A 1900s rail car in the middle of the night, and the pre-Internet-era office of a small-time psychic: These disparate locations are the settings for Ghost Stories: The Shawl and Prairie du Chien, an Off Broadway revival comprising two of David Mamet’s lesser-seen short plays, now showing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 through June 28.
In Prairie, a traveling salesman (Jordan Lage) relays a dark anecdote tinged with paranoia and violence as a father (Jason Ritter) quietly listens, his young son (Henry Kelemen) asleep beside him, and a duo (Nate Dendy and Jim Frangione) play cards at a nearby table. Their conversations overlap, underscored by the steady, hypnotic beat of the train, and as the storyteller’s yarn meanders to its chilling conclusion and the card game becomes ever more fraught, the tension in the room builds. As a whole, this period piece relies more on Mamet’s spartan dialogue than on an actor’s showiness—it was originally produced for radio, a fact evident in the scene’s structure and expert use of sound—but Lage’s understated delivery is mesmerizing, and it’s fascinating to watch Frangione subtly depict his character’s increasing frustration.
The Shawl also picks up mid-conversation: A troubled, middle-aged woman (Mary McCann) pays a visit to John, a smooth-talking, silver-ponytailed psychic (Arliss Howard). She’s skeptical but desperate, and he’s convincing, so they soon schedule another appointment. To say more about the plot would give too much away; the performances, however, are utterly spellbinding. Between the hair, the attire, and the bare feet, Howard’s aging-hippie portrayal could’ve easily tipped into campiness, but he toes the line with precision, while Ritter, appearing here as John’s apprentice—and, it would seem, his relatively new love—imbues his performance with a faintly sinister edge. McCann is the only female on the bill, and her role is integral; as her character’s moods flash between anger, sadness, and hope, an underlying anguish is palpable, and it’s next to impossible to look away.
Perhaps because of its length, The Shawl is the more memorable of the two, but both pieces, true to their collective title, are haunting works—superbly acted, and skillfully staged without artifice or extraneous ornamentation by director Scott Zigler. Vividly evocative of that queasy feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you hear an unsettling tale, Ghost Stories is eerily good theater. A