Tribal Mutilation 

Seems like old times -- it's David Mamet.

Apparently it's a trial interviewing playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. When some hapless journalist is set the task, Mamet comes off as difficult and laconic. The sort of guy who wants to let his work speak for itself. Unlike his characters, who buzz and flap, railing against the world and its inequity, usually by swearing a lot. Which can be a lot funnier than it sounds like it would be, and occasionally more poignant.

Such is the case with The Old Neighborhood, directed by Joy Carlin in its Bay Area premiere at the Aurora, an intimate, autobiographical work about a middle-aged man who goes home to the Chicago neighborhood of his youth to try to figure out why his life has taken the turn it has. The Old Neighborhood is a quiet, introspective show for Mamet, yet it lacks nothing in emotional power, especially in the hands of Carlin's strong cast.

Bobby has walked out on his wife, and in three related playlets tries -- through reconnecting with an old buddy, his sister, and an old girlfriend -- to find some meaning in his life. Mamet has described the triptych as "epic," which seems a little rich, but it does cover a lot of territory, from the history of the Jewish people to the painful dissolution of a family. Bobby -- a mild Michael Santo -- is almost a cipher, as if he is the screen against which these other people's lives are projected. That may have been a deliberate choice on Mamet's part. When he reappears in their lives after an extended absence, we get the sense that they've been longing for someone to talk to, someone who knew them when they were young, strong, fearless, beautiful.

Mamet has a gift for capturing the rhythms of ordinary speech, and making characters distinct through their idiosyncratic vocal tics and patterns. Carlin's actors take those patterns and run. Delia MacDougall's Deeny is abstracted and hard to follow in a dreamy, can't-finish-a-thought way, Ron Kaell's muscular Joey blows apart the myth of the pale, effete, scholarly Jew as he insists that he should have born in Europe, in another age, to work a forge; Amy Resnick as Bobby's sister Jolly uses her hunched shoulders and nasal anger to spell out her disappointments in aching tones. They communicate with Bobby in fast, choppy sentences. They make words like "carbohydrates" sound sexy. They ask questions such as "Why do you think kids hate trying on shoes?" Joey explains that historically Jews were superior to the Viking hordes because "we had better things to do than beat up broads and kill things." Jolly complains about the influence her stepfather has had on the family: "One thousand generations we've been Jewish, my mother marries a sheigetz and we're celebrating Christmas?" Sitting over coffee, Deeny reiterates one of the play's subtle themes on the importance of ritual when she says, seemingly out of nowhere, "I was thinking about tribes that mutilate themselves." There's a lot of talk and very little happens, yet it's fascinating. Caught up in Mamet's rhythms and the underwhelming lives of his characters, we get to eavesdrop on ordinary people in a way that doesn't happen often, onstage or on screen. It makes sense that he lets his characters speak for him, because through their words and their physicality they have so much to say.

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