It is peculiarly low-key for a playwright of David Mamet’s stature to have the UK premiere of his new drama in a weekday afternoon slot on BBC Radio 4. His last play, Bitter Wheat, came to the West End with all the usual fanfare and drum-rolls, although it then received a critical drubbing. It has been suggested that this is why The Christopher Boy’s Communion was staged in such a muted way in Los Angeles last February for a mere two-week run.
Now, the play has been adapted as an audio drama and it is, thankfully, a very different beast from Bitter Wheat – although it still circles around the subjects of male violence, the nature of evil and warped moralities. These themes are refracted through the central, indomitable figure of a Manhattan mother, Joan, whose son, Michael, is in jail after killing and mutilating his Jewish girlfriend.
Directed by Mamet’s long-time collaborator, Martin Jarvis, it has the forward propulsion of a thriller but is essentially a play of ideas over action and sits naturally in its audio form. The dialogue bears Mamet’s signature to-and-fro: one character drops the ball as the other gains the advantage and this tennis match rhythm again translates well into audio.
Joan, played by Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, is both arch-matriarch, willing to sacrifice everything to save her son, and conniving, amoral villain, attempting to persuade and manipulate the forces around her into freeing Michael from jail, including her husband (Clark Gregg), their lawyer (David Paymer) and her priest (John Pirruccello).
She is an unfashionably devout Catholic living in modern-day New York and she comes with an outspoken brand of antisemitism that seems just beyond the bounds of plausibility – she calls the dead girlfriend “this little slut of a Jew” and plots to cast the dead woman as the aggressor. The antisemitism feels underexplored, written in to confirm Joan’s villainy and a useful vehicle of the plot.
What is much more interesting is the exploration of parental pain and loyalty when it intersects with criminality, alongside maternal love and sacrifice, even if these elements are taken to their extremities. Joan is a fascinating and compelling figure but has none of the guilty complexities of Lionel Shriver’s mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin and there is no maternal soul-searching in relation to Michael’s grisly act of murder, which also stays unexplained.
The drama breaks out from the everyday into baroque territory in a Faustian pact at its end and this feels more like a punchline than a final twist. A mother’s love and sacrifice is “a pagan power, greater than a man’s and greater than a god’s”, Joan is told by a suddenly appearing mysterious character, played by Fionnula Flanagan. It is a melodramatic, almost archaic, presentation of motherhood and none of the play’s parts make complete sense, but oddly, they keep us hooked. At 45 minutes, the drama is over too soon, which is a certain proof of its success, but it also bears the sense of a gripping new work that is not quite finished yet.