In David Mamet's hands a pen becomes a whip

With a build as solid as a meatpacker and hair cut short enough to look hostile, David Mamet seems as if he would be more comfortable throwing someone up against a wall than writing award-winning dramas.

He is a street fighter's Peter Pan - a short, stocky kid who cut his teeth on inner-city Chicago and refused to concede anything. His energetic pugnacity permeates not only his appearance but, more importantly, his work as a writer.

He wanted desperately to be an actor, but stumbled into playwriting after college. Freely admitting he is the quintessential ''angry young man,'' Mamet has fueled his career on tough emotions. Yet in an interview it is apparent that he possesses a sensitivity that decries the nation's dearth of spirituality.

In the 10 years he has been writing, America has sat up and noticed.

His first works of note - ''American Buffalo'' and ''Sexual Perversity in Chicago'' - earned Mamet a flurry of awards and a reputation as a promising new playwright. Then, more recently, the writer has kept a lower profile, turning his attention to film. Two screenplays - the remake of ''The Postman Always Rings Twice'' and ''The Verdict'' - bear his name. But his play ''Edmond,'' which opened Off-Broadway nearly 18 months ago, played to poor reviews and a short run.

Now Mamet's newest work, ''Glengarry Glen Ross,'' may be about to put the writer's name back in lights. Premiering last fall to enthusiastic response at Britain's National Theatre and last month in Chicago's Goodman Theater, this latest Mamet play is set to open in New York March 25. Concurrently, a revival of ''American Buffalo'' starring Al Pacino is on a national tour after a successful New York run.

A sobering look inside a Chicago real estate office, ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' mines themes similar to those in ''American Buffalo,'' namely man's inhumanity to man as fostered by an entrepreneurial capitalism. London critics called ''Glengarry'' revelatory in its treatment of ''the empty American dream.

Mamet's concerns are unabashedly American. Unlike British dramatists who tend to splash characters against a broad political canvas, Mamet focuses intently on modern individual man and his inner turmoil - and how that corrupts and sabotages his relationships with others. In his dramas his trademark is the exploration of man's present tendencies to sustain himself at the expense of his fellowman. Whether his plays are set in a cabin in the woods, a freighter, or a junk shop, Mamet creates a world that seems permeated by urban brutality and fierceness.

Despite expert comic touches that surface now and again, these moments of dark humor are like bubbles bursting on the surface of a dead sea. Mamet relies on nonlinear plot lines and short, staccato scenes, and his real strength as a dramatist lies in his use of dialogue. His characters speak in spare and often vulgar street language, but it is a technique that has earned him critical acclaim.

''Mr. Mamet has demonstrated an uncommon ability to hear the voices of inarticulate America and to limn the society that oppresses them,'' writes the New York Times's chief theater critic, Frank Rich. Mamet's plays are littered with the voices of people which some observers have called the darker side of ourselves. ''I don't do anything other than write down those thoughts that everyone has,'' the playwright said in an interview.

Yet Mamet is not your Everyman. Scratch him and there are small explosions of feeling right here at the pink tablecloth of a thronged Greenwich Village restaurant.

''We are spiritually bankrupt - that's what's wrong with this country,'' he says. ''We don't take Sundays off. We don't pray. We don't regenerate our spirit. These things aren't luxuries, they're necessities for humankind, for modern men and women, just as they were for ancient men and women. The spirit has to be replenished. There has to be time for reflection, introspection, and a certain amount of awe and wonder.

''There are certain things we need to survive - food, shelter, and spiritual security. We can't get along without it. But we've become so materialistic, so avaricious, that our capacity for love has become injured.''

In conversation, the playwright speaks in short, machine-gun-fire bursts, much like the way his characters speak. Ironically, his anger flows together smoothly with his articulated pleasure for old films, his young daughter, and his Vermont farmhouse, where he lives with his wife, the actress Lindsay Crouse, and where he does most of his actual writing.

Born in Chicago in 1947 of Polish-immigrant stock, Mamet early on got a taste of the urban environment, spending most of his younger years in the city itself. A voracious reader, Mamet attended Vermont's Goddard College, after which he took a teaching job there and formed the beginnings of a renegade theater company. At the time, he says, he ''didn't know anyone could actually have a career as a playwright.''

He returned to Chicago in the early 1970s, bringing his theater aspirations with him. Between bit parts, odd jobs, and nursing along his transplanted, fledgling theater company, Mamet worked on his writing. His first play, ''Duck Variations,'' debuted in an Off Loop Chicago theater in 1974. ''American Buffalo'' soon followed - a play that caught the eye of a young director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Greg Mosher, who has directed many of Mamet's plays since.

''American Buffalo'' opened at the Goodman in 1975. Two years later it was running on Broadway. In relatively short order, David Mamet put not only himself firmly on the cultural map, but also helped establish Chicago as a credible dramatic source in America. Despite residences in New York City and Vermont, Mamet still considers himself a Chicagoan, and he premieres nearly all his plays there.

Like any playwright worthy of his craft, he voices invincible faith in the power of theater. And while he is cagey about his own work, preferring to call it ''not much more than putting words on a page,'' he is quick to laud not the theater of Broadway, which he decries as ''Kabuki,'' but regional theater.

Mamet says good theater ''has a tendency to be reborn in periods of national somnolence, and that's the period we're in. If you look to Broadway, you don't see American theater. On the other hand, in the real theater, at the grass-roots level, many new, fine plays by playwrights are being done all over the country which speak to the problems of what's happening today.''

The word ''truth'' is seminal for the playwright. ''I'm not a cleric,'' he says. ''I'm just from the theater. But in the theater you start out telling the truth. You can't live on lies.''

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