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Dr. Faustus

The Magic Theater scored a major coup in securing "Dr. Faustus," the first production of a new David Mamet work, directed by the author himself. This linguistically tortuous, bone-dry revamp of the classic morality tale might surrender up some wit, poignancy or mystery -- in another production, that is. Mamet's own could scarcely be more awkward.

Dr. Faustus - David Rasche Wife - Sandra Lindquist Friend - Colin Stinton Magus - Dominic Hoffman Son - Benjamin Beecroft/Nathan Wexler

The Magic Theater scored a major coup in securing the first production of a new David Mamet work, directed by the author himself. He has noted in interviews that the play became available when the East Coast theater that commissioned it declined to produce the script — a decision that might sound unlikely, but one that “Dr. Faustus” renders quite understandable. This linguistically tortuous, bone-dry revamp of the classic morality tale might conceivably surrender up some wit, poignancy or mystery — in another production, that is. Mamet’s own could scarcely be more awkward.

With Mamet emerging more clearly a moralist himself, “Faustus” could have been an intriguing choice. His version is somewhat different from familiar ones: Here the philosopher-scientist is not elderly but fairly youthful, with wife and child. Fumiko Bielefeldt’s somber costumes indicate the time as circa 1900. Faustus has just finished his magnum-opus manuscript, whose worldview denies any reality save the material, numeric and scientific.

Celebrating this milestone, he demonstrates an imposing egotism accepting the congrats of a colleague (Colin Stinton), who offers such kudos as, “I understand I am doubly to felicitate you!” Bitching about the acclaim he has and hasn’t gotten, Faustus derides others’ foolish preoccupation with religious belief. Voila! There then appears Magus (Dominic Hoffman), a one-man “carnival” whose suitcase sports a devil’s head painted on its side. Uninvited, this “jester” ingratiates himself by entertaining Faustus with sleight-of-hand tricks. “The greater the intellect, the more ease in its misdirection,” he smiles.

During all this, Mrs. Faustus (Sandra Lindquist) keeps popping on- and offstage, begging her husband to attend his adoring, neglected, ill young son. (In a different production, his umpteen callous responses, forever delaying parental duty for one more “moment,” might qualify as a running gag.) As her entreaties grow more desperate, the magician’s diversions grow more ingenious. Finally, latter rivets his host’s attention by claiming he can prove the lofty manuscript contains an error. This goads Faustus: He even wagers his wife’s and child’s lives against it. Proven wrong, he’s plunged into damnation.

Act two finds him wandering a personal Hell in which the effect of his earthly disappearance on loved ones is made miserably clear. Faustus does get a chance to redeem himself, to prove he can treasure others above his own intellect and set things aright — but again, lack of humility leads him astray all too easily.

With its windy passages of rhetoric and obscurantist argot, the script might almost pass for a parody of academic pretension. But alas, no such intent is signaled in the playwright’s staging, which further heightens the airless mood by seeming to disdain any emotional expression — as if that might be weak or unbecoming. This approach makes the dialogue — so far from the author’s usual staccato rhythms — come off as a labored game in which sentences must be constructed to use arcane words (simulacrum, prestidigitation, etc).

Those who suspect Mamet the director is far from Mamet the writer’s best interpreter will find that notion amply supported here. Even allowing for the lumpy prose, which would sap energy under any circumstances, the physical production is remarkably stilted. Movement is limited first by the full-scale mockups of pillared arches that close off the rear stage in act one.

Playing space expands after intermission, and Russell H. Champa’s lighting achieves some handsome effects, but the squat, dark forms scattered about (indicating a sort of maze) inhibit motion without being exploited in themselves. Characters enter and exhibit like brisk automatons, nulling the supposed intensity of their situations.

Not that the performances otherwise summon much passion: Mamet has his actors do little more than crisply recite lines, as if doing a rote read-through. Volume and speed may vary, but the emphasis remains flat.

Underplaying maternal concern until it barely registers, Swedish thesp Lindquist’s accent suggests she’s reading lines phonetically (which is not the case). Hoffman (a replacement for illusionist Ricky Jay, who was sidelined by an injury) and Stinton have personalities that can’t be erased so easily, but they’re stymied nonetheless.

Longtime Mamet ally Rasche gets the worst of the deal, being onstage throughout, with acres of jawbreaking verbiage to deliver. Even in the run’s second week, he was still stumbling on lines all over the place, rendering any real evaluation inadmissible.

Another director might cringe at the haplessness of the children playing Faustus’ son (Benjamin Beecroft at perf caught), as they speak lines they can’t possibly understand (e.g., “In what could eternal bliss exist save oblivion?”) and eggshell-walk across the stage. But one wonders if their untrained stiffness is just what he wishes, perversely, the professionals could achieve so easily.

Dr. Faustus

Magic Theater Southside, San Francisco; 160 seats; $53

Production: A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by David Mamet.

Creative: Sets, Peter Larkin; costumes, Fumiko Bielefeldt; lighting, Russell H. Champa; original artwork, Raymond Saunders; magic design, Michael Weber, Ricky Jay. Artistic director, Chris Smith. Opened Feb. 28, 2004. Reviewed March 3. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN

Cast: Dr. Faustus - David Rasche Wife - Sandra Lindquist Friend - Colin Stinton Magus - Dominic Hoffman Son - Benjamin Beecroft/Nathan Wexler

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