In David Mamet's new Broadway drama, The Old Neighborhood, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood haunts in Chicago. In the first act, he gets together with a friend from his youth, in the second he pays a visit to the sister he hasn't seen for years, and in the final act he meets up in a diner with an ex-girlfriend.
The former flame is played by Rebecca Pidgeon, who in 1992 caused quite a stir Off-Broadway in Mamet's Oleanna. Her character in that particular play, a college student of ambiguous sexuality who brings her professor up on charges of sexual harassment and sticks around to witness his plunge into hell, was such a "tough" role -- "not even a fun boo-hiss kind of villain"-- that Pidgeon was forced to sneak out a side entrance of the theatre after each performance "to avoid being accosted by all kinds of people," as she recalls it today.
By comparison, her role in The Old Neighborhood is much tamer. She and Peter Riegert portray two people "who keep trying to make an exit from the diner but can't -- because of unfinished business.
"The Old Neighborhood explores big themes like life and death and the importance of not living in the past but growing up and moving on," says Pidgeon, who is sitting in her dressing room at the Booth Theatre, composed and strikingly beautiful, and on this particular day wearing black leather pants and a gray sweater.
Pidgeon herself is very much of the here and now, and is definitely not one to dwell on the past. When she married Mamet and moved to the United States in 1991, she gave up her budding London theatre, film, and singing career, knowing that she would "have to start all over again in the States -- where I was not exactly a big name," she says. Of course it helped to be married to a prominent playwright and not to have to pound the pavements -- Mamet wrote Oleanna for Pidgeon -- but the actress definitively proved her mettle with her stunning performance in that play, in which her seemingly meek and dim-witted schoolgirl was transmogrified into a grotesque reactionary.
Early next year, Pidgeon will co-star with Steve Martin and Campbell Scott in a film written and directed by Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner -- a thriller in the Hitchcock mode that has already been screened at both the Toronto and Deauville film festivals. She will also be seen in a small role in Civil Action, starring John Travolta and William Macy (Pidgeon's Oleanna co-star).
Also in the works is another Mamet film, State and Main, about a small New England town that is disrupted when a film company comes along -- "like a vicious Speed-the-Plow," says Pidgeon.
For The Old Neighborhood, Pidgeon ditched her British accent and replaced it with what she calls a "standard American accent" but what her friends refer to as a "non-accent," she says with a laugh.
It's clear that Pidgeon is closely connected to the work of Mamet -- both as muse and interpreter -- and she speaks passionately about the resonance of his dialogue: "If you take one of the lines and examine it, it's like poetry -- it can have two or three meanings at the same time. He often writes in iambic pentameter, and the rhythm of it really carries it through."
And what does she think about Mamet's controversial new book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (Pantheon), which debunks the Stanislavsky/Strasberg "Method" of acting?
"I know a lot of actors are married to the Method -- what the environment of the character might have been, what they had for breakfast.
"But that's impossible to do, because there is no character. The character is an illusion -- it's just words lying on a page.
"When I first met Dave I was going onstage one night in Speed the Plow [in 1989 at London's National Theatre] and I said to him that I really didn't feel like doing the play that particular night.
"And he said, 'That's OK. You don't have to feel like it. You just have to go out and do it. That's your job -- you're getting paid for it.'
"It was such a revelation," says Pidgeon.
The Old Neighborhood is in previews for a Nov. 19 opening at the Booth Theatre. It stars Peter Riegert and Patti LuPone and features Vincent Guastaferro, Pidgeon, and Jack Willis. It is directed by Scott Zigler, who directed the American Repertory Theatre production of the play last spring (Guastaferro, Pidgeon, and Willis are holdovers from that production).
Tickets ($45-$55) are on sale via Tele-charge (212-239-6200) and at the box office. You can also order tickets on Playbill On-Line.