David Mamet’s last play in the UK before the whole Covid thing hit was Bitter Wheat written in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Despite starring John Malkovich, it didn’t go down that well; indeed, it would be fair to say that many critics gave it a severe pasting. Little wonder then that his latest piece, premiered on BBC Radio 4 in the middle of a weekday afternoon, somewhat slipped under the radar. However, it remains online as an audio play so I thought I would see if the American writer had redeemed himself with the piece entitled The Christopher Boy’s Communion. In brief he both has and hasn’t.
First the positives – it’s tautly written with an interesting and intriguing central character and quite a neat switch towards the end. On the negative side some of the minor characters are underdeveloped and the whole thing is actually too brief to fully explore the issues which the play sets up. Joan and Alan have been invited to a first communion and as a practising churchgoer she particularly wishes to attend. However, they are also conscious that their son Michael is about to go on trial for horrific crimes against his own girlfriend and decide that perhaps it would be better if they stopped away. Besides, Joan wishes to consider how best she may help her son escape the retribution that surely awaits him when he gets to court. She is not so concerned with the victim or whether what has occurred can be morally justified – she simply wants to get him off the hook because that’s what mothers do.
While this may be put down somewhat to natural maternal instincts, there is something horrible just below the surface of Joan’s exterior. She is a religious bigot of the first order – when asked about Jewish people (the murdered, mutilated victim is Jewish) she icily replies, “We do not live in that world”. And she makes it quite clear that she has no time for interracial or interreligious coupling and seeks to throw the blame onto the unfortunate victim anyway she can. In a series of tense duologues with her husband, her hired lawyer and her priest she manipulates, bullies, threatens and even tries blackmail. Ultimately she turns to someone/something even more sinister to achieve her nefarious ends.
The play is mostly recognisably in Mamet territory with its rapid fire ping pong dialogue which often focuses on the nuances of language itself. Although a horrendous character, Joan is a gift of a part and Rebecca Pidgeon (aka Mrs Mamet) blazes with verbal intensity as she systematically takes down representatives of the key institutions: the family (husband Alan played by Clark Gregg), religion (Father Paul – John Pirrucello) and the law (Mr Stone – David Paymer). All this is played out naturalistically and is recognizably by the Pulitzer prize winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. However, when she becomes entangled with the mysterious Mrs Charles (Fionnula Flanagan), we suddenly seem to have entered the territory of melodrama and this part failed to convince. For one thing it all had an air of being rushed through and despite the aforementioned neat twist (reminiscent of something written by J.B. Priestley) the ending failed to satisfy.
The production is from the company run by Rosalind Ayres and Martin Jarvis; the latter also directs. If that seems a case of strange bedfellows, it appears that Jarvis and Mamet are good friends having worked together on several occasions. And it has to be said that as a director he certainly knows how to get the best out of voice actors for this is, in many respects, a great play for audio. Though structured as a thriller which builds well until the last ten minutes or so, it is more a play of ideas than anything else. And ideas take time to examine and contemplate – something which this forty five minute piece does not quite allow room for. Maybe in its present form it’s more of a rough sketch than a finished and varnished painting. Perhaps Mamet will be able to come back to it and really rework it to show the undoubtedly interesting piece somewhat hidden inside.
The Christopher Boy’s Communion is available via BBC Sounds – click here
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