Peter Riegert Brings Mamet's Neighborhood To Life

Peter Riegert Brings Mamet's Neighborhood To Life Bobby and Joey are talking. Here is a patch of their conversation:

Bobby and Joey are talking. Here is a patch of their conversation:

BOBBY: I'm talking about marriage; you asked a question, I'm answering you. You don't want to [expletive] talk about it, we'll talk about something that you like.
pause
JOEY: Tell me.
BOBBY: You know what she said?
JOEY: Who, Laurie?
BOBBY: Yeah.
JOEY: No, what.
BOBBY: Listen to this: "What are we going to tell the kids?"
JOEY: She said that?
BOBBY: Yes.

"You know," said Peter Riegert, the Bobby of The Old Neighborhood, a triptych of plays that are actually all one play by David Mamet, "sometimes you make a connection with a writer or a piece of material, and there's not much to ask.

"I loved David's writing from the start: the fractured thought, interrupted speech, the expletives, the pauses, the 'umms' and 'hmms' and 'uhs'‹not just dropped in, but part of the dialogue. The melody of it. Like notes of a chord."

For Riegert‹who in The Old Neighborhood at the Booth Theatre appears in a Mamet work for the fourth time in two decades‹the start had been 21 years ago as innocent, idealistic Danny Shapiro in the New York premiere of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, at the little Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

In those days playwright Mamet was very new on the scene, and aspiring actor Riegert was with a "War Babies" improvisational group. "We were working on something at St. Clement's, when Mamet offered us Sexual Perversity. The rest of the company didn't want to do it, for whatever reasons, maybe because David was almost unknown. They turned it down. I thought they were crazy. I felt, well, I've missed my big opportunity. But a few months later, somebody left the cast of Sexual Perversity as it was going into rehearsal, and I auditioned and got it [a company that also included F. Murray Abraham, Jane Anderson and Gina Rogers]."

Riegert would thereafter be in Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, in a Mamet one-act play called The Spanish Prisoner, in a lot of plays not by David Mamet, and a lot of movies‹notably Crossing Delancey, as that pickle-store guy who wins Amy Irving‹and a lot of television. When he was at the Cort this past spring in Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter, it was
Riegert's first time back on Broadway in six years.

"I didn't think I'd have that long a gap between plays‹and here it's two in one year. So you never can tell."

The old neighborhood to which Bobby Gould returns in The Old Neighborhood is that familiar Mamet landscape, Chicago‹ in particular, Jewish Chicago, the first and longest of the three sub-plays being in fact called The Disappearance of
the Jews
. In it Bobby and his lifelong boyhood friend Joey (Vincent Guastaferro) conduct a Mamet-style desultory discussion of life, aging, the Nazis, old girlfriends and marriage‹Bobby's disintegrating marriage to a shiksa, Joey's fantasies of domestic annihilation.

In part two, Jolly‹the nickname of Bobby Gould's beloved sister Julia‹Bobby and Julia (Patti LuPone) and Julia's husband Carl (Jack Willis) are plunged in Mametian fury over the contemptible treatment they feel they've received over the years (indeed, in Bobby and Jolly's case, ever since childhood) from a mother, a stepfather and the stepfather's new wife.

Part three, Deeny, has Bobby Gould winding up a brief, autumnal visit to a woman he'd loved and been loved by in the days of their youth. If David Mamet hadn't written it, Ingmar Bergman might have‹if he spoke Chicagoese. Deeny, the girl in the case, the woman in the case, is played by Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. David Mamet).

Is there any tensile link between the Danny Shapiro of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and the Bobby Gould of The Old Neighborhood?

"I don't know," Riegert said on a day when the current production was just coming together for first rehearsals in Boston. "I'm sure that if someone was doing an analysis of David's work, he could draw some kind of a line, 20 years later‹but that's not a line that's helpful to me as an actor."

Mamet, when he himself isn't directing, sits in on rehearsals, but not every day and not obtrusively. (The director of this Old Neighborhood is Scott Zigler, who did the same for its world premiere last spring at Boston's American Repertory Theatre.)

"We did a reading of the play yesterday," said Riegert, "and David was here. He heard what he had to hear, made a couple of changes and went on his way. We'll see him next week, maybe; maybe the week after. He's good that way."

To Peter Riegert, a son of the Bronx‹i.e., of Milton Riegert, who was in the wholesale poultry business, and Lucille Riegert, piano teacher, both now gone‹ the three interrelated plays of The Old Neighborhood have "quite a bit to do, I guess, with the debate that's gone on for a couple of thousand years over what it is to be a Jew. As a matter of fact, part of being Jewish is the whole question of what it is to be a Jew. And certainly one of the arguments these days is that assimilation is potentially as dangerous as the Holocaust was."

There are implications beyond that in The Disappearance of the Jews and the other two plays. "This middle-aged man, Bobby Gould‹in a short time he's going to disappear, literally, not figuratively: He'll grow old and die. As with all David's stuff, The Old Neighborhood resonates with many meanings."

Riegert is a long way from old‹he was born in 1947‹but he also "certainly didn't expect to be at this age and be alone," which he is. Unbonded. Too busy acting. He says he wouldn't mind if that changed‹not the busy-ness, the unbondedness.

Riegert came to acting from social work and from teaching. And one thing more. Back when he was living on Horatio Street in the Village, he wandered over one day to where Bella Abzug, running for Congress against ironclad incumbent Leonard Farbstein, had her office on Sheridan Square.

"They put me to work typing and working the mimeograph machine. After a couple of days I felt this presence looming over my shoulder, with a look on her face of 'Who the hell are you?' It wasn't long before I was serving as Bella's aide, making her breakfast, driving her around, all that stuff. She beat Farbstein. I learned a lot about acting just from watching Bella."

Maybe David Mamet should write a play, Political Perversity in New York.

-- By Jerry Tallmer