Confrontation is a David Mamet specialty, and in “The Old Neighborhood” the playwright takes on that most fearsome of foes — the past — and comes out on top. Three short plays under an intermission-less, 90-minute umbrella, “Neighborhood,” if a bit uneven, is a mesmerizing trip down the dark lane of one man’s history, by turns angry, sorrowful, bitter and poignant.
Making his Broadway debut, director Scott Zigler offers a sharp, spare staging (on Kevin Rigdon’s equally no-frills sets) that matches the thrift of Mamet’s trademark laser-edged style. Zigler isn’t the only one who gets the rhythms and emotions just right — stars Peter Riegert and Patti LuPone are first-rate as a brother and sister coming to painful grips with their loveless upbringing.
The only character in all three playlets, Riegert’s Bobby is a middle-aged man newly separated from his wife and seeking some sort of comfort by visiting his old Chicago neighborhood. In the first scene, called “The Disappearance of the Jews,” Bobby shares a drink with lifelong pal Joey (Vincent Guastaferro), and the two reminisce about old friends, sexual conquests, family and youth.
This is quintessential Mamet, the foul-mouthed machismo, banal sentence fragments and staccato delivery gradually giving vent to deep wells of regret and unhappiness. “Every night I pray I can get through life without murdering anybody,” Joey tells Bobby, and he isn’t joking.
If that sounds like familiar Mamet, the playwright expands his terrain in a significant direction: “Neighborhood” includes some of Mamet’s most explicit examinations of Jewishness to date. In the first vignette, the deeply unhappy Joey so laments his emasculating lack of heritage that he actually seems nostalgic for horrors he knows only second-hand. “I would have been a great man in Europe,” he says.
The theme is continued in “Jolly,” the second, longest and best playlet, that finds Bobby passing the evening with his (ironically named) sister Jolly (LuPone) and her husband Carl (Jack Willis). One of Mamet’s most memorable creations (beautifully played by the actress), Jolly is a woman made both tough (she curses as much as any Mamet man) and heartbreakingly vulnerable by a loveless childhood.
As loyal to her brother, husband and daughters as she is resentful toward her recently deceased mother, Jolly has scratched out a stable family life through sheer determination, but not without considerable psychic cost.
Finally, in “Deeny,” Bobby has a sit-down with his estranged wife (Rebecca Pidgeon). At 15 minutes, the final vignette is the briefest and least engaging, in large part because Deeny herself isn’t quite as interesting as the other characters. Still, her soliloquy on failed romance is affecting, and Pidgeon, as always, is a master at the Mamet dialogue.
So where is Bobby in all this? Playing sounding board to the dominant characters in each scene, Bobby would seem the most passive of protagonists, but Mamet is too sly for that. Like a Cubist painting, Joey, Jolly and Deeny illustrate three angles of one man, three aspects of one life. Neither Bobby nor the audience knows where the character is headed at play’s end, but both know where he’s been.
Riegert, his hangdog expression hinting at something brewing underneath, gives a subtly textured performance as Bobby, shifting his demeanor just slightly with each interaction — macho with his buddy, sweet with his sister and heartbroken with his wife. Guastaferro, Willis and Pidgeon lend more than fine support.
LuPone, a Mamet vet, is wonderful as the sister, her hard-boiled delivery barely concealing the catch of a sob. One only hopes “The Old Neighborhood” can survive the Broadway winter to take advantage of the award nominations that certainly await LuPone next spring.