Fuckin’ Mamet, fuckin’ Mamet, fuckin’ Mamet, fuckin’ Mamet, fuckin’ Mamet…
Surely some folks involved with the new Broadway production of American Buffalo, which opens tomorrow, must have had a version of that Teach-like dialogue running through their head when the play’s author decided to go on Fox News last weekend to join the recently ginned-up right-wing moral panic about sex education in schools and say that “teachers are inclined, typically men because men are predators, to pedophilia.”
David Mamet’s rightward shift has been no secret to anyone paying attention for the past few decades, but this latest salvo clearly crossed a new line, putting the 74-year-old playwright squarely on the wrong side of a culture-war battle that has life-or-death stakes for many, and not only educators. Long before this ugly moment, plenty of theatre people (if not so much theatregoers) have loudly questioned whether any plays written by this man, even his early plays, should continue to be produced at all.
Clearly Neil Pepe, the director of the new American Buffalo, still finds value in Mamet’s work; on Broadway he directed the sleek 2009 revival of Speed-the-Plow and the 2010 production of A Life in the Theatre, and 20 years ago directed Buffalo at the Atlantic Theatre Company, the Off-Broadway theatre co-founded by Mamet and William H. Macy in 1985, which Pepe has served as artistic director since 1992.
I spoke to the director a few weeks ago, before the most recent outrage, and while Mamet’s politics certainly came up, we also spoke about Pepe’s tenure at both the Atlantic Theatre and at the school run by his wife, the actor and teacher Mary McCann.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: The big question with any revival is, why this play now? What does it have to say to this moment, and how does it feel different from when you last directed it?
NEIL PEPE: We’ve been thinking about that. There’s something about this play. On the one hand, it’s a story of three small-time thieves who need this opportunity for a big break, a big burglary that could make all of them. So in some ways it’s a small, very human story about three guys trying to get a bigger piece of the pie. But there’s something about the play and what they’re after—not only the structure of it, but what it represents—that became sort of iconic. It’s a working-class person’s pursuit of the American dream. Smarter people than I have talked all about what that means, but there’s something resonant—to answer your question about why now—for people who’ve gotten the raw end of the stick, people who have not been included or welcomed into the American dream. There’s something about the play that resonates for me right now about what it means to find community, what it means to have friends and loyalty in a system that may be geared against you, and how to kind of fight your way into that system. In many ways, it’s resonating as much or more than it did the last time I worked on it.
The final thing I’ll say with regard to your question is, with this particular group of actors—it was obviously exciting to work with Bill Macy, Philip Baker Hall, and Mark Webber [on the 2000 production]. But to have Laurence Fishburne in the role of Donny is incredible, and Sam Rockwell as Teach and Darren Criss as Bobby. It’s brought a fresh, alive feeling for me as a director. It’s been a gift to work on it.
At Circle in the Square you’re not quite in the round, but it’s a deep thrust, with audience on three sides. Can you tell me about the technical challenge of staging this play in this almost immersive way? It really feels like we’re in the junk shop with them.
When Jeffrey Richards, the producer, said, “What about Circle in the Square?” at first, it threw me for a loop. But after talking with [set designer] Scott Pask and thinking about it, it became a very exciting process. Obviously, the good news about Circle in the Square is, like you said, it feels immersive, it feels like you’re in the room with the actors, which in the case of this play is a huge plus, because it’s really about three people stuck in this very small junk shop. And Scott really filled it, on the top and on the bottom. But with the thrust, there’s always that thing we call blocking on the X, right? You’re always wanting to make sure, obviously motivating it within the storytelling, that people are moving around. It almost becomes a dance of how to motivate people to move, so that no matter where you’re sitting, you feel like you’re seeing the play.
What becomes particularly tricky is if you have a section that you think is funny; sometimes in a proscenium, you’ll stage a joke and you want them still and you want them right next to each other. So you might notice that there are some things I pushed way upstage, like the phone interchange—I wanted everybody to see that, because it’s so ridiculous, so I get all the way up by the door. So there are always challenges, but I have to say, to be working on Broadway in a theatre where even the worst seat isn’t that far away is a huge plus.
I didn’t see a press preview, so I’ll limit my thoughts on your production. But to me it felt less like a tight thriller this time around than a sort of sad, strange, semi-scrutable power play among abject misfits—basically, it reminded me more than ever of Pinter’s The Caretaker. The plot does not seem to be the point with this staging. There is something else going on here.
