GREAT BARRINGTON — There’s a lot going on in “The Christopher Boy’s Communion,” a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Oleanna,” “Race,” “American Buffalo,” “Speed-the-Plow”).
The drama centers around the brutal murder and mutilation of a Jewish girl by her Catholic boyfriend, and his devoutly Catholic mother’s unbridled effort to free him from jail at any cost.
In a play that leads to an ending that is, at once, unexpected and foreshadowed, Mamet focuses his attention on such issues as the nature of justice, our sacred and earthly belief systems, anti-Semitism, wealth and privilege, male violence, the corruption and erosion of our morals.
The play had a short, virtually unpublicized run in February 2020 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles and was recorded in March of this year for streaming on BBC Radio 4. Now, the play is having its East Coast premiere in a production by Great Barrington Public Theater at Bard College of Simon’s Rock’s Daniel Arts Center, where the show is scheduled to run through Aug. 8.
Early in rehearsals, Keira Naughton, who is playing the mother, Joan, told director Jim Frangione, who also is artistic director of GBPT, that it felt “so good” to be in a rehearsal room with other people after over a year in virtual isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Frangione and Mamet have been friends for nearly four decades, since their days in Boston and Cambridge, where Mamet was writing and Frangione was running a theater company. In 1989, the two worked together on creating and producing “Sketches of War,” a one-night theater benefit for the New England Center and Home for Veterans and other veteran charities that starred Donald Sutherland, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Michael J. Fox.
Over the years, Frangione has directed or acted in various productions and films of Mamet’s material.
Frangione has wanted to direct “The Christopher Boy’s Communion” ever since Mamet sent him a partial script. A production here was planned for last summer, but was scrapped until this year because of COVID-19.
“In terms of its structure and underlying themes, I think this play hearkens back to Mamet’s earlier plays, ‘Oleanna,’ ‘Glengarry ...,’” Frangione said during a pre-rehearsal interview at Simon’s Rock, where he was joined by Naughton and by David Adkins, who is playing Joan’s husband and the jailed boy’s father, Alan. “I think it’s going to have a long life.”
Frangione sent Naughton a copy of the script in January. “I couldn’t put it down,” she said.
Joan is a provocative role in a provocative play; the right role, Naughton said, at the right time.
Naughton has been doing a lot of what she called “fluff” over the past few years. This fiercely Catholic, virulently anti-Semitic woman clearly is a walk on the dark side.
Joan is a woman of wealth and privilege. “Her anti-Semitism has been hushed, kept within the privacy of her Park Avenue home,” Naughton said. “[I find myself asking] what happened to her to make her the way she is.”
“The arc of this play is [Joan’s] life, her story,” Frangione said. He sees the religious intolerance in the play as a stand-in for racial intolerance in our society.
Naughton is chilled each time she draws a connection between Joan and the country at large.
“Hatred has been [subjugated] in this country, and now it is open,” Naughton said. “Every single day I want to break into tears because of what’s happening in the world.”
“He’s a powerful playwright,” Naughton said of Mamet after a pause.
For Adkins, doing this play also was a no-brainer. To begin with, he, too, has known Frangione for some time. Adkins also has worked with Naughton, so, “when Jim called and said Keira was on board, I said ‘yes,’” Adkins recounted.
The key question for Adkins in “Christopher Boy’s Communion” is “what part of your soul are you willing to sell to get what you want?”
“Between his son’s relationship with a Jewish girl and his wife’s hatred of Jews, what part of racism and hatred has Alan been willing to put up with and embrace?” Adkins asked rhetorically.
Among the signature elements of Mamet’s writing is the rhythm of the speech; the markings in the script — punctuation; broken sentences; ellipses.
“The ellipses are like [indications that] your brain is working,” Naughton said. “[Thoughts are forming]. You’re looking for the words; searching.”
“He’s always writing in aid of the actors,” Frangione said. “His punctuation, the ellipses are guideposts. His rhythm is very natural.”
“And when you get it,” Naughton chimed in, “it’s great. I mean, the subtext is always there. It’s in the writing. You know it’s there.”
According to Frangione, playing Mamet requires actors who are at the “top of their craft.”
For his part, Adkins can’t imagine doing this play without Frangione at the helm. “He’s an actor,” Adkins said. “He understands the process; that as actors we have a journey.”