Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through June 28, $20-$55
“What powers exist?” a supposed clairvoyant asks in David Mamet’s The Shawl, the second of two one-act revivals that are being presented in tandem at Atlantic Stage 2 as part of the double feature Ghost Stories. First paired for the 1985 reopening of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Prairie du Chien, which was written as a radio play in 1979, and The Shawl, which debuted in 1985 at the Goodman Theatre, explore the very nature of narrative and performance while posing philosophical questions about the existence of something beyond earthly reality. The evening begins with Prairie du Chien, set in a railroad parlor car (splendidly designed by Lauren Helpern) on its way to Wisconsin in 1910. It’s three in the morning, and on the left side of the stage, a man, simply identified as Storyteller (Jordan Lage), is in the midst of sharing a supernatural tale about ghosts and murder with Listener (Jason Ritter), whose young son (Henry Kelemen) is sleeping beside him. Meanwhile, next to them, two men are playing gin, the dealer (Nate Dendy) on a winning streak against an older gentleman (Jim Frangione). The tension builds concurrently in the overlapping vignettes as Storyteller approaches his fantastical finale and Gin Player suspects Card Dealer of cheating. The Shawl opens with psychic medium John (Arliss Howard) giving a reading to Miss A (Mary McCann), who is seeking information about whether she should contest her recently deceased mother’s will. In between sessions, John shares his secrets with his young apprentice/lover, Charles (Ritter), explaining precisely how he is defrauding Miss A to finance a more extravagant lifestyle for him and Charles. But every time John establishes himself as a phony, he does something that makes Charles and Miss A — and the audience — wonder whether he just might be legitimate after all.
Written by Mamet and directed by Scott Zigler, two of the cofounders of the Atlantic (along with Lage), Ghost Stories is an appropriate conclusion to the company’s thirtieth anniversary season, celebrating the magic of theater. In each play, the main characters, Storyteller and John, speak in slow, calm, meditative tones that offer a stark counterpoint to the loud, aggressive, curse-filled dialogue Mamet is famous for in such works as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. (Each play also contains a plot twist involving a red piece of clothing.) Mamet and Zigler are forcing the audience to pay close attention, to listen carefully to every word, just as Storyteller and John are doing to their respective listeners. Lage and Howard are mesmerizing in their roles, their determined, even-keeled speech reeling everyone in. Mamet, who has displayed his mastery of the con in such works as The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games, keeps the audience on edge in each play, balancing suspicion and skepticism with wonder and fascination, whether today or a hundred years ago, an otherworldly quest or a game of gin. Just as Miss A wants to believe in John, and Listener wants to believe in Storyteller, we want to believe in Mamet and Zigler, in the power of theater to transport us to another world, yet one that helps explain the one we’re in. Individually, The Shawl and Prairie du Chien might be lesser, though entertaining, genre exercises by Mamet, but seen together, they skillfully offer insight into why we’re all in this dark room in the first place.