I think you’re absolutely right. While the play does have—you could look at it, and plot-wise there’s a real structure to it—I think what we found, and it goes back to what we were talking about, the wonder of having great actors embrace not only what’s going on between the characters, but also the language. It’s a joy for actors to play because it’s so rhythmic and it’s so human. There’s this theme of loyalty, and this idea of Donny trying to teach this kid Bobby, investing in him, trying to teach him some sort of code of manhood or survival. I was talking to other playwright friends of mine, and words like dignity and honor come up around this play. It’s strange, because you’re talking about these larger words about how we comport ourselves as human beings, and then you look at the play, and you’re like: three guys in a junk shop trying to figure out a theft. And yet it ends up manifesting in this strange way, which is really human relationships, the kind of subtextual things that are going on. For me, it’s been about trying to direct the story, but also to get out of the way and let the actors in the play breathe.
This is possibly a canard, but I know that Mamet studied Meisner, and a lot of training at the Atlantic is based in Meisner, so I have to ask: Do you think his iterative approach to dialogue is inspired by Meisner’s repetition exercises?
I think that’s probably true. I mean, what I love about that analogy is that so much of Meisner’s work is about being in the moment, like you and I talking, and me looking at your face and I’m reading something from you, you’re reading something from me. What that’s really about is understanding the nature of an objective, and if we’re trying to get something done together, and I’m putting something forward and I get something back. I keep saying, “Guys, you can’t act the play by yourself.” The Meisner thing is throwing the ball back and forth. So it is very much about being in the moment, Mamet’s language. Even in Pinter, there’s that element where you can have, “I think that I’m” or “that I’m” and “then I’m gonna” and people will interrupt. On the page it looks very strange. But to me, that’s very similar to how we’re talking now, and that is very Meisner to me.
Speaking of pauses and interruptions, I’ve always wondered about how precise you’ve got to be with them, and whether actors have to restrain their natural impulse to fill in the blanks when sentences are incomplete, or their fellow actors don’t pick up the cue. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, that’s a really good question that comes up all the time. Laurence said something during rehearsal which I think hit the nail on the head, which is: It’s like a song. In other words, a song might have something high, and it would feel like there’s a continuation, but it’s not written as a continuation. It’s an active thought, right? There are lines in Mamet like, “and, and, and, and, but what—I’m not—the thing that I’m—this is what I mean, just not—” You don’t want to continue the sentence, because that muddles the rhythm of the language. It’s the same with Pinter, when they talk about the pauses; that’s obviously the writer giving you a clue about how they might direct the scene, but it’s also always there for a reason. Sam and Darren and Laurence are just trying to figure out what the pauses mean; it’s really about keeping the thought active, which I feel is one of the things that makes great writing.
It’s hard to talk about Mamet without bringing up his politics, which have shifted so sharply to the right since he wrote this play. Like Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo is often read as a critique of American capitalism. Do you feel like that’s a valid reading, and do you think you can separate Mamet’s politics from his playwriting? Are they in his work anyway?
What I would say is—and this goes for just about every writer that I’ve worked with or admired—I rarely get into their politics. It’s always been about the truth of the author’s voice within the story. It’s funny, because there are so many different ways to interpret this play. In a way, it’s about working-class heroes, or guys trying to be working-class heroes. And I don’t know which political way that—there’s a lot of different…I mean, look, the nature of good dramas is that everybody brings something different to a story, meaning an audience member may see different things, if the story is well told enough, in the universality of what it means to be a person who’s trying to get a bigger piece of the pie—or, in the case of Donny, a guy who’s trying to be a good father, a good mentor, to a kid. Or in the case of Teach, a guy who feels like he’s never been given anything and he deserves a chance. So there are ideas in there that may be inherently, to some people, capitalist, but there also may be ideas that are inherently very different—about, you know, give the working person a chance. To me, it’s always been centered on sniffing out the truth of the story and the truth of the author’s voice. I tend to just follow the story and not get distracted by other things.
The other knock on Mamet is that he’s misogynistic. People weren’t talking much about toxic masculinity when American Buffalo was written, but there’s a lot of it on display, from Teach especially. I guess the question is always about the extent to which these depictions are a kind of endorsement, and how sympathetic we’re supposed to be to these idiots, or if the play is really skewering them.
This play is about flawed human beings. Just thinking of plays that I love, almost all of them are about extremely flawed human beings. These guys like to think of themselves as experts, and what’s funny about the play is that clearly they’re not experts. Clearly they’re confronting their own shortcomings, whether it’s their shortcomings in understanding how to love, or understanding how to be burglars, understanding how to get what they need. We talked about this in rehearsal too: There are scenes in this play that really remind me of Iago and Othello, when Teach is sort of leading Donny away from Bobby, and it’s all about Teach wanting a bigger piece of the pie. Teach is a mercenary character, and he can be vicious at times. Sometimes in these plays, what they’re doing is serving who they are as characters, right, wrong, or indifferent.
To segue as roughly as possible: You’ve run the Atlantic for 30 years now. That’s a long run. Did you expect to be at the job this long?
