If you go to look at an oil painting and find a pencil sketch instead, you may be disappointed. And if you go to David Mamet's new play looking for a full-scale drama on the scale of "Oleanna" or "Speed-the-Plow," you will feel a similar letdown.
This is a triptych of small scenes from a midlife crisis, outlined in broad, bold strokes. The hand is that of a master, but the image is slight and unadorned.
"The Old Neighborhood" is Mamet unplugged. The hyped-up, macho aggression of a play like "Glengarry Glen Ross" is largely absent. Instead, the mood is reflective, the tone wistful. In place of the striving, hard-driven people that usually populate his plays, Mamet has given us lost souls in mourning for their lives. Shot through with anger and resentment, the characters are nevertheless trapped in helpless resignation.
The evening comprises three scenes, running, without an interval, for 90 minutes in all. They are tied together by the presence in all three of Peter Riegert's Bobby, a middle-aged man revisiting the Chicago of his youth.
He meets, in turn, an old buddy (Vincent Guastaferro), his sister (Patti LuPone) and a former lover (Rebecca Pidgeon). Hanging over them all is the breakup of community, of family and, above all, of the Jewish culture that held them together.
What we have, in essence, are three dialogues. And Mamet is, of course, a virtuoso of dialogue. All of his favorite devices are deployed with immense skill by a superb cast in which LuPone is outstanding. The staccato exchanges. The unanswered questions. The tangents. The repetitions.
It is, though, like listening to a long solo from a great drummer. Mamet beats out the words in complex, often hypnotic rhythms. But there is no melody.
The central problem is that Bobby, the character who links the scenes, is never more than a wry, melancholic presence. He acts mostly as a sounding board for the other characters' woes. Because he is never deeply engaged with them, his journey into the past feels more like emotional tourism than a voyage of discovery. The result is that the whole is never more than the sum of its small, beautifully crafted parts.
Peter Riegert is a remarkable actor. He listens with an un-flurried intensity. He holds the stage like a teddy bear in a toyshop of mechanical dolls.
In David Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood," which opened last night at the Booth Theater, Riegert plays a man innocently caught at the crossroads of an unremarkable destiny.
The man's name is Bobby, and Bobby is one of those people doomed to passively bounce off life. Even his wife (or girlfriend, or whatever; Mamet, typically, shares information with the audience on only a "need-to-know" basis) has to ask him if he is saying goodbye.
And for him to find out, he has to be asked - although we in the audience already knew the answer, from the way he picked up his coat.
Mamet apparently has spatchcocked this play together from three earlier one-act plays, although I think you would never suspect this scattered provenance unless you'd been told.
Only Riegert's Bobby character runs through the evening - and run is already an overstatement of the man's leisurely pace. Bobby, a Jew of indeterminate religious conviction and with a marriage to a shiksa that has fallen apart, has returned wounded to haunts of his childhood and adolescence - the old neighborhood.
He looks up his best friend from school and early manhood. He visits his sister and her smugly understanding husband, and confirms and sympathizes with her bitter recounting of their childhood. And finally, in a bleak, hard-luck cafe, he listens to the aspirations of a woman he once loved.
As time has gone on, Mamet has grown more like Harold Pinter and Edward Albee rather than less, but he has found his unique voice. Moreover, his concept of a play as a journey - often with a hero wandering through like a careworn, careless Odysseus - is very much his own.
Mamet never preaches, never explains, only describes. And the description is presented with a verbal stylization so thick you could stick in a knife.
Yet it is a stylization that cleverly lulls you into hearing a subtext, sometimes of despair, sometimes of evasion or deceit, sometimes simply of an unutterable vagueness suggestive of the long littleness of life.
Bobby - so much in need of comfort - is cast in his inevitable role as a comfort giver. He listens with a frozen warmth, his smile painfully locked in sympathy with others as his needs churn.
The play's music is in a minor key, and the director, Scott Zigler, has heard its plaintive lyricism and staged the play with great economy and flair.
The acting, as needs be, is less self-effacing. Victor Guastaferro does a comic virtuoso bit as Bobby's old drinking buddy, pondering lightly on the weightier aspects of Jewishness, sex and marriage.
Patti LuPone does to a shrill turn the emotionally scarred sister, loaded with a carcass of memories; Rebecca Pidgeon, calm, remote and lost, makes the perfect object for Bobby's built-in inattention, showing that character is destiny. For all.
But both play and playwright depend heavily on the lightfooted Riegert. And Riegert manages to do the play, Mamet and the audience proud.
This is a funny, moving evening in the theater - thoughtful, provocative and making demands of empathy and feeling as uncommon on Broadway as they are welcome. Anyone wanting solid entertainment to be more than just entertaining should turn up at "The Old Neighborhood." It is a far cry from your usual Broadway real estate.
