November 18, 2018

The Playwright and the Magician

What do you get when a master writer meets a master magician? If it’s David Mamet and Ricky Jay, you get an evening of fascinating and highly entertaining conversation. The recent sold-out event to primarily discuss Mamet’s latest novel, “Chicago,” was produced by Live Talks Los Angeles at the New Roads School’s Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre in Santa Monica.

A heralded author of contemporary American literature, Mamet has written 23 plays, eight collections of essays, two novels, five children’s books, two books of poetry and 18 films, including “The Verdict” and “Wag the Dog,” for which he received Academy Award nominations. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984 for “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Jay is the acclaimed sleight-of-hand artist, actor and author. He’s the only magician ever profiled on the television series “American Masters” and is the subject of the documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.” He is the author of a half-dozen books on swindlers, con men and unusual entertainers, and has appeared in seven films and three one-man shows directed by Mamet.

A big-shouldered, big-trouble thriller set in mobbed-up 1920s Chicago — “a city where some people knew too much, and where everyone should have known better” — “Chicago” is Mamet’s first novel in more than two decades. His style of writing dialogue, marked by a cynical, street-smart edge, precisely crafted for effect, is so distinctive that it has come to be called Mamet Speak. Mixing his fictional creations with actual figures of the era, “Chicago” is suffused with Mamet Speak and explores questions of honor, deceit, revenge and devotion.

What inspired Mamet to write his first novel in 20 years? “I’m crazy about Chicago,” he said. “It’s a working people’s town. And I’m fascinated [by] the 1920s.” Mamet said he was further inspired by Rich Cohen’s 1999 novel, “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams,” which traced a generation of Jewish gangsters from the candy stores of Brownsville to the clubhouses of the Lower East Side.

The two longtime friends indulged in freewheeling conversations as they discussed Mamet’s theater training with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, writer-actress-comedian Elaine May, writer-cartoonist Shel Silverstein, Anthony Trollope’s novels and singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. They even discussed the cartoon character  Woody Woodpecker, of whom Jay said, “Woody Woodpecker was not actually funny; he was funny for a woodpecker.”

Mamet and Jay also discussed the similarities between drama and magic. In both, you set up the audience as best you can to go along with the internal logic, and, Mamet noted, at some point, “you’ve just got to ask for the money.”

Only the audience can teach you to write drama, Mamet said. His response to the question, “What can I do to prepare for a career in writing television?” was, perhaps, the perfect Mamet response: “Cut off your genitals and eat them.”


Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written on various sitcom staffs.