Even nonbelievers could be persuaded that the theatre offers up a holy trinity of sorts in Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet, three dramatists of differing generations and nationalities who nonetheless resonate with and reflect off one another in an infinite number of ways.
Similarities would be evident between them even if Mamet, at the turn of this century, hadn't filmed Beckett's very brief play Catastrophe with Pinter in one of the leading roles. Or if Pinter hadn't created a sensation last fall in his native London starring onstage in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. In 1983, Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross had its world premiere at the National Theatre in London as a direct result of Pinter urging the British playhouse to do so, and the connection was made more explicit a decade or so later when Pinter himself staged the U.K. premiere of Mamet's Oleanna, in a production that had the clenched muscularity of, well, a Pinter play.
Both younger writers, of course, owe a debt to Beckett — as, to be fair, does just about any dramatist of recent vintage who has been sensitive to the redefinition of language and the theatrical landscape offered up by the great Irishman, who died in 1989.
And so it is particularly bracing in a New York season unusually alive with great playwrights (Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, and Sam Shepard are just a few of the most prominent) to find these three masters of the form on New York stages in reasonably quick succession. Pinter's classic The Homecoming is up first in a new revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Ian McShane, Raúl Esparza, and Eve Best. That show opened a week after Mikhail Baryshnikov began performances in an Off-Broadway quartet called Beckett Shorts, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. Barely is 2008 upon us before we get the world premiere of Mamet's latest, November. That comedy, starring Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf, is a Mamet rarity in that it's hitting Broadway first, as opposed to the playwright's frequent stomping ground of Chicago.
Mamet is a writer whose carefully calibrated, utterly uncompromising speech rhythms are echoed by Pinter, whose own dips in and very much out of naturalism find their own dramatic forbear in Beckett. Not, of course, that one wants any of these men performed with slavish reverence. As Sullivan says of what constitutes his first-ever Pinter directing gig, "That sanctified Pinter silence and pause — the metronomic approach — is ruinous, though of course those pauses are there for a reason: They're filled with tension." The task is to honor the dictates of what would seem on the surface, with The Homecoming, to be a family drama before it evolves into a study of power politics and sexual gamesmanship. "Keeping you off balance is part of the point," Sullivan says of a play that will be revived separately by London's Almeida Theatre not long after his own Broadway staging is up and running. "The mystery to the play is part of its dramatic tension — the teasing out of subtext. And if you pull that subtext up and start playing it too vividly, too concretely, you dispel the mystery."
The point is, none of these playwrights gives any more information than is absolutely necessary, often playing with form just as much as they toy with content. That's nowhere truer than with Beckett, whose departure from anything resembling a dramatic norm would seem to be liberating for colleagues. Unless, as Akalaitis found in 1984 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, you take too much dramatic license, at which point, you enflame the writer and/or his estate. The imbroglio surrounding Akalaitis' infamous production of Beckett's Endgame — featuring music by her ex-husband Philip Glass and some considerable departures from the faceless locale indicated in the text — is now old news. But Akalaitis concedes that she wasn't sure whether the incident would allow her a further chance at the Beckett canon. "We observed every pause and every silence," she recalls. "The only thing we didn't do was set it in a gray room, and we had Philip's music in it. Frankly, I was astonished that anyone would object to a very serious Beckettian production." And, indeed, it had a successful run.
Still, she was aware she had "this history" when she sought permission to direct Beckett Shorts. "I didn't think I would ever get the rights." She did, although it was accompanied by an e-mail from Edward Beckett, Sam's nephew, which said, "I know about you; you must adhere to the stage directions." "And I said, 'Yeah, I don't think we're doing anything radically different, actually,'" the director says. Certainly not compared with Peter Brook, at any rate, who took violent liberties this past fall in London with Beckett's well-known solo piece Rockaby and raised scarcely an eyebrow. So it is, then, that Akalaitis is bringing together in one evening Rough for Theatre I and Act Without Words II — which were also part of the recent Brook program — alongside Eh Joe and Act Without Words I. And none other than Philip Glass is composing original music for it.
The issue here, as with Pinter, has to do with respect that doesn't spill over into excess hommage. "He's not pompous about his own work," McShane says of Pinter, whom the actor has known for more than 40 years. "What you get are people imposing their rules on him, so you have 'the defining player of Pinter' or 'the defining director of Pinter.' More important to McShane is the sheer humor of the work. "The more you read it, the more blackly funny it is. It's like Beckett, but hilariously funny in its own way."
"They're both awfully funny," says Akalaitis. "Pinter and Beckett, I mean — a bundle of laughs, both of them."
Mamet, too, of course, particularly in the overtly comic November, in which Metcalf plays the speechwriter to an American president played by Lane "I laughed out loud two or three times on each page that I turned," Metcalf reports. "I'm just so anxious to experiment with the tone of it." But if Beckett can proffer a surfeit of stage directions, not so Mamet, at least here. "We know what the room is, obviously," Metcalf says of a play set in the Oval Office, "but there are no character descriptions and no other guides. All David has written in are some of the pauses."
That refusal to over-gild the dramatic lily is deeply tantalizing, says Eve Best, who has gone in a year from the prolix, florid world of Eugene O'Neill in A Moon For the Misbegotten, for which she was a Tony nominee last June, to her imminent turn as the cunning seducer Ruth in The Homecoming, a part originated by Vivien Merchant, Pinter's late ex-wife. "What I find particularly fascinating," says Best, "having come from a play where everybody talks all the time nonstop, fighting with broadswords like you do in O'Neill, is to go to somebody who hardly speaks at all — who's pretty much silent, comparatively, for most of the play."
Silence, though, can speak volumes, as no one knew better than Beckett. But doesn't it in turn say something about the good state of a theatre that can give us all three playwrights within a month of one another? "This is so healthy for New York theatre," says Akalaitis. "It's such a kick, I think." With luck, the pleasure will be ours.