They speak in code, of course, the characters in ''The Old Neighborhood,'' David Mamet's heart-piercing new play. Middle-aged people with shared pasts usually do: boyhood pals, former lovers, a brother and sister who recall the unhappy Christmases of their youth. And when the author who has created them is Mr. Mamet, a playwright whose baldness of dialogue is matched only by its indirection, what these people say to each other can at first seem like a foreign language.
But the code in ''The Old Neighborhood,'' which opened last night at the Booth Theater, is easy to crack. That is, at least for anyone (and presumably that is everyone) who has ever yearned for a sense of safety, order and human connection that the world as it is can never really provide.
In this beautifully acted triptych of short, searing plays, the author of ''American Buffalo'' and ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' has created his most emotionally accessible drama to date. Like his last full-length play to be staged in New York, ''The Cryptogram,'' this work finds Mr. Mamet in specifically autobiographical terrain he had previously steered clear of.
The abrupt, staccato voice that has been so often parodied is still the same in these three vignettes linked by the presence of one man revisiting the city he grew up in. (Though it is never named, it is Chicago, Mr. Mamet's hometown.) But the words, and the pauses between them, lay bare the roots of the raw wistfulness and fearfulness that have always pervaded Mr. Mamet's plays.
''The Old Neighborhood'' holds the same relationship to its author's oeuvre that ''Three Tall Women'' does to that of Edward Albee. It is in itself a sort of decoder ring to the works of a playwright who has always seemed most comfortable in disguise.
Unlike most plays on Broadway today, ''The Old Neighborhood'' cannot be appreciated passively. The production, directed with exquisite gentleness and precision by Scott Zigler, demands your engagement and a concentrated willingness to listen. If you can give it that, you will find the rewards are vast. The show lasts for only 90 intermissionless minutes. But it covers more territory than most contemporary plays do in three hours. At the evening's center is Bobby Gould (Peter Riegert), clearly the author's alter ego and a man who here is more given to listening than talking as he explores three different facets of his past.
In the first of the evening's playlets, ''The Disappearance of the Jews,'' Bobby is visited in a hotel room by Joey (Vincent Gustaferro), his onetime best friend and companion in girl hunting. ''Jolly'' finds Bobby in the home of the work's title character, his sister (Patti Lupone, in a knockout performance) and her husband, Carl (Jack Willis). And the concluding and most oblique segment, ''Deeny,'' portrays the last moments of a reunion between Bobby and his former lover (Rebecca Pidgeon, who is Mr. Mamet's wife).
What happened between Bobby and each of these characters years ago is approached in subtly different ways. With Joey, the remembrance of things past is a slippery exercise in which details (of who slept with which girl, for example) collide.
For the brother and sister in ''Jolly,'' on the other hand, their past, a childhood warped by an emotionally abusive mother and stepfather, is and always will be the present. It is their central defining reality, and its particulars are recited and repeated like a litany. In ''Deeny,'' what occurred between Deeny and Bobby remains unspoken, and the consequent vacuum resonates with an elegiac tone of loss.
A feeling of encroaching age and attendant mortality infuses each of the segments, a sense of shrinking possibilities that brings to mind T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. (Substitute ''Do I dare to smoke a cigarette?'' for ''Do I dare to eat a peach?'')
But the most haunting and original element of ''Neighborhood'' is its characters' fantasies of an alternative world, in which religion, family and erotic love have a formal, enduring substance. Joey, who longingly imagines working at a forge in an Old World shtetl, speaks of a place where people ''are a dream of their environment. Where their lives are a joy. Where questions are answered with ritual.''
Jolly describes the childhood that might have been in which ''Dad would come home every night, and we would light the candles on Friday, and we would do all those things, and all those things would be true. . . .'' Both Joey and Deeny talk with more envy than revulsion of ritual mutilations in primitive societies, practices in which, as Deeny puts it, the ''sorrow of years is condensed, do you see, into a ceremony. And then it is over.''
These characters don't kid themselves. They cannot believe in the real possibility of these parallel lives. Joey may fantasize, in typical Mamet fashion, about killing his family and losing himself in a forest in Canada, but he also knows that most likely he will die as just an older version of his unsatisfactory self. Deeney waxes lyrical about the well-ordered garden she would like to create, but she also knows that she will never plant one.
In the midst of these gray clouds of reverie, Mr. Mamet's flinty humor still breaks through in bold sparks. Mr. Gustaferro and Mr. Riegert are delightful arguing absurdly about whether 20th Century Fox was established by Jews or goys. And Jolly's angry account of her response to a man who asks her if she knows she's driving the wrong way down a one-way street is as funny as it is painful.
All of this is couched in the studied cadences and echoes that are Mr. Mamet's signature and that, in the wrong hands, can seem as hokey as a ''Who's on First?'' routine. But all of the performers, seen against Kevin Rigdon's simple but dead-on sets that seem to float in darkness, find the human heartbeat in fractured syntax. Listen, for example, to how Ms. Lupone stumbles pathetically over the word ''because,'' in describing Jolly's stepfather's refusal to give her money.
