Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ghost Stories: The Shawl **** & Prairie du Chien **

In the run-up to their 30th anniversary season, Atlantic Theater Company is presenting two early one-act plays by the group’s co-founder David Mamet on Stage 2. 

“Prairie du Chien” takes place at 3 a.m. in the parlor car of a train speeding across Wisconsin in 1910. On one end of the car a slick card dealer (Nate Dendy) keeps winning at gin at the expense of another passenger (Jim Frangione). At the other end of the car, a traveling salesman (Atlantic founding member Jordan Lage) is telling a ghost tale of jealousy, murder and suicide to a father (Jason Ritter) whose young son (Henry Kellemen) is asleep next to him. A porter (Dereks Thomas) appears from time to time. The salesman’s story was not that interesting, at least the portion I was able to hear. Lage speaks so softly that he was often drowned out by the card players’ banter and the frequent squeaking of the theater’s ancient seats. There is a brief outburst of violence when the gin player accuses the dealer of cheating. That’s about it. Lauren Helpern’s set is evocative. Although the program lists a violence consultant (J. David Brimmer), no sound designer is credited. This omission is unfortunate, because the background noise sounded more like the tumble of a clothes dryer than the clackety-clack of a train.

“The Shawl,” from 1985, is a far more interesting proposition. Miss A (founding member Mary McCann) consults a medium named John (Arliss Howard) about a problem involving her late mother. In the first scene he skillfully teases information out of her to gain her confidence. In the second scene John explains his methods to his hunky young acolyte/boy toy Charles (Ritter again), who wants to learn the trade and hopes that somehow the supernatural really is involved. Charles is broke and threatens to leave John if he doesn’t bring in some money soon. The next meeting between Miss A and John takes some surprising turns. Their final scene together ends on a delightfully equivocal note. Howard and McCann are both superb. The production has one major flaw. The table at which John and Miss A sit is below the stage at the side. Since it is at the same level as the front row of seats, much of the view is blocked by the audience’s heads. I can’t imagine why the director (founding member Scott Zigler) made that choice.

In any case, it was entertaining to see two pieces written by Mamet when his voice was still fresh. 

Running time: one hour, 40 minutes including intermission. NOTE: Do not get seats in Row A. It’s behind row AA and not elevated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On your remark about sightlines and audience heads, I suspect that in staging the play the director always had an empty theatre, so didn’t think of this. I agree entirely that it sounds like a bad mistake – and it’s the kind of thing one would expect an experienced theatre person to realize. Again, directors too seldom look at a play or opera from any angle except that of people in the best seats, when slight alterations could make things better for all without disadvantages to anyone.