This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
It was only a few months ago when it happened.
A friend at a dinner party was talking about some absurd situation involving inappropriate behavior and dramatic twists of fate. He summed it up by saying, "You'd think it was a Mamet comedy."
For over two decades, the name David Mamet and the term Mamet-esque was associated with drama not comedy. Famous for staccato language that's loaded with obscenities, his rough poetry—in plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross and movies like The Untouchables and House of Games—usually flowed from the tongues of serious hoods, heavies or other tough guys.
Recently though, Mamet discovered that his mix of ornate and obscene language, so dramatic when spoken by crooks and cops; can be put into the mouths of more upstanding members of society—judges, actors, and yes presidents—with uproariously comedic results.
Hints of this style were apparent with Mamet's screenplays for films State & Main and Wag the Dog, plus his all-female stage farce Boston Marriage, but "The David Mamet Comedy" really came into being in 2005 with Romance. Romance was a madcap courtroom comedy about a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In addition to huge laughs, it had all the hallmarks of earlier Mamet dramas—a tight, meticulous structure, lots of overlapping dialogue, and of course, seemingly endless profanity.
His next play, November, which premiered earlier this year on Broadway is a similar comedy. It features an incumbent, potty-mouthed American president, Charles H.P. Smith (played by an imperiously funny Nathan Lane) whose unpopular wars and shameless love of graft have left him on the eve of being thrown out of office. His scheme to get re-elected? Replacing Thanksgiving Turkey with Pacific Tuna and shaking down lobbyists for $200 million in campaign contributions.
All of this is prelude to the latest "David Mamet Comedy," which is receiving its world premiere here in Los Angeles. It's titled Keep Your Pantheon and it further solidifies the Mamet comedy genre. As its punny title indicates, Keep Your Pantheon is set in ancient Rome and it's just as zany as Romance and November.
The central character is Strabo, an aging thespian whose greatest claim to fame is that he once played for Caesar as a child actor. He's a bumbling, likeable fool who gets himself into highjinks not unlike protagonists of ancient Roman comedies by Plautus.
Ed O'Neil plays Strabo. He delivers all the punch lines with the grunty gusto he made famous on Married with Children. State and Main's David Paymer plays Pelargon, Strabo's put-upon assistant and another longtime Mamet collaborator, Neil Pepe, directs the staging with fluidity and charm.
What's interesting for Los Angeles theatergoers is that the emergence of "The David Mamet Comedy" roughly coincides with the playwright moving from the East Coast to Southern California. If the "The Mamet Comedy" becomes as much of a brand as the Busby Berkeley Musical or the Frank Gehry Facade, it would be one theatrical innovation that L.A. could truly call its own.
David Mamet's Keep Your Pantheon runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Sunday; November runs on Broadway with Nathan Lane through July 13.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.