I had been with the company about five years; I joined in ’87. At that time, like Steppenwolf, it was completely ensemble-run, and every year, we would raise our hand if we wanted to run for artistic director. It was an unpaid position. I foolishly raised my hand in 1992. I honestly thought I would do it for a year or two, because it terrified me so much—the idea of having to pick plays and say no to people and all that stuff. What I found is that collaborating with writers, working with remarkable people, figuring out how to serve these great stories through an ensemble—the more I was able to plant seeds year to year and watch them grow, it became exciting. It’s been a long and really exciting adventure, at times challenging, obviously.
One thing that sets you apart among New York artistic directors is that you still direct fairly regularly. Even your peers who started as directors—Lynne Meadow, Oskar Eustis—don’t do it very often anymore. Do you think that’s because it’s such a heavy lift to run one of these places? And how do you manage to still do both?
Yeah, it’s funny, it’s almost the opposite in London—most of the theatre leaders there also direct. Also, a lot of my colleagues and friends from London come over and ask: Why is it that artistic directors don’t flip as quickly in America? I don’t fully know the answer to that question; I think sometimes we probably should flip more often. One of the reasons I come up with is that there’s not a lot of funding, so the lift in running a theatre is that you’re constantly trying to figure out how to simply survive. And that takes a lot of time, whether it’s building a board or building relationships with foundations or individuals, or trying to figure how to do shows you believe in and sell tickets.
I am an artistic director who directs; I don’t try to direct that much at the Atlantic. In fact, in the past couple of years, I haven’t directed too much. But I do love to direct, and I have to say, having come out of acting and directing, it’s very much helped me as an artistic director to serve writers, to understand the nature of storytelling. From a process perspective, it’s been very, very helpful.
Was having the school the Atlantic’s secret sauce?
Early on the school did help sustain the theatre. It was not only sort of a reminder of where we came from, but also, from a financial standpoint, it did kick over some some money to the theatre. Now it sustains itself, which is great because it’s gotten large, between the conservatory, the NYU Studio, and all that. Having young people around all the time is a huge gift. And having a committed board and a committed group of artists, whether they’re ensemble members or playwrights who like the way we work, like the process, and keep coming back. It’s those things coming together that I think has sustained us. But boy, it’s difficult now, because lots of things are crashing together. I hope we’re gonna solve it. It was great to get the government funding, the SVOG and PPP, but now we’ll see.
So that gets us to the subject of the last few years of pandemic and protest. A lot of theatres have survived, as you mentioned, by getting relief money and not producing much, but now the rubber hits the road: You’ve got to make shows and get audiences to come back. How is that going?
It’s funny you use the metaphor, the rubber hits the road, because I’ve been using that in the past few months. I feel very lucky, because we’ve had a wonderful season so far, mainly due to these great plays that we’ve been allowed to do. Which is not to say we’re not still experiencing the challenges, whether it’s COVID safety or trying to get people back to the theatre. How do we get our loyal audience, whether they be members or people who are buying single tickets, to feel safe enough to come back to the theatre? With regards to social justice, there’s been so much positive and amazing change, and we’re trying to institutionalize a lot of that, trying to figure out how to continue to widen your perspective. We had already been very committed to diversifying our programming, so it’s about how to continue to meet that challenge and invest in young people and all those things. We’re trying to pay people more, trying to get rid of unpaid internships, and all the things that should happen, and then it’s sort of scraping around and going: Where can we get people to fund it? There’s the balancing act; if nobody’s going to fund it, then you’re like, Do we need to get it from box office? We’re trying to support voices that might be pushing the envelope, and you can’t expect them all to have a hit play.
You’ve had some musicals come from there, but none are quite Hamilton.
The good news is that shows like Spring Awakening, The Band’s Visit, and Beauty Queen of Leenane early on have certainly given us a certain amount. And now Kimberly Akimbo is moving to Broadway, which is exciting. So yes, the Chorus Line/Hamilton model is awesome, but we can’t depend on that.
I’m just thinking back on how one of the last shows I saw before the pandemic lockdown, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Halfway Bitches Go Staight to Heaven, was at your theatre. I just loved that show to pieces; that’s one I’d love to see transfer to Broadway somehow.
It was incredible. I always think of that last scene with [Liza Colon-Zayas] about how nobody gives a shit about homeless people, homeless veterans. Guirgis is quite an extraordinary writer, and that play—18 people and a goat! This comes full circle back to what we were talking about in the beginning: What has sustained me is believing in great storytellers. And with Stephen Guirgis, as you may or may not know, a lot of the time if you do a play of his, he will give you 25 or 30 pages and say, “This is what I’ve got.” On both Between Riverside and Crazy and Halfway Bitches, that’s what I started with, and I said, “I’ll commit to it, but you have to finish it.” It was an expensive show, but boy, it was worth it.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!