Sunday, March 09, 2003

The Old Neighborhood (Dobama)

'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD' tedious at Dobama

It is reported that when Joyce Casey, the Artistic Director of Dobama Theatre, read the script of 'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD' she was “lukewarm” about producing it. Casey should have stuck to her gut-level reaction. It is not a good sign when opening night audience members, many of whom are reviewers and friends of the cast, are reading their programs during the production rather than concentrating on the stage.

'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD' is a three-part memory play. It concerns Bobby Gould’s return and reconnection with the people and places of his past, a past that centered in Chicago’s Rogers Park area, once the center of the city’s Jewish population. It’s the place where the old shoe store, the movie theatre, the high school, the cemetery, and the drug store once stood. It’s the place where he grew up and laid the foundation for who he was to become. It is the place he hasn’t seen in years. The play explores conversations with his high school best friend, his sister and a former girlfriend.

Though David Mamet’s script has a strong underbelly of the role our past has on our lives, it is a talky, slow moving, often abstract play. Under Scott Plate’s cautious directing and slow pacing, 'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD' becomes a tedious theatrical experience.

There is generally a lack of contact between the cast members and their motivations. The audience never gets swept up into the story or the real angst of the characters. There is a lot of surface in the performances but not a lot of emotional digging. To be successful, the play needs an emotional bonding between the actors of each of the characters. There must also be an understanding, by both the director and the cast, of the ethnic underpinning and the generational conflicts that help set the characters on their life paths. This connection seems missing.

This is not to say that there are no humorous or compelling moments. There are. It’s just that they are far outnumbered by the long pauses, low-level emotional output, and tentative acting.

Mamet is known for creating demonic males thrusting words like hand grenades in each other’s faces. He is noted for casting an astute eye on the difficulties Americans males encounter in establishing their manhood. Mamet is a proponent of the thesis that the second generation seeks to forget the past experiences of their ancestors. All of these themes emerge in 'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD.' He is also noted for writing playable scenes that actors can get their teeth into. If that is in this script it did not translate onto the stage.

Capsule judgement: The viewer of 'THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD' will probably ask whether the problem with the production lies with the writing, the acting or the directing. I vote for all three!