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Excerpt from Double or Nothing

(New Yorker, December 25, 1989.)

by Mimi Kruger

After more than thirty years spent living as a woman among men, I find that nothing men have to say (or feel they have to do) about women ever surprises me. Which is probably why I got such a kick out of the Shel Silverstein/David Mamet double bill at the Lincoln Center Theatre. Silverstein's "The Devil and Billy Markham" and Mamet's "Bobby Gould in Hell"--they opened December 3rd under the blanket title "Oh, Hell"--both seek to explore man's moral nature, using the image of confrontation with the Devil. Both seem to suggest that an eternity in Hell is better than a lifetime spent with women. This, in itself, is not a new idea. From time immemorial, men have been trying to forge a link between women and satanic or infernal experience--at least as far back as Homer, whose Odysseus literally had to go through Hell to get home to his wife. My feeling about "The Devil and Billy Markham" and "Bobby Gould in Hell" was, basically, that Homer should be eating his heart out along with Dante, Milton, Marlowe, and George Bernard Shaw.

"Billy Markham" is a long narrative poem that sees life--specifically, human effort and aspiration--as a series of suckers' games with the Devil. Written in the tradition of Robert W. Service (with a nod to Stephen Vincent Benet), it concerns a benighted country singer who doesn't know enough not to play double or nothing. Performed with great showmanship and elan by Dennis Locorriere (late of the rock group Dr. Hook), it's a little like a cross between a Grateful Dead song and Eddie Murphy's "Raw," and that's pretty much all you can say about it without stealing Silverstein's thunder, since the poem's primary virtue lies in the way it builds. You can wonder at the excesses of Silverstein's anarchic imagination set against the comparative discipline of his verse (particularly the way he deviates from his rhyme scheme in moments of heightened drama).

You can note the curious relationship between "The Devil and Billy Markham" and "The Devil and Daniel Webster," whose title it of course echoes. Benet's story, with its quiet, wry, thirties humor, offered a bookish comment on New England parochialism and American values. Silverstein's epic is loud, coarse, vulgar, and shamelessly entertaining. The shamelessness is part of the point; Silverstein seems to want to offend (especially the women in the audience). But the combination of saltiness and sentimentality which characterizes "Billy Markham" seems also part of an attempt to outdo Benet by summing up all of American culture--America's voice, its topography, its sense of justice and picture of Western Civilization--as do the musical turns Silverstein has given Mr. Locorriere to perform, which run the gamut from Chuck Berry to the Methodist hymnbook. You can play along with Silverstein, or you can choose to be offended. What you cannot do is describe "the Devil and Billy Markham" without somehow diminishing it.

A juxtaposition of the ordinary with the outlandish lies at the heart of both Mamet's and Silverstein's humor. The movie they wrote together, "Things Change," was a Mafia thriller couched in terms of a fairy story, and one naturally assumed that in the division of labor Silverstein--the songwriter, poet for children, and writer of whimsical one-act plays--had provided the fairy-tale element and Mamet the noir ambience. The most refreshing thing about "Oh, Hell" is the way each playwright seems to be working in the other's medium. After all, the world of pool halls and con games, where "Billy Markham" takes place, is Mamet's turf, just as obscenity has come to seem his special province. Nearly all the obscenity in "Oh, Hell" belongs to the Silverstein piece, all the whimsy to Mamet. It's as though the two men had agreed to swap souls for a term. Mamet, for his Hell, chooses the comparatively sedate setting of a men's club library (evoked by John Lee Beatty), and in contrast to Silverstein's Devil--all feces and fornication--Mamet's Interrogator seems almost missish; a fishing enthusiast (played with knock-you-dead style and panache by W.H. Macy), whose most salient characteristics are a prep-school speech mannerism and a penchant for flamboyant sarcasm.

(rest of article devoted to reviewing David Mamet's contribution to "Oh, Hell")

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