Those who know Ms. Lupone only as a musical comedy star will be stunned by the naturalistic fire she delivers here. As Jolly, a part inspired by Mr. Mamet's real-life sister and his realized female character, Ms. Lupone finds conflicting layers of past and present selves in practically every line. She emerges as both loving matriarch and wounded adolescent, sentimental and devastatingly clear-eyed.
Almost as good is Mr. Gustaferro, whose Joey shifts fluidly between jocular, palsy insult-swapping and a bleak, self-appraising eloquence. Ms. Pidgeon locates both the anger and resignation in the enigmatic Deeny. Mr. Riegert, in (tellingly) the most sketchily written part, builds slyly from supercilious detachment to the shocking emotional skinlessness of the play's final moments. And Mr. Willis's laconic Carl, wrapped in an air of long-suffering, affectionate patience, is perfection.
''You ever get tired of this?'' Bobby asks Carl, who has just witnessed yet another round of his wife and brother-in-law's rehashing of the family misfortunes. Carl's classically Mametian response: ''It is what is, Bob.''
That sentence, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, may be the closest Mr. Mamet comes to an embracing philosophical answer. But its simplicity doesn't negate the varied depth and richness of ''The Old Neighborhood.'' Sure, life inevitably leads to a dead end of disappointments, Mr. Mamet seems to be saying. But how fascinating to contemplate the roads that take us there. And, no, if Mr. Mamet is our guide, we don't get tired of it.
Confrontation is a David Mamet specialty, and in "The Old Neighborhood" the playwright takes on that most fearsome of foes --- the past --- and comes out on top. Three short plays under an intermission-less, 90-minute umbrella, "Neighborhood," if a bit uneven, is a mesmerizing trip down the dark lane of one man's history, by turns angry, sorrowful, bitter and poignant.
Making his Broadway debut, director Scott Zigler offers a sharp, spare staging (on Kevin Rigdon's equally no-frills sets) that matches the thrift of Mamet's trademark laser-edged style. Zigler isn't the only one who gets the rhythms and emotions just right --- stars Peter Riegert and Patti LuPone are first-rate as a brother and sister coming to painful grips with their loveless upbringing.
The only character in all three playlets, Riegert's Bobby is a middle-aged man newly separated from his wife and seeking some sort of comfort by visiting his old Chicago neighborhood. In the first scene, called "The Disappearance of the Jews," Bobby shares a drink with lifelong pal Joey (Vincent Guastaferro), and the two reminisce about old friends, sexual conquests, family and youth.
This is quintessential Mamet, the foul-mouthed machismo, banal sentence fragments and staccato delivery gradually giving vent to deep wells of regret and unhappiness. "Every night I pray I can get through life without murdering anybody," Joey tells Bobby, and he isn't joking.
If that sounds like familiar Mamet, the playwright expands his terrain in a significant direction: "Neighborhood" includes some of Mamet's most explicit examinations of Jewishness to date. In the first vignette, the deeply unhappy Joey so laments his emasculating lack of heritage that he actually seems nostalgic for horrors he knows only second-hand. "I would have been a great man in Europe," he says.
The theme is continued in "Jolly," the second, longest and best playlet, that finds Bobby passing the evening with his (ironically named) sister Jolly (LuPone) and her husband Carl (Jack Willis). One of Mamet's most memorable creations (beautifully played by the actress), Jolly is a woman made both tough (she curses as much as any Mamet man) and heartbreakingly vulnerable by a loveless childhood.
As loyal to her brother, husband and daughters as she is resentful toward her recently deceased mother, Jolly has scratched out a stable family life through sheer determination, but not without considerable psychic cost.
Finally, in "Deeny," Bobby has a sit-down with his estranged wife (Rebecca Pidgeon). At 15 minutes, the final vignette is the briefest and least engaging, in large part because Deeny herself isn't quite as interesting as the other characters. Still, her soliloquy on failed romance is affecting, and Pidgeon, as always, is a master at the Mamet dialogue.
So where is Bobby in all this? Playing sounding board to the dominant characters in each scene, Bobby would seem the most passive of protagonists, but Mamet is too sly for that. Like a Cubist painting, Joey, Jolly and Deeny illustrate three angles of one man, three aspects of one life. Neither Bobby nor the audience knows where the character is headed at play's end, but both know where he's been.
Riegert, his hangdog expression hinting at something brewing underneath, gives a subtly textured performance as Bobby, shifting his demeanor just slightly with each interaction --- macho with his buddy, sweet with his sister and heartbroken with his wife. Guastaferro, Willis and Pidgeon lend more than fine support.
LuPone, a Mamet vet, is wonderful as the sister, her hard-boiled delivery barely concealing the catch of a sob. One only hopes "The Old Neighborhood" can survive the Broadway winter to take advantage of the award nominations that certainly await LuPone next spring.