Just finished reading Theresa Rebeck’s Spike Heels, a play that really knocked my socks off for being so funny, satisfying, and irritating at the same time. She rewrote the Pygmalion myth–not Shaw necessarily, nor My Fair Lady, but a thing all her own, and a beautiful one. (I reckon this is what artists do, isn’t it? I’m sure trying.) While I found Rebeck’s introduction a little disingenuous, I accept the premise that she’s a playwright who happens to be a woman rather than a feminist who uses plays to effect sociopolitical ends.
I was struck, though, by her passing comment that David Mamet is a misogynist, a la Strindberg I guess. While Mamet certainly exults in masculinity and is good at “doing violence” verbally and artistically–consider the sad and utterly male world of American Buffalo, which actually offers a ray of hope at the end–I had not thought of him as anti-woman in any meaningful way, mostly because of a production of his Boston Marriage that I saw at Common Ground Theater a year or two ago. In that play, whose characters are three women, what you notice front and center is the author’s love of language (it’s set in the late 19th or early 20th century, which gives him more linguistic scope than most contemporary settings), and the women’s relationships are both affectionate and catty. Yes, men are in charge in that world–they control the money, they take and leave the women, they are understood to be about power more often than love–but never do you get the sense that the writer approves of the way things are. His job is to document.
Anyhow, what Mamet and Rebeck both do extremely well, in very different ways, is to dissect anger. Anger in their works is not usually directed at social injustice or the military industrial complex or polluters or Wall Street; they write about the dance of anger between people, and it is an intimate dance, like the tango. Deftness is required, and the ability to get inside all your characters’ heads– perhaps even to love each of them replete with (or because of) their flaws.
And that is the difference between both these extraordinary playwrights and people who do political theater, which can lapse into melodrama. I recently saw Burning Coal’s production of Lucy Prebble’s 2009 Enron, which was entertaining, fun, raunchy, very well directed, and–a disappointment. Time is necessarily spent explaining derivatives, mark-to-market, etc, and you can make that time pass happily with the right choreographer (which director Jerome Davis did), but in the end one wants to hear a human story. Enron tried, but I never quite believed it. I lay it at the playwright’s door.