as Dress to Kill I'd never stop talking about it. Certainly it would enter the conversation long before My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I can understand his wanting to emphasize his legit-actor credentials, now that they aren't all imaginary, but it does seem like a bio that fails to mention his stand-up career (except with the word "comedian" -- as in "comedian, actor, political activist and endurance athlete" -- in a plug for the film Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story) is giving you an oddly incomplete answer to the question "Who is this Izzard guy?"

I must say it was Eddie's strong onstage presence as a stand-up that made me hopeful when I saw Joe Egg, and he was exactly as good as I hoped he'd be. His comfort onstage translates very well to drama, and he applies his physicality and perceptiveness very well to other people's scripts. It was that experience that led me to want to see him in Race, a show I'd written off based on the reviews before I read that he was stepping into the cast. Most critics seemed to agree that Race was David Mamet doing his button-pushing shtick, tweaking "political correctness" in a way both smug and retrograde, as he is increasingly wont to do. (It's as if Bill Clinton were still president in his head.) I saw the revival of Oleanna last year, so I know how annoying Mamet can be when he's trying to provoke. But I also know how intriguing he can be at his best (see my review of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow from when they were on Broadway last year). I found the combination of Izzard and Mamet too intriguing to pass up -- Eddie Izzard's strengths as a performer seemed perfectly suited to the challenges of Mamet's writing and the Mamet milieu in general.

The good news is, I was right: Izzard and Mamet are a perfect match. The bad news is, the critics were right about Race in general, and nobody else in the cast matched Eddie's facility with the material. You might think, with David Mamet himself directing, the dialogue would come off more natural than it usually does. But the artificiality that has bugged me in other productions was present here too. There were fewer stiffly rat-a-tat exchanges, which was good, but a little zip would not have hurt -- the pace felt sluggish, and the ending was abrupt (but not in a good way).

As for the script, it had some thought-provoking moments and some very good laughs, but also a lot of lazy nonsense. The characters were just conceptual sketches, which would be acceptable if the concepts they stood for weren't so half-baked. I admire the dialectical power of a good Mamet script, but not if the clash of ideas is artificial and bogus. Exchanges like this one (which I'm paraphrasing) don't convince anybody: Character 1: "Is this about race, or sex?" Character 2: "Is there a difference?" Audience: "...Yes, actually?" At his best David Mamet can be very stimulating, even when you can tell his thought experiments are more mischievous than genuine. But Race was too seldom stimulating, and too often simply patronizing.

UPDATE: Can you believe I didn't even say anything about Richard Thomas? Longtime readers will recall that I love him a lot, but...he had nothing interesting to do in this show, and I didn't especially like what little he did. He made a valiant attempt to find some sort of character in the script, but it just wasn't there to be found. So: always good to see him, but in Race he wasn't much of a draw.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you remember when you were a kid and saw a play (or read a book) that made you aware adults can behave like children? For me, the play was "Oleanna." I was ten or twelve; my mom took me to see a Buffalo production. I remember the characters were both childlike and childish; they behaved badly, but they also had a kind of energy that my parents and parents' friends had never shown me. I like Mamet's daughter, who has been in "The Kids Are All Right," "United States of Tara," and "Mad Men." To be a fly on the wall in the Mamet family's kitchen! --Dan B.