David Mamet, adapted by Richard Bean, House of Games
Doctor Margaret Ford, a respected university psychologist, has recently published a book on compulsive behavior, making her clinical practice suddenly very valuable. One of her clients, a compulsive gambler named Billy, threatens suicide over an unpayable marker. Dr. Ford follows Billy’s trail into a sweltering den of sin called the House of Games, and accidentally joins a gang of committed grifters, led by the romantically dangerous “Mike.”
The original 1987 film House of Games marked the film directing debut of legendary Chicago theatre auteur David Mamet. It also cemented his reputation as America’s contemporary master of confidence games and baroque conspiracies. The movie’s robust cast and roaming locations probably reflect a director unsure whether he’d ever get a second bite of the apple, but Richard Bean’s 2010 stage adaptation has a small cast and intimate two-set design.
Early scenes mirror Mamet’s original screen images: Dr. Ford in her office, then into the gambling den, where she pierces a penny-ante swindle. But from there, Bean’s adaptation abandons Mamet’s events, while maintaining his “long con” themes. Where Mamet spends many long scenes on Mike giving Ford a walking tour of the underworld, Bean has Mike invite her into his world. Before long, she thinks she’s become one of them.
Bean divides the play into ten scenes—following common British theatre conventions today (this play debuted at London’s Almeida Theatre), act breaks are variable for a particular theatre’s needs. The transition between Margaret’s clean, elevated, sunlit clinic, and Mike’s sordid netherworld, plays up the way she believes she can walk between settings. She could stop events whenever she wants. She’s just become addicted to class tourism.
This also goes toward the re-staging of Mamet’s original story. Bean pretty accurately manages to recreate the speech rhythms which made Mamet famous (critics praise Mamet’s fragmentary dialogue as “realistic,” but many theatre conservatories have dedicated courses in acting Mamet, because he’s so difficult). While the grifters speak the disconnected “street English” Margaret’s cultural prejudices demand, she uses complete sentences, unable to digest dangerous ideas apart from grammar.
That makes Margaret’s ultimate resolution of Mike’s betrayal more satisfying than the original movie. If you haven’t seen it, avert your eyes now: in the movie, Margaret uses what Mike taught her to separate him from his companions, shoot him, and get away scot-free. Satisfying, but blunt. Not here. This Margaret leaves Mike alive to face the humiliation of knowing he got out-gamed by what should’ve been a routine mark.
Many David Mamet plays, and more recently his movies, focus on themes of class tourism. This probably reflects internalized guilt: born to middle-class Chicago Jewish comfort, Mamet nevertheless embraced a youthful fondness for risk-taking. He made and lost stacks of cash playing poker, money he could afford to gamble with in ways his fellow players often couldn’t. Stories like this suggest struggles, still unresolved, with petit-bourgeois white contrition.
The greater intimacy inherent in Bean’s adaptation, however, actually changes Mamet’s character interpretations. Margaret’s journey into crime becomes something different, leading to a different payoff: rather than seeking vengeance, she finds ways to turn the tables by revealing hidden truths. By the play’s conclusion, her identity has truly, irrevocably, transformed. Mamet equivocates this point, but Bean wholly declares you can’t linger in the underground without getting some on you.
In Bean’s rendering, this story isn’t about thrill-seeking and guilt. It’s about how humans exist in constant community, taking pieces of our identity from one another. It’s about how we rely upon trust to make even the most basic arrangements, and how even the most inveterate liars need to trust one another, at least sometimes. And it’s about how, when we let others inside our defenses, they never truly leave.
It takes brass to change David Mamet. As one of American theatre’s few artists who actually makes a living writing, Mamet has influence few living craftsmen share. Yet in translating Mamet’s immense, geographically sprawling story to stage confines, Bean picks out psychological implications even Mamet possibly missed. The movie and the play make interesting companion pieces. And Mamet makes audiences question who we think we are.