Untitled – A Mamet Impersonation

This was my winning submission to American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) Mamet Writing Competition. The charter was to write a three-page scene in the style of Mamet within the stated parameters of one the categories. I chose, “A scene depicting a family (fictional or non-fictional) facing an ethical crisis, written in the style of Mamet (i.e. the Simpson’s or the Bush family).”

Two men are standing behind a counter in a diner. The Father, about 60, reads a newspaper on the counter. The Son, half his age, busies himself with the coffee machine and then the cash register before turning to his parent.

Son: (abruptly) Here’s the thing.

The Father looks up.

Son: Three men walk into a hardware store and buy a machine – a coffee machine – for $30 from the kid behind the counter. They each pay ten dollars. They leave. The owner comes back. He sees the receipt, turns to the clerk and – here it is – says, “That machine – that coffee machine – is $25. You go find the guy, pay him back.”

The Son is gesturing with pens and a receipt pad.
Son: With me?

Father: Right.

Son: The clerk takes five dollars, takes five ones, and leaves. He’s thinkin’, the clerk, “Can’t divide five three ways, and here’s me runnin’ after ’em.” So he finds ’em, the guys, gives each of ’em a dollar, pockets $2 for himself, hmm? Done deal. No funny change, no one the wiser.

Father: Right.

Son: Now here’s the thing. Three times nine, right? Each guy paid nine now – is 27. But $30 – the total price, you with me? – minus $2 – the clerk’s take – is 28. See?

Father: See what?

Son: How does it make sense? 27 or 28. It should work out. You see?

Father: All right.

The Father goes back to reading his paper with no change in demeanor. A phone rings. The son disappears halfway through the doorway to the kitchen, stage left, picks up the phone on the wall.

Son: No. Nope. We’re open… We’re twenty-four hours… What? No….we don’t close…at any particular…no, twenty-four hours in a row… No, that means we’re always… Right. Always here… No, that’s OK.

Beat. The son reappears in the same doorway.

Son: It’s about character.

Father: Hello again.

Son: I say, it’s about character, not about math. The math is tricky, a small trick at that. You’ve missed the point: the clerk is a thief, an opportunist.

Father: I haven’t missed… (straightening, turning from his paper)

Son: You have. It’s about character. (After this last statement he points his finger at the Father.) A certain kind of character. You gotta work for your place.

Father: That’s what I believe.

Son: Work’s the thing. But it’s not enough. That’s what I’m saying. But the clerk – the man who doesn’t just work for it – he still profits. It’s not wrong.

Father: He does work. There is nothing harder, being a good clerk. He should have stuck there.

Son: But he’s not a good clerk. My point. He’s a thief. In this story, he’s a thief.

Father: Still, he’s a clerk and that’s hard. He might…

Son: Yeah, that’s the goddam mess of it, the curse of working: if you don’t succeed, you didn’t work hard enough. Your fault, no matter how hard you worked, that you didn’t succeed.

Father: That…

Son: Couldn’t it be that you did work hard and still didn’t get ahead, like this guy, the clerk? His thieving is no reflection on his clerking, the hard life of a clerk. You said it yourself.

Father: (Serious, turning to the Son.) It is. It’s the opposite of it.

Son: Nope, no…it’s the result of it. You can’t get around it, you’ll always lose. It’s a catch 22, hopeless: you’re down ’cause you blew it somehow. (Beat.) You know what it is?

Father: Nope.

Son: It’s the American Dream. You can be a goddam clerk, you can be a loser, a drunk: you can still get ahead. The all-American, the optimist, the smorgasbord catch 22. It’s what keeps us here, separates us from the animals, from the socialists. It’s what makes him a clerk ‘ those guys on the bottom ‘ the poor guys who wanna win that lottery, who think they can be President. Work a lifetime hoping American good luck’ll kick in and save ’em, that someone’ll recognize their goodness and bring ’em up. No fucking way. No fucking way.

Father: There’s work, I’m saying…

Son: No. That’s just messing with it, saying you’re successful ’cause you already worked as hard as you did. Bullshit. Opportunism, I’m telling you. The clerk, he’s the guy who broke the code. He’s getting ahead as he can. That’s what I’m saying, what I’ve been saying – that you can’t get ahead without…

Father: Theft? (Losing interest again, turning back to his paper.)

Son: It isn’t cheating. He’s gotta look after his interests. He needs his two bucks. He’s the American Dream, that guy. He’s the dream we all have…

Father: …of stealing.

Son: No. No. Of working. Of getting forward with it, getting away with it. Getting away. Moving along in an unfair…

Father: Not impossible that he could get ahead without cheating. Not impossible.

Son: It’s not impossible but it’s more than work. A different kind of work. That’s my point.

Father: The crime isn’t work, it’s crime.

Son: No, it’s not good work. By your definition, because you said so. But we’re ignoring the quality of the theft, the ingenious math that I’m standin’ here running through with you: the math that doesn’t make sense, however you run it. The math covers the crime. Plus, he might’ve had to hustle to get to the guys. How’d he find the guys? All three guys? That’s my point. He worked harder at the crime than at the sale, but the crime’s where the profit went. And who’s to say it’s a crime?

Father: Me.

Son: Yeah, well, good thing you weren’t tellin’ the joke. Here…

Father: Good thing. You’re a goddam criminal. I wouldn’t trust you to tell a joke.

Son: …here’s the last fact of it: it’s wrong. The whole thing’s wrong. You’re looking at it wrong. (He lays out the math in saucers and napkins on the counter, a mess.) It’s not three guys times nine dollars is twenty-seven versus thirty dollars minus two dollars for the kid is twenty-eight. That’s the goddam beauty of it! Start from the other end – and here it is – which is fucking brilliant, just goddam brilliant.Take the cost of the thing, the machine – twenty-five, right? – and add on the discount for the guys plus the profit for the kid. Twenty-five plus three plus two. That’s what equals thirty. It’s all how you tell it. The kid’s in the clear ’cause it all works together: discount coffee plus refund plus something extra for the guy making it all happen. There’s nothing wrong in that. (Finished, he clears the counter with conviction.)

Father: It’s all in how you tell it. Yup yup. (Re-engrossed in newspaper.)

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