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Failed Experiment 

David Mamet's Dr. Faustus doesn't lack for talent, but the wooden performance of its main character kills any interest in the story

Wednesday, Mar 17 2004
At first, you think it's a joke. Actors gotten up like faintly old-fashioned people at an expensive party strut the stage uttering stilted, improbable lines. "Go then, be thou my emissary," says the philosopher, Faustus, to his wife, who urges him to see his son lying sick in another room of their manor. (It's the boy's birthday.) "Bid him allow me to compose myself, after my labor, and I come to him complete."

"Complete, and abandoned to the festivities," says Mrs. Faustus.

"Like a newly convinced addict."


The plays that established David Mamet's reputation are nothing but strong dialogue -- rhythmic, swaggering street talk -- which makes the language of his latest show, Dr. Faustus, sound like a fast one on the audience. ("Ha, ha, you thought this was a Mamet play.") Faustus is a world premiere. No one has seen it before, not even in London, where Mamet's last play, Boston Marriage, premiered. The story goes that Jude Law asked Mamet a couple of years ago to adapt Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus for a modern audience. In that sense the play was a commission; but Law had a look at the result, said no, and mounted Marlowe in London instead.

Which is OK. Rejection alone shouldn't damn the script. Mamet conducted an experiment with Faustus; he all but abandoned Marlowe, and reduced the original Faust legend to its bare elements. There's the philosopher, Faustus, who's finished an abstruse magnum opus (something to do with "periodicity"), and looks forward to glory and fame. There's his Wife (a non-character), his Son (mostly offstage), a Friend who nudges Faustus toward the good, and a devilish Magus who tempts him the other way by taunting his overblown pride. While the Son lies ill, asking to see his dad, the Magus dazzles Faustus with a few simple tricks and hints that his magnum opus contains a serious flaw.

"I cannot conceive such a fault," says Faustus.

"But say if you discovered it," says the Magus. "... If [the work] were stolen from another."

"But it is not."

Faustus swears on the lives of his wife and child that his magnum opus is original. End of Act 1. Act 2 finds him in hell.

The play looks and sounds like not-Mamet, the reverse of American Buffalo, but in fact Mamet's work has shifted away from direct and vulgar realism for several years. The Spanish Prisoner is a convoluted, and pretty bad, Mamet film from 1998 that also turns on something unknowable and abstruse (a top-secret corporate formula). The Cryptogram, from 1995, is a play about a boy discovering the language of his parents as a mysterious camouflage for meaning, not a medium for it. And 2001's Boston Marriage deals with well-spoken but cunningly deceptive New England ladies who might have escaped from a Henry James novel. Faustus has similarities with all three. You might say the high-flown talk itself is a murky cryptogram, like the philosopher's magnum opus -- a puzzle that resists light, instead of shedding it. God knows language can do that, and watching a playwright explore the vagaries and limits of his own medium is, or should be, fascinating.

Unfortunately, the underlying drama feels as stiff as the dialogue. David Rasche's wooden, stumbling performance as Faustus resists not just clarity and light, but also interest in the story. Rasche has a long career behind him in Hollywood as well as in New York, and he's an old friend of Mamet, who directed this production, so the woodenness of Faustus must be intentional. It's also fatal. My wife fell asleep three times.

Colin Stinton brings color and humor to the role of Faustus' Friend; by turns he's imploring, humble, ironic. Dominic Hoffman is actively fun to watch as the Magus. He wears rough shoes, a long traveling coat, and suspenders, and carries a beaten suitcase decorated with a blazing Beelzebub face. Hoffman stepped in late to cover for Ricky Jay, the magician and performer who dropped out of the cast to have surgery. Jay still consulted on a few onstage magic tricks (with Michael Weber), but the triumph here is Hoffman's.

Sandra Lindquist brings no life to Mrs. Faustus, but then you might argue that the Wife is not a role at all, only a placeholder.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's time-unspecific costumes are tasteful and understated, and Peter Larkin has designed (or helped design) a simple set consisting of blue and purple streamers tied up to suggest a chandelier midstage, and cardboard sketches of a grand arcade in some European palace. Russell Champa's marbled, shifting lights in Act 2 suggest a mephitic hell. There's no lack of talent in this production, and I don't believe Mamet has misinterpreted his own play and ruined what would otherwise be a promising script. Faustus is just a failed experiment -- honorable enough, maybe, but still dead in the alchemical flask.


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