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Deals with the Devil

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In Part One of Goethe-s Faust, the title character states: -If I ever lie down in idleness and contentment, let that be the end of me.- This is part of Faust-s famous wager with the devil, but it might also be the current motto of American playwright David Mamet. After winning awards and becoming a household name, many artists relax a bit and their output declines, if not in quality, then usually in quantity. Mamet, however, since his 1984 drama Glengarry Glen Ross earned him a Pulitzer and the adoration of an entire generation of young writers, has only increased his output. Novels, screenplays, essays, even children-s- books-Mamet seems to be in a continual state of publication.

The only thing Mamet has produced with less regularity are plays, so it-s of some note that his newest dramatic work, Dr. Faustus-which recently completed a run at the Magic Theater in San Francisco-is a variation on the Faust legend.

The title role is played by stage and Sledgehammer! veteran David Rasche. His Faustus is a noted scholar who-s just completed a long-awaited opus. His life seems perfectly in order until a magician hired to provide entertainment for his son-s birthday party dazzles him with both his conjuring talents as well as his mind. Faustus senses a threat to his ego and can-t help but intellectually spar with this sly and understated Mephistopheles.

Naturally, a deal with the devil ensues and Faustus pays the price. Not surprisingly, Mamet renders this transaction as a con, with Mephistopheles marking Faustus- weaknesses and then hustling him with ease.

Mamet has long been the master of these types of on-stage seductions, and whether it-s Ricky Roma using four-letter words, or Faustus using four-syllable words like -concupiscence- or -supererogation,- the playwright-s dialogue flatters the ear and stimulates the mind.

Like much of Mamet-s work, this Faustus is one that will require more than one viewing to fully appreciate-and perhaps more than one staging as well. Long into the run, the actors still seemed daunted by the language. In Faustus, the actors have to speak in the lofty vernacular of German academia circa 1540. It-s a major challenge, and even with Mamet on hand to direct this production, it wasn-t always successful.

Nonetheless, Mamet-s theatrical sorcery, even if not always perfectly performed on stage, was very much present in the text. This is a Faustus that deserves many future stagings and will likely find a place on the shelf alongside the other great Faust legends by Mann, Goethe, and Marlowe.

Speaking of short plays...and satanic pacts, there-s a new theatrical work about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, appropriately titled, Matt & Ben. Matt & Ben was the hit of the 2002 New York Fringe Festival and last summer it began a successful off-Broadway run.

The work-s two authors and actors, are Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, two female performers who do a surprisingly good job of channeling the duo-in fact, the show-s one true revelation is that a pudgy Indian woman is more convincing playing Ben Affleck than the real Ben Affleck himself.

The show-s conceit is that the script of Good Will Hunting was not written by the buddies from Boston, but rather that it literally fell from the heavens into their lap. This is a clever concept, but instead of using this device to explore the moral consequences of celebrity or the luck-and lack of scruples or talent that often requires achieving it, the play simply goes for cheap gags. After a while, Matt & Ben starts to resemble a 65 minute Saturday Night Live sketch without the relief of commercials. Matt & Ben may be harmless froth, but Goethe-s Faust still remains relevant. -Take my advice,- his Mephistopheles says, -Time is short and art is long.-

Man & Ben runs through May 16 at the Acme Comedy Theater in Hollywood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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