'The Woods' review — David Mamet's play returns as a sluggish battle of the sexes

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

David Mamet’s latest plays, Bitter Wheat in the West End and China Doll on Broadway had their problems. And now comes the first London revival in 21 years of Mamet’s 1977 two-hander, The Woods, to suggest that even early Mamet can make for tough sledding, too.

A vehicle back in the day for starry duos — Chris Sarandon and Christine Lahti, Peter Weller and Mamet quasi-regular Patti LuPone — this murky study in what Gwyneth Paltrow might call (and has) “conscious uncoupling” here set on and around a cabin porch in northern Michigan comes into its own in a physically decisive final sequence.

But the 75 minutes or so to that point make for a real slog, and Francesca Carpanini, the gifted American actress here marking her London debut, deserves better next time round.

I’ve seen Carpanini several times in supporting roles on Broadway, so it’s nice to see this onetime Juilliard student (as, of course, was LuPone) tackling the role of Ruth, whom we encounter in rural environs alongside a handsy boyfriend, Nick (Sam Frenchum), who turns out not to be quite the indrawn, recessive figure seen at the start.

For a writer famed for capturing speech rhythms with a keen ear unavailable to most, the discourse between the two sounds artificial to a fault. Some of their back-and-forth explicitly evokes the Mamet playbook: “Do you know?” “Yes.” “You do” — or so goes one exchange suggesting an elliptical landscape beyond language that not for the first time situates Mamet alongside Pinter. 

Let Ruth and Nick finish their sentences and they emerge as wannabe metaphysicians musing one minute on the ozone layer, the next on issues of contentment, the colloquy often inclined toward the stuff of myth. The nods towards happiness seem especially vexed, notwithstanding Ruth’s coy flirtation as she chatters away early on and the sexual candour of a play, in Russell Bolam’s logy production, that comes with an intimacy coordinator, Haruka Kuroda. (“I want to stick my finger in you,” is a random example of the sexual entreaties on offer.)

The remote abode on view in Anthony Lamble’s set has, it turns out, hosted Nick previously with other women, though you, too, might think twice about removing yourself so far from the outside world once we start to hear of Nick’s tendency towards domestic abuse, alongside a bizarre discussion about the male species’ understanding of women that can’t help but recall accusations leveled over the years against Mamet’s writing itself. Those familiar with this playwright’s timeline will note that The Woods comes bookended either side by American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, two masterworks with not a woman in sight.

Nick springs into life only to be revealed as the kind of male aggressor that those on safari might well find in the woods. Ruth ends up doing an about-face that finds her accusing Nick of misogyny and requesting, come the new day accompanying the final scene, that she make her way home. “Stay with me,” Nick mewls. “It’s going to be all right.” If you believe that, I have a forest to sell you.

A sizzling connection between the actors might help clear away the linguistic thickets but this iteration of The Woods feels sadly lopsided. Carpanini has a terrific stage voice and ready presence that isn’t matched by Frenchum as the two attempt to navigate the clean surrounds of their pastoral retreat following the supposedly dirty urban existence they have left behind.

Mamet claimed at the time that his play may have been too directly about heterosexual love to capture the critics, a charge loaded with assumptions of its own that are entirely bizarre. Suffice it to say that The Woods gets mired in an underbrush of Mamet’s own making, and without a fully galvanic central pairing to help clear a path through it, this long night’s journey into day leaves you more than once checking the clock.

The Woods is at Southwark Playhouse to 26 March. Book The Woods tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: The Woods (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)

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