The Long Con

The Long Con

by David Mamet
Faber and Faber, 2010, 157 pp., $22

Here is a fact beyond dispute: David Mamet is the most visible and widely respected American playwright of the last quarter-century. His acid-tongued dramas of the 1980s, which zeroed in on the hustlers and crooks at capitalism’s margins, are regularly revived on Broadway, sometimes running alongside premieres of his newer plays. As a film director, his recent projects have proved less than commercially successful, but he’s achieved a level of Hollywood autonomy that allows him to direct his own screenplays, and The Unit, a television program he created, has run on CBS primetime for the past four years. In 1985, along with his thespian standby William H. Macy, he opened the Atlantic Acting School in New York City, training young performers in a process called “Practical Aesthetics.” Mamet has also quietly written three books of fiction, two children’s books, several essay collections, memoirs, ruminations on craft, and a biblical commentary with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. As a playwright, Mamet’s trademark is clipped, noirish, quotably obscene dialogue that hits with blunt force, but clearly he harbors a logorrheic tendency as well. Whatever his macho posturing, the man sees himself as a cultivated public figure with something to say.

When rhetorical battle lines are drawn, Mamet is the kind of guy you want on your side. For him, the stakes are clear. “Always do business as if the person you’re doing business with is trying to screw you,” says Ricky Jay in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner. “Because most likely they are. And if they’re not, you can be pleasantly surprised.” This dog-eat-dog sentiment isn’t inherently compatible with a liberal humanist worldview, and yet Mamet has long been considered “the chief critic of capitalism among American playwrights” (New York Times) and “one of our great leftist cynics” (Village Voice).

Though declarations from his profane Pulitzer Prize-winner Glengarry Glen Ross—“Fuck YOU! That’s my name!”—are regularly plastered upon the Facebook pages of M.B.A. students, the drama’s sympathies lie with the hopeless old-timer Shelley Levene, a slumping real estate huckster relegated to the bottom drawer. In plays like Glengarry and American Buffalo, Mamet examines the complete dramatis personae of the American marketplace: the takers and the taken. He espouses solidarity with the tough-as-nails proletarian schemers, the men whose hard work and street smarts somehow fail to yield the elusive fruits of free enterprise.

Comity—which is to say, the opposite of drama—is not David Mamet’s strong suit. Harshness is his métier; his self-assigned mission is to be the one man brave enough to chop through the thickets of political correctness and speak the impolite truth. One finds this bluntness typified by the simpl...