The umbrella title Ghost Stories encompasses two David Mamet one-acts that were produced together 30 years ago by Lincoln Center. Now revived by the Atlantic Theater Company for its own 30th anniversary—it was founded by Mamet, William H. Macy, Glenn Close and Kate Winslet—the productions of Prairie du Chien and The Shawl at the Atlantic’s Stage II are miniatures, yet they bear the signs of Mamet’s hand. They are not just for completist fans of the author, however.
The opener, Prairie du Chien, takes place in 1910 on a train traveling through Wisconsin. As two men play cards (Jim Frangione is the older; Nate Dendy the younger, the Dealer), it’s apparent that the older has been losing and is suspicious of the Dealer. Their play, however, is mere window dressing for the story that unfolds in the other half of the car, where a younger man, aka the Listener (Jason Ritter), sits with a child sleeping at his side. In short order, the Storyteller (Jordan Lage, one of Atlantic’s founding members) enters, and he begins to tell the story of a farmer, a black hired hand, and the farmer’s wife. It is a love triangle that ends violently, but it also has elements that are inexplicable unless one believes in the supernatural.
The farmer, it transpires, suspected his wife of infidelity and killed her and the hired hand, then set the house and barn on fire and hanged himself. The sheriff and the Storyteller rode up and saw the flames; the former attended to the house, where the wife was, and the Storyteller rushed to the barn, where he found the hired hand and the wife, in a red dress, dead. But the sheriff claims the wife was in the house and directed him to the barn. The strangeness of the story increases as the red dress takes a crucial role in the bizarre tale of the sheriff’s demise years later.
Under Scott Zigler’s direction, the description of events unfolds in a leisurely manner, slowly building suspense; for both plays Jeff Croiter's atmospheric lighting contributes immeasurably to a mood of dread and uncertainty. Prairie du Chien originated as a radio play, however, and it depends heavily on dialogue, which Lage’s Storyteller delivers in a subdued manner, sometimes bordering on inaudible. Although a burst of violence—the only one in the evening—brings the story to a climax, the reliance on narration mutes some of the interest.
The Shawl is the more successful of the two. In it, a psychic (Arliss Howard) reels in a woman, Miss A (Mary McCann) as he “divines” why she has come to him and what her problem is. Howard plays the psychic beautifully, pausing and seeming to pull images out of the ether, with faraway looks and soothing speech, always using suggestion to help her reveal points about herself. He is assisted by his protégé/lover Charles (Ritter again), who wants to make a quick killing. “It comes down to confidence,” John, the psychic, explains to him. “They’ll test you. And you can do nothing till you have their trust.” John’s power to read clients rivals that of Sherlock Holmes, but Miss A proves particularly tricky.
McCann (also a founding member of the Atlantic) taps into Miss A’s wariness, yet also displays at times a brisk confidence. The table reading scene is particularly effective, as Howard’s bogus diviner plants the seeds of belief and tries to nurture them the trust of his mark. Miss A has a problem that she wants a decision about, and his ability to read her helps him lead her to it. Mamet has a double twist in store, however, that brings the drama to a fascinating, eerie conclusion.
The one-acts fit together nicely, since both are about what one can trust as true and what cannot be trusted. The search for the truth, suggests The Shawl, may lead to it, but in unexplainable ways. The revival of these one-acts are a fitting tribute to the Atlantic and its co-founder.
The Atlantic Stage II hosts Ghost Stories: The Shawl and Prairie du Chien through June 28 at 300 West 16th St. Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111 or at ovationtix.com; or by visiting the box office at 336 W. 20th St. or visiting atlantictheater.org.