by: Michael Bracken
First produced as a radio play on NPR in 1979, Prairie du Chien is the first of two early David Mamet one-act plays that comprise Ghost Stories, the current offering at Atlantic Stage 2. It is the slighter of the two, both in length and dramatic impact.
Its conceit and staging are striking but ultimately don’t add up to much. In the parlor car of a train in Wisconsin in 1910, two mini-dramas unfold on almost parallel tracks. Stage right, a well-dressed, handsome man, identified only as Storyteller (Jordan Lage), is speaking to Listener (Jason Ritter), relating a tale of infidelity, jealousy, and murder. Stage left finds Card Dealer (Nate Dendy) and Gin Player (Jim Frangione) engaged in a series of hands of gin, with Card Dealer winning most hands.
The two narratives play out simultaneously, although the emphasis is clearly on the Storyteller. Mostly the card players function as background while he relates his tale, with an occasional question from the Listener and an occasional comment (to each other) by one of the gamblers. The story gets told, the game, with a fiery flourish, gets finished, and the play ends.
You can see why Prairie du Chien, with its linear (albeit bifurcated) structure, might have worked well on radio. Even with possible confusion from the dual story lines, the predominant Storyteller’s tale would have driven the train right into the station. But as an in-person visual experience it’s not compelling. All we have is a man telling a story while a couple of nearby card players build up steam, heading for a short-lived explosion.
The Shawl is considerably more engaging. Fifty-something John (Arliss Howard) is a self-proclaimed psychic. Charles (Jason Ritter), twenty years his junior, is his “apprentice” and seeming paramour. His new client, Miss A (Mary McCann), is looking for guidance regarding her mother’s will, from which she was excluded.
John, who doesn’t have a clairvoyant bone in his body, is trying to teach Charles the tricks of the trade. Charles isn’t really interested; he just wants to make a quick score. He chafes at John’s circuitous approach to cashing in and threatens to leave if John doesn’t go for the kill post haste.
What Charles doesn’t understand is that John sees himself not as a con man but as a helper. He may deal in deception, feigning powers he doesn’t possess, but he truly feels he is of service to his clients, not with supernatural messages, but with guidance and counsel. He helps them to see what they really want and assists them in getting it.
He’s a fascinating character. Gaunt with a gray pony tail, emanating a calm spirituality, he speaks in measured tones, especially with Miss A but also with Charles. And, when things don’t go the way Charles wanted, he tells Charles to leave. He has to proceed as he believes appropriate, and he doesn’t want to be burdened by Charles’s unmet expectations.
Howard wears the role like a glove. He makes John so smooth you initially question his authenticity but soon see him as genuine in a contradictory way. He lies without flinching but also without malice. Howard makes his skewed integrity seem natural and deep-seated.
The creative team for both plays is the same. In Prairie du Chien, scenic designer Lauren Helpern and director Scott Zigler enhance the dualistic nature of the play. Helpern creates side-by-side playing areas that are separate but together, joined as part of a single railroad car. Zigler orchestrates the two narratives so that they complement each other yet keep their own space. Helpern also gives The Shawl texture, creating a domestic space for John that avoids being seedy but not by much.
Through June 28 Off-Off-Broadway at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street . www.atlantictheater.org 100 minutes (with intermission).
Photos: Ahron Foster