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Simple plot of Mamet’s ‘Shawl’ barely registers

David Mamet’s 1985 “The Shawl” is often thought of as one the author’s easiest plays for the average person to enjoy. It’s got a straightforward plot, intriguing moment-to-moment dialogue, and a surprising climax. So why is Las Vegas Little Theatre’s production such a downer?

It may be that director Ruth Pe Palileo has mistaken this script for one of those heavy classics determined to put you to sleep. There’s so much mood, so much brooding here that you have to fight to stay awake, despite the show’s mere one-hour running time.

John (Brandon McClenahan) is, perhaps, a clairvoyant who is, perhaps, trying to help a Miss A (Natascha Negro) decide if she should contest her mother’s will. John’s lover, Charles (Thomas Watanabe), wants to grab the money and run, but John seems to have more on his mind.

Like many Mamet works, the interaction involves of a lot of sorting out deceptions, and things wind up much more complicated than they at first seem.

McClenahan and Negro are both talented, and you would think they would need to do little more than say their lines and stay out of Mamet’s way. But someone has apparently told them to emote. There’s so much intense acting going on that the simple plot barely registers.

McClenahan is so artificial in voice and manner that you can’t imagine anyone thinking for a second that he is a genuine mystic. Negro can be much more believable, but she has two “on” positions: extremely subdued and one-note hysterical. You admire her technique (she’s well-trained) despite wishing a director would step in and humanize her. Watanabe’s role is a pivotal one, and the actor’s apparent inexperience robs the story of a critical element.

Those who don’t know “The Shawl” might be surprised, after seeing this production, to learn what a fun read the script is. But I suspect Pe Palileo wants this show to be important. And I get the sense she tries to achieve that by draining it of lightness. Mamet may be many things, but he’s definitely not humorless.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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