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How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?
Writings On the Theater--and Why It Matters
If you're at all familiar with John Heilpern's theatrical journalism, you'll no doubt guess before opening this book that Heilpern is not exactly a Mamet fan. But take heart, Mr. Mamet, you are not the only theater V.I.P. who has been skewered by Heilpern often acerbic pen.
In this compendium from The London Observer, Vanity Fair and The New York Observer, Heilpern slings arrows at notables galore. His targets include the chief drama critic of The New York Times and his colleagues: "Mr. Brantley's Torsos" is an open letter that slyly advises "Dear Ben" that "it isn't cool to drool" over on stage male physiques . . ."The Anglophile New York Times" singled out a published conversation between Ben Brantley, Peter Marks and Vincent Canby as "a vaudevillian act" that epitomizes a "a craven need to overcelebrate" British plays and players "at the cost of the American theater."
The British born, Oxford educated Heilpern, who now lives in Manhattan, loves the tradition of the British theater as well, if not better, than the next man. What he deplores is the tendency by Americans to "genuflect before the British" and knock even American audiences. Taking exception with Brantley's statement about New Yorkers going to and leaving the theater "anesthetized", Heilpern writes " "every British director and actor I know share this in common: They all pay tribute to the vibrant, un-English enthusiasm of New York audiences.
His own evaluations of performances by British actors range from sky high praise to unsparing accusations of theatrical misdemeanors. Even his more scathing reviews, however, never leave you in doubt that he loves the theater.
As all plays aren't of equally enduring value and interest, neither are the selections in this book. Some work best as morning after recommendations, especially since they are of failry recent vintage (Heilpern's New York Observer tenure dates back just eight years). Unlike the recent tome of Frank Rich's theatrical oeuvre (see link in the gray information box below), this is not a record of several decades, but it is a fun and incisive read.
The most memorable and longest essay is "Empire of the Stage" (from Vanity Fair). It is ostensibly about a memorial service for John Osborne but is in fact a witty and loving overview of the English theater. It concludes with a quote from David Hare -- "It is impossible to speak of John Osborne without using the word 'England'" -- to which Heilpern aptly adds "So it is impossible to imagine England without its theater."
The Mamet deconstructions, "Mametspeak" and the title piece make for hilarious reading, even for dedicated Mamet fans. The range of the Heilpernian humor is in full force in such detours from criticism as "Sleeping at the Theater" in which the author addresses a trend towards the "Zzzzzzz" of sleeping audience members increasingly following the raising of the curtain. To prove his point, Heiplern cites such unlikely sleepers as set designer Robin Wagner and critic John Simon (editor's note: though Simon is more often apt to jump ship at intermission rather than to be caught napping!). Out of respect for the performer, Heilpern insists he himself has never slept in the theater -- except at matinees which he considers "the perfect post lunch, midday doze, a quiet cultural communion and private moment." Ah, well. . . it's a wise critic who prevents you from falling asleep reading his prose by keeping you laughing.