Of all the themes that pervade the literary mind-set, none is more familiar than the homecoming of the hero. From Odysseus, to the prodigal son, to Bobby Gould - the protagonist in David Mamet's newest play, "The Old Neighborhood" - the idea of returning is a universal human longing.
The American Repertory Theatre (ART) at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., is presenting the world premire of Mamet's work through May 4.
The locale the playwright reconstructs is more complicated than most because he is dealing with issues beyond a time and place - mid-20th-century America - when he was growing up in Chicago. Mamet (who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984) is acutely aware of his heritage as an American Jew, the descendant of a culture that came to this country with his grandparents. The difference between their relationship to Judaism and the assimilation of his generation of Jews into American life is one of the subjects of Mamet's play, and part of the dilemma that animates Gould's trip home.
Gould has come back to find his family identity as well. "The Old Neighborhood" is a collection of three one-act plays - "The Disappearance of the Jews" (which takes on the subject of being Jewish in America), "Jolly," and "D." - staged without an intermission as a triple variation on Gould's troubles.
The strongest of the plays, or perhaps the most accessible, is "Jolly," about Gould's visit to his sister. The two of them, with Jolly's husband, Carl, who acts as an inarticulate commentator, relive the slings and arrows of a shared childhood with parents who cared little for their welfare.
Jolly's constant refrain is the need for reassurance that they have survived their upbringing and their children will be "OK." But Gould - in the most telling line - offers no easy words. "No they won't," he tells her. "Of course, they won't. We're not OK."
"D.," the final part of the trilogy, is a hail-and-farewell between Gould and his old girlfriend, Deenie.
Mamet's trademark paring down of language forces the audience to search for clues in the pauses and thoughts left unspoken as much as in the dialogue. He withholds information that other playwrights would let fall like so many breadcrumbs to mark a path through the forest.
We know the setting is Chicago because of the streets that the characters mention, and also because of the cadence of their speech. We are never told where Gould lives now or what he does for a living. The only mention of his wife, Laurie, who is a "shiksa" (a mildly derogatory term for a woman Gentile), emphasizes the alienation he feels as a Jew in a non-Jewish world. "If you've been persecuted so long," she has told him, "... you must have brought it on yourself."
As for the four-letter words that stud Mamet talk like bumps on a back road, they are uttered with so little meaning that they become part of the local patois.
An experienced ensemble has been cast in this world-premire production. Tony Shalhoub, familiar from his film role as the passionate Italian chef of "Big Night" and his six seasons on the television series "Wings," plays Bobby Gould as a passive vessel: waiting, listening, offering little of himself in return. Vincent Guastaferro as his old pal, Joey, and Brooke Adams as Jolly are particularly effective in dishing out the rhythmic recriminations that alternate between regret and accusation. Jack Willis, an ART regular, is stunning as Carl, a man who sits and waits. Rebecca Pigeon, the original Carol in Mamet's "Oleanna," makes "The Woman" in "D." into another of the playwright's self-centered females.
To be sure, the image of "The Old Neighborhood" is a metaphor for a past that seems to be the repository of dreams. But Mamet is too shrewd an observer and too suspicious of sentiment to suggest any comfort waits back home.