sat 24/10/2020

House of Games, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

House of Games, Almeida Theatre

House of Games, Almeida Theatre

The con is on, but you may feel cheated by Richard Bean's new take on Mamet

“I think men will enjoy the thriller aspect,” pronounces the heroine of this audaciously tortuous tale. “The machismo, the twists, the sex.” She may well be right; but if the men get all the best lines, there’s plenty here for women with an appetite for a bit of slick chicanery to relish too. Margaret, writer and celebrated shrink, is describing her own latest pot boiler. But she’s also summarising the plot of Richard Bean’s play, in turn based on David Mamet’s screenplay for the movie that marked his directorial screen debut back in 1987.

It’s just one of many moments in this smart-talking, if somewhat superficial piece in which life and art spot each other in the hall of mirrors, wink conspiratorially and perform a jaunty little dance of deception to confound the expectations of viewers. As in his 1985 three-hander, The Shawl, Mamet is here preoccupied with the psychological nuance of the con and the conscience, and as in that play, his format for discussion of his themes is self-reflexive.

The Shawl, revived at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London last year in a production starring Elizabeth McGovern, saw a charlatan psychic set out to gull a vulnerable bereaved woman out of her inheritance, only to have the tables turned on him. The drama not only called into question our greed, the commodification of emotion and our need to believe in comforting fictions, but, in a set-up where nothing was quite what it seemed, theatrical process itself. The same is true of House of Games, a work so full of red herrings and devious play-acting that to describe the action in any detail would be to ruin its effect. Suffice to say that Margaret, at her practice in Chicago, is treating a young man, Billy, with a gambling addiction and a bad attitude. She becomes intrigued enough by his situation to visit the titular bar, where Mike – to whom Billy apparently owes a hefty sum – is in charge of operations. Sexual attraction and her fascination with the psychological tricks of Mike’s shyster trade – so similar to those she uses herself as an analyst – draw her into the dangerous, high-risk world of the hustle, and into Mike’s bed.

Bean’s version is full of switchblade-sharp lines and the poker-table repartee drips with testosterone (“Son of a bitch!” “Big deal, so you know my mother”). And Linsday Posner’s production is crackingly acted, in particular by Nancy Carroll as Margaret, bored by a life of monied ease and predictability and in search of subversive excitement, and by Michael Landes, smoothly assured as he reads her mind by keeping a glinting eye out for the “tells” that give her away: “It’s my job to be sensitive to your whole body.” There’s a sense here, too, of the cannabalism of a rampantly consumerist society that favours the ruthlessly acquisitive over the compassionate. “Every American, every hour of every day, is the mark,” says Mike – a statement of unapologetic cynicism that holds true for exploitation by banks and big business as well as for the relatively small-time crooks we meet here.

But strong as Posner’s staging is, with its atmospheric Django Bates blues guitar soundtrack performed live and floating through one of the House of Games’ grimy windows, Bean's stage play never feels like more than a caper movie, albeit a highly literate and intelligent one. It's fast-paced, undemanding fun; but it’s ultimately insubstantial.

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