Few people have been so celebrated in story and song as a medieval German scholar named Faust. From the Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe to Goethe and Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain) on the stage and page to Gounod, Berlioz, Boito and Busoni in the opera house, the tale of the man who makes a dark bargain with the devil has proven fertile ground for the artistic imagination. Now comes contemporary playwright David Mamet, renowned for his foul-mouthed liars and losers, gamblers and con men, to put a contemporary spin on the venerable story. Mamet being Mamet, it is a cynical one. There may be no redemption for the modern man. As for four-letter words, the only one you’ll find in Dr. Faustus, having its world premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, is "soul."
The traditional Faust, aged in body and broken in spirit, sells his soul to Mephistopheles for youth, riches and the love of beautiful women. Not so Mamet’s man. A famed philosopher, in the prime of life, he is healthy, wealthy and blessed with the devotion of a beautiful wife and child – both of whom he tends to ignore for his work. No, the modern Faust just wants to be right. "I fear failure, I sicken of success," he confides to the mysterious magician who has arrived to provide the entertainment for a child’s party. Having just finished his opus magnum, in which he claims to have reduced the secret of life to a mathematical equation, Faustus wagers the life of his family on its accuracy and authenticity. But, as any fool knows, the devil is a trickster and the house always wins. The party was over before it ever began.
In Act II, Faustus, lonely but unchanged, encounters his old friend at a crossroads. And the friend is really old, sightless and walking with a stick. He is bitter at the desertion of Faustus, years earlier, that led to the death of the latter’s child and wife. Faustus hardly can believe the passage of the years. Locked in eternal disputation with the devil, here called Magus, for him time has passed in an instant. Against Russell H. Champa’s striking lighting design, he glimpses his wife, a suicide, in the underworld and then begs for intercession from his angelic child in heaven. Neither know him, but the child, in his goodness, agrees to take his case before God and the angels.
Although the Faust story is notable as a distinctly Christian tale, here Mamet, reportedly a religious Jew himself, gives it a Judaic spin, with frequent mention of gates that are closing, a deliberate echo of the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur liturgy. But Faustus, still locked in the prison of his pride, misses his chance and the gates clang shut. No welcoming chorus of heavenly beings for this guy. His hubris is too great as Mamet reveals in the quiet, quick and somewhat surprising end.
Performances, directed by the playwright himself, are uneven. Best among them is Colin Stinton, totally likable, even in his second-act disillusion, as Fabian, the friend. Dominic Hoffman, as the Magus, runs a close second. A last-minute substitute for real-life magician Ricky Jay, Hoffman manages the magic tricks of Act One with aplomb and maintains a nice bored detachment as he works his devilish charms. But David Rasche, in the title role, never really lets go. Worse than that, on opening night, he was unsure of his lines. Granted, he has a lot of them but even making allowances for first-night jitters, it seemed inexcusable in a production of this caliber. Lovely Sandra Lindquist was the wife, better in her Act Two mad scene, and adorable Benjamin Beecroft, who will alternate in the role with Nathan Wexler, was the little boy. The vaguely Victorian costume design is by Fumiko Bielefeldt.
Mamet’s language is poetic, almost Shakespearean, in contrast to the man-in-the-street vernacular that marks most of his other work, both for stage and screen. It gives an archaic feel to the timeless tale, contrasting nicely with the modern sensibilities that inform it. Whether it will endure in the classic canon of Faust literature that precedes it is a question. Only God or the Devil knows for sure.