The shame of Reform Judaism and the crucial problems raised by Jewish-Gentile marriages, along with the questionable nutritional value of Jewish food and jokes, are what drive the three interrelated one-act plays that make up David Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood.” The first of them, “The Disappearance of the Jews,” is as good as Mamet gets, a duet for two middle-aged male Jews shot through with the laughter of recognition and underscored with deadly seriousness.
The second and longest, “Jolly,” probably contains Mamet’s best-written female character to date. And if “D.,” the final play, is less satisfying and more artificially stylized, it may well be because Mamet sees its pivotal female character that way. “The Old Neighborhood” isn’t the full-scale powerhouse play we’ve been awaiting from the Mamet of “American Buffalo,” but it’ll do until the real thing comes along.
Running 25 minutes, “The Disappearance of the Jews” is an armchair chat between two men reminiscing about their youth in the Chicago neighborhood to which Bobby (Tony Shalhoub) has returned after a lengthy absence. In a dialogue beginning with the question “Whatever happened to…?,” Bobby and his old buddy Joey (Vincent Guastaferro) quickly progress to broads, a shopkeeper who didn’t look Jewish, interfaith marriages, the Holocaust and concentration camps. Interestingly, the laughter continues and does not seem out of place, not even when the Jewish Bobby claims that his wife once said to him of the Jews, “If you’ve been persecuted so long, you must have brought it on yourself.”
The 35-minute “Jolly” gives Brooke Adams a wow of a title role to play: a self-confessed “haggard, sexless, unattractive housewife” with kids. Denied a share of her late mother’s estate, Jolly, as she sees it, is the victim of a childhood without love. This being Mamet, nothing is ever that simple.
The play is essentially a monologue for Jolly, with her brother (the previous play’s Bobby) and her loving, if ordinary, husband supplying occasional comments. All three scenes of “Jolly” are completely absorbing.
“D.” is the problem piece. Running 15 minutes, it presents Bobby in yet another passive situation. This time he’s sitting in a restaurant listening to the odd ramblings of the title character (Rebecca Pidgeon), apparently an old flame from his Chicago past. Smartly dressed and lousy with “good taste,” she comes across as shallow and meaningless. An unsatisfying end to “The Old Neighborhood,” “D.” is nowhere near as powerful as the first two plays.
Scott Zigler’s sharp, uncluttered direction and the straight-to-the-jugular performances of Shalhoub, Guastaferro, Adams and Willis are first-rate throughout, handily juggling Mamet’s colloquial dialogue, pauses and repetitions. And if Pidgeon’s D. doesn’t seem to be in the same class, that’s in great measure due to the role itself.
Still, “The Old Neighborhood” is a most welcome gift from Mamet, one skillfully presented by set designer Kevin Rigdon on a raised, raked stage that is quickly re-dressed from sitting room to kitchen to restaurant. If this visit with Mamet is short, better to be left wanting more.