Helmer Travis Hammer puts too much of an emphasis on pace in David Mamet's early work "Squirrels," falling short in establishing a proper rhythm and flow to the mano a mano linguistic jousting of creatively blocked writer Arthur (Don Oscar Smith) and his inadequate assistant Edmond (Ben Messmer).

Helmer Travis Hammer puts too much of an emphasis on pace in David Mamet’s early work “Squirrels,” falling short in establishing a proper rhythm and flow to the mano a mano linguistic jousting of creatively blocked writer Arthur (Don Oscar Smith) and his inadequate assistant Edmond (Ben Messmer). What does work are the recurring interjections by Vicki Lewis as the dynamically unblocked Cleaning Woman who tries in vain to clean up their mess.

Scripted in 1974 (between “Sexual Perversity…” and “American Buffalo”), “Squirrels” focuses on the self-serving interactions of Arthur, a deluded hack who has been working on the same paragraph about a squirrel in a park for 15 years, and wannabe writer Edmond.

Together they create a pitiful monument to bad writing, with Arthur’s flamboyant redundancy clashing with Edmond’s mediocre melodrama. This legiter gushes forward in torrents of tongue twisters and status games, with neither scribe obtaining victory. By the conclusion of the relentless hack-a-thon, they simply exhaust themselves.

Smith’s Arthur exudes the proper inflexibility of a tired soul who cannot muster the intellectual strength to allow another human’s ideas to penetrate his psyche. Unfortunately, Smith never appears to be actually listening to the other actors, other than to get to his next cue.

Messmer communicates Edmond’s growing frustration that he can’t seem to move Arthur beyond the squirrels. He is equally guilty of paying more attention to keeping up a rapid pace of Mamet-speak than he is in establishing a true give-and-take emotional evolution between Edmond and his supposed mentor.

What elevates this Mamet work above the level of mediocrity is the scripter’s inclusion of a dynamic muse in the guise of an office-building cleaning lady, played to the scenery-chewing hilt by Lewis. Do the guys need physical inspiration? She blatantly offers to service them both. Do they need plots? She effortlessly spouts one plot concept after another. Lewis’ Cleaning Lady masterfully plows right over these two inept beings until she realizes that neither has the ability to recognize what she truly is, let alone be guided by her.

Adding a captivating undercurrent to the proceedings is the atmospheric sound design of John Zalewski. The same cannot be said for Jonathan Lacour’s community-theater-level office setting. Cynthia Herteg’s costumes are period perfect for the 1974 time setting.

Squirrels

Miles Memorial Playhouse, Santa Monica; 132 seats; $37.50 top

Production

A Blue House Theatre Company and Criterion Theater presentation of a play in one act by David Mamet. Directed by Travis Hammer.

Creative

Sets, Jonathan Lacour; costumes, Cynthia Herteg; lighting, Jeremy Pivnick; sound, John Zalewski; stage manager, Pat Loeb. Opened and reviewed March 30, 2007. Runs through April 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

Cleaning Woman - Vicki Lewis Arthur - Don Oscar Smith Edmond - Ben Messmer

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