'Ghost Stories: The Shawl & Prairie du Chien': Theater Review

Ahron Foster
Arliss Howard and Mary McCann in 'Ghost Stories'
Although far from Mamet at his best, these short plays provide some decent chills.

David Mamet's pair of creepily atmospheric one-acts is given a 30th anniversary revival by off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, featuring Arliss Howard and Jason Ritter.

It's too bad that the lovesick Brooklyn man recently swindled to the tune of $700,000 by a fraudulent psychic didn't have the opportunity to first take in the Atlantic Theater Company's 30th anniversary revival of David Mamet's two one-acts under the collective title Ghost Stories. In the evening's second piece, The Shawl, a charlatan psychic is seen attempting to fleece his client using a canny combination of research, intuition, experience and sheer guesswork, later explaining to his younger male lover/acolyte that he possesses no supernatural powers. But then again, as the ambiguous ending suggests, maybe he does.

Illustrating the playwright's fascination with con artists of all types, The Shawl is an intriguing, atmospheric piece that here benefits greatly from Arliss Howard's understated performance as the psychic, John, who plies his trade with a disarmingly comforting manner that makes him seem convincing even after he painstakingly reveals his methods to his eager partner (Jason Ritter). During a series of readings with the emotionally confused Miss A (Mary McCann), who's trying to decide whether or not to contest her late mother's will, he tells her that he has no set fee for his services. Rather, she can pay whatever she likes, with amounts ranging from nothing to $50,000 offered as a suggestion.

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Evocatively staged by Scott Ziegler, the short work is consistently engrossing in its depiction of the methods by which psychics operate, with John managing to keep his bait on the hook even after she debunks him with a trick of her own. The sly twist ending reveals that Mamet has more than a little in common with the clever psychic who knows exactly how to manipulate his audience.

The curtain-raiser Prairie du Chien is a far less substantial affair. The brief piece is set in 1910 in the parlor car of a train traveling through Wisconsin. On one side of the car are a pair of men playing a gin game, with the younger card dealer (Nate Dendy) consistently beating his opponent (Jim Frangione) and winning a considerable sum in the process. On the other side is a father (Ritter) traveling with his sleeping young son (Henry Kelemen), and another traveler (Jordan Lage) who regales him with a ghost story involving jealousy and murder.        

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All too clearly revealing its origins as a radio play, the piece relies heavily on the creepiness of the recounted tale, with a sudden and shocking burst of present violence as its main theatrical element. But despite Lage's quietly intense delivery, the yarn fails to compel, and the juxtaposition of the two plot elements ultimately feels contrived. The staging, however, can't be faulted, with Lauren Helpern's vintage train set design and Linda Cho's period costumes providing effective visual atmosphere.

Cast: Arliss Howard, Jason Ritter, Mary McCann, Jordan Lage, Nate Dendy, Jim Frangione, Dereks Thomas, Henry Kelemen
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Scott Ziegler
Set designer: Lauren Helpern
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company

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