Hell is for Zeroes

In an article called "Critical Condition," published in the June 1991 edition of American Theatre, the great playwright A.R. Gurney, himself a survivor of some nasty reviews, editorialized on the role of critics and the importance of a concept called "bestowal" in considering a work of art.

"An example of this notion of bestowal," Gurney wrote, "might occur, say, at some junior high school production of The King and I, where our daughter is playing in the chorus. Better than Broadway, we crow triumphantly into the warm spring night, having endowed the evening with our last full measure of paternal devotion."

In other words critics, Gurney theorizes, like anyone else, cannot remain totally objective, bestowing upon the plays they judge certain prejudices, past alliances or feuds, and particular personal tastes. Urging reviewers to come clean about such excess baggage, Gurney advises they "let their hair down and get personal."

Because I so highly respect Gurney, I've decided to heed his suggestion and make a confession: Riding to the new Ensemble Stage's production of Bobby Gould in Hell, I wanted to like the show. First, the company itself, founded just a few months ago in a 45-seat space within a shopping mall, emphasizes a dedication to challenging, rarely produced scripts. (This put me on their side.) After a serious search for plays not normally seen in this outpost, they now present one of my favorite playwrights -- David Mamet. (Score another point for them.) I guess you could say I was somewhat partial even before the curtain went up.

But after viewing the show, I realized that Gurney's theory leaned heavily to one side -- his. He neglected to address the critic's burden of objectivity, the painful weight to be lugged home when a play doesn't meet one's lofty expectations. For as much as I had warmed to the idea of this particular production, what appeared on-stage did nothing to cloud my better judgment.

To be fair, much of the problem lies with Mamet himself. Theater groups should be wary of rarely produced works by great playwrights. (Remember that even genius has its off days.) Bobby Gould in Hell appears to have been written during one of Mamet's lesser creative bursts. For some inexplicable reason, he uses the same character name as the movie schlockmeister from his play Speed-the-Plow and the protagonist from his film Homicide. Bobby Gould must be Mamet's everyman: Here the playwright drops Gould, devoid of any character traits, into Hell, where ol' Bob spends the first half of the evening almost dumb and definitely dull. The Interrogator (Beelzebub, naturally) has all the good lines, which is a problem; Mamet's spectacular dialogue, his amazingly accurate ear for maniacal interchanges in high-tension settings, only works when the loud-mouthed characters confront each other, rapid-fire, in the course of a plot line.

But Bobby Gould in Hell contains weak confrontations and no plot of any consequence, other than whether Mr. Gould will spend eternity in Hell. Supposedly about conscience and the importance of moral forethought, the play hammers its themes home in endless exposition. Of course, the audience still enjoyed a healthy dose of laughter; Mamet is nothing if not a slick snot. When the Devil finds out Bobby threatened to shove a toaster up his girlfriend's behind, the horned one inquires, "What would you have done for toast?" And as Bobby protests that "nothing is black and white," the Devil shoves a picture in his face and screams, "What about a fucking panda?"

In this production, Mamet carries much -- but not all -- of the blame. Director Paul E. Tei wisely and ably uses most of the in-your-lap space, but overlooks rule number one in conducting a Mamet piece: speed. In every one of his plays -- including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross -- characters interrupt, repeat concepts to high annoyance levels, and verbally muscle one another out of the way. If the speaking pace moves at anything less than Joan Rivers high on amphetamines, Mamet's marvelous rhythms and much of his humor flounders, as it often does here.

As The Interrogator himself, Moses Terlitzky owns the showiest, best-written role and makes the most of it -- sometimes overdoing it just a tad. But, like one of the playwright's favorite actors, Joe Mantegna, Terlitzky knows how to portray the sadist pretending to be a fool for the sake of the game. As The Interrogator's assistant, Daniel Gonzalez mugs and fusses, but on the whole presents a nicely contained, hapless servant. However Adam Koster as Gould never possesses anywhere near the energy needed for Mamet, and Stephanie Heller as his abused, obnoxious girlfriend Glenna bugs out her eyes and stretches her body constantly, in an affected rather than natural manner.

Again, as mentioned last week, in the founding of new companies and the picking of new plays (or rarely done plays), the producer must employ the help of the dramaturgically -- not just theatrically -- knowledgeable. The Ensemble Stage Company should be applauded for their intentions and encouraged to continue, but warned against pieces so shaky a polished production becomes almost impossible to stage, even for a kindly disposed critic.

BOBBY GOULD IN HELL by David Mamet, directed by Paul E. Tei; with Daniel Gonzalez, Adam Koster, Stephanie Heller, and Moses Terlitzky. At the Ensemble Stage Company, 9116 State Rd 84, Davie, through August 16. Performances Thursday -- Saturday at 8:15 p.m., Sunday at 6:15 p.m. Tickets cost $10. Call 452-0972.

 
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