A Mamet-like English dramatist honors the Man Himself in the Royal Court production of “The Old Neighborhood,” in which playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”) resumes his ancillary career as director with the London premiere of David Mamet’s latest Broadway outing. This British staging seems softer around the edges than it did on Broadway — the Royal Court “Oleanna,” by contrast, was far more fiery than its New York counterpart — and some may miss the almost clinical austerity of Gotham director Scott Zigler’s rendering, not to mention star Patti LuPone’s uniquely searing bravura.
The compensations lie in a truly haunting performance from London leading man Colin Stinton (as quintessential a Mamet actor as exists on either side of the Atlantic) and the playlets themselves, which on repeated viewing come to acquire ever more the quality of a requiem.
It’s the abiding sense of loss that dominates Marber’s gentler touch, as borne out in a design by William Dudley suffused with a photograph-filled nostalgia: As before, the evening’s message is you can’t go home again — though it may be an intended irony of the staging that the design and some oddly jaunty music make you think perhaps you can.
A fresh directorial hand is felt most keenly in the last, shortest and most difficult of these three short plays, all of which were written at different times but have been linked together to form a quiet threnody for a world — and its citizenry — being gradually cut adrift. (In the lexicon of “The Old Neighborhood,” the preferred word might be “mutilated.”)
That final play, “Deeny,” in New York seemed so encoded and abstract — and so robotically acted by its distaff player, Rebecca Pidgeon — that it vitiated the goodwill generated by its more accessible predecessors.
In London, “Deeny” (not to mention Deeny herself) still constitutes a cryptogram all its own: a tone poem that begins in medias res and ends with an ambiguously phrased (and, in the text, punctuated) farewell to passion — “Goodbye, then, love.” “Goodbye, love.”
But playing the former lover of the visiting Bobby (Stinton), Diana Quick is an immediately vital, sexual being — she’s as stylishly dressed as Pidgeon was dowdily so — whose T.S. Eliot-like visions of “frost” exist in noticeable contrast to the flaming scarlet of the cosmetics salesperson alluded to (but not seen) in the evening’s opening playlet.
“Did she get fat?” Bobby asks old chum Joey (Linal Haft) of Deeny long before we see her. The answer, we discover, is no: Her problems extend well beyond issues of weight. Indeed, her struggle for language — and for images to contain her bloodied thoughts — result in her assessment of the world as a “shithole.” She’s the voice of disenchantment and disgust dressed — more irony here — to kill.
The two preceding playlets repeat their New York zing, even if it’s hard not to notice the particular English affinity for Mamet’s distinctive rhythms and cadences alongside a love of the pause that would not embarrass Harold Pinter. (God knows how many fringe and amateur productions get done here of “American Buffalo” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”)
As the embittered sister Jolly in the middle playlet named for her, Zoe Wanamaker seethes with an obsessive fury that is only slightly less hair-raising than LuPone’s hyper-vivid New York counterpart. As before, Mamet is too canny merely to endorse an outpouring of venom that Jolly’s ever-patient husband Carl (Vincent Marzello) seems from the sidelines both to goad on and interpret. Most moving in Wanamaker’s performance is the sense of a woman made weary by her own rage, as if caught on a treadmill of anger that she can’t get off.
But it’s in the role of auditor (and self-evident Mamet alter ego) Bobby — a character threaded throughout other Mamet plays — that Marber’s own “Neighborhood” comes into its own. (The director offered a homage of sorts to “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the structure of his first play, “Dealer’s Choice.”) There’s hardly a trickier onstage task than listening, whether your companion is breathing fire (as is Jolly) or a sometimes murderous bonhomie (Haft’s hearty yet vaguely chilling Joey).
Stinton, though, makes every exchange a shared one, no matter how prolonged his silences. It helps that his eyes communicate “that sorrow of years” alluded to by Deeny. (Virtually all the play’s characters seem terrified by age.) But no less crucial is a reticence as voluble as the language that floods out of those he visits. How’s his life, he is asked? “As you see,” comes the reply.
Yet his casual response is elsewhere given the lie. “Your kids are going to be OK,” Jolly tells him. “No they’re not,” says Bobby, Stinton imparting a sadness that could be said to lie too deep for tears. “Of course they won’t. We’re not OK.”