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Her look feverish, her smile too bright by half, Jolly is playing earth mother when her brother comes to visit in David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood. Bobby’s marriage has unravelled, and Jolly, determined to provide the warmth and family ties she knows he’s seeking, cooks, jokes, reminisces, and wraps him in hugs. Still, as their time together draws to a close, the strain shows.

“I was thinking,” she tells him wistfully, her eyes fixed on some point in a middle distance, “about tribes that mutilate themselves.”

Bobby’s best buddy, Joey, is more relaxed. Comparing notes on the girls they ran with half a lifetime ago, he falls back easily into the taunting, pugilistic rhythms of adolescence. But he, too, gets a faraway look in his eye when contemplating the urban job he’s settled for and the more robust labors he once envisioned. “It’s good to harvest wheat,” he murmurs, “to forge.”

By comparison, Bobby’s spacey ex-girlfriend, Deeny, who spends her days behind a department-store cosmetics counter, seems to have her feet planted firmly on the ground, even as Bobby’s lifting her physically off it. Soliloquizing airily on their loss of innocence, she’s sobersided enough to acknowledge that life is unlikely to replace it with anything nearly so valuable.

It says something about the aimless desperation in Bobby’s eyes that it is he who appears to be doing the soul-searching as he listens to these three touchstones from his youth. As played by John Zibell, the character Bobby Gould—who has appeared in more assertive forms in other Mamet plays and is often taken to be a stand-in for the playwright—is the quiet center around whom the others whirl in the three connected playlets that make up The Old Neighborhood. He has a gravity born of melancholy, but he is animated by a spark that isn’t there in his friends and relatives. Perhaps that’s why he got away in the first place. Certainly it’s why this trip to his old haunts proves less consoling than he hoped.

If it’s occurring to you that Bobby doesn’t fit the alpha-male model Mamet has exploited in such testosterone fests as Glengarry Glen Ross, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo, that’s kind of the point of this exercise. The playwright has lately been mining a more reflective vein of inquiry. And in Shira Piven’s graceful, emotionally rewarding staging at Theater J, the South Chicago neighborhood to which Bobby’s come home is the sort of impressionistic place where reflection can run free.

With the playwright’s characteristic stutters and stammers providing realism aplenty, the director has urged her designers to go for something more evocative. And have they ever. Danila Korogodsky’s setting plunks a dining-room table down in the center of a wheat field and backs it with a firmament in which stars flicker like cigarettes the moment Bobby pulls out his lighter. Closer to the ground, Lynn Joslin’s illumination (the effect is of candlelight filtering through wheat stalks) is equally lovely. All of which gives a languorous, almost Chekhovian feel to the proceedings as characters drift into their scenes with Bobby, blaze brightly for a moment, and then fade into the background again—a community of lost souls.

Most lost of all is Jolly, a damaged, bitter woman who has never stopped fighting childhood battles with parents who didn’t know how to parent. Paula Gruskiewicz’s exquisite playing—a bravura exercise in controlled hysteria—makes the character as haunting as she is haunted. If the sweetly plaintive Julie Ann Mendez registers as comparatively unfocused, it may simply be because her Deeny must jabber on so much that she ends up seeming only vaguely coherent. As Bobby’s garrulous best friend and his put-upon brother-in-law, Christopher Michael Wolfe and Tim Carlin come across as opposite sides of a single coin. And Zibell is understatedly terrific as that rarest and most gratifying of creatures: a Mamet man with feelings that can’t be expressed with the fists. Even Mametphobes will find much here to like.

I confess I haven’t the faintest idea why Hugo Medrano decided to stage Lope de Vega’s La Dama Boba (The Foolish Woman) as if the costumes and sets hadn’t all arrived by curtain time, but I’m sort of glad he did. The play is an amusing trifle about two sisters—one brilliant but penniless, the other a dope with a huge dowry—who are simultaneously wooed by a pair of swells. When Love makes the dope smart, the men start behaving like idiots, which is not to suggest that they seemed all that sharp to begin with.

Because Lope de Vega wrote some 1,800 plays in his six decades as a working dramatist (roughly one every two weeks), he’s not the guy you turn to for literary sophistication. But his plot lines tend to be sturdy, and his dialogue sharp. La Dama Boba has two plum parts: the title character (played at Gala by a sharp comedian named Leslie Yanez) and the dashing suitor with whom she falls dizzily in love (played by Carlos Castillo, an Adonis from Venezuela).

They’re backed up by characters who are nowhere nearly as interesting—mostly stock figures from the Spanish comedia, a form Lope de Vega pretty much invented. Gala’s production features a version of the script that was doctored in 1934 by no less a dramatic heavyweight than Federico García Lorca, who mostly tried to pick up the pace and speed along plot developments. The secondary characters remain ciphers, though they’re imbued with one vivid personality trait apiece by a spirited cast.

Medrano has staged the play snappily, and with a good deal of invention. And in Yanez—whose winningly dim titular fool barely starts out with the brains God gave lettuce—he has a real joy around which he can center the rest of the production.

None of which quite explains the director’s decision to begin the evening with actors striding through naked scaffolding in modified street dress, and then to add layers of clothing and set decoration as the play progresses. The device doesn’t serve any dramatic purpose—except for the dopey heroine, the characters aren’t adding layers of sophistication.

Then again, when the dialogue flags (which it intermittently does in the translation that English-only speakers get on headset), the changes do provide welcome visual interest. Scenarist Jason Layka gets to establish how efficiently a bolt of heavy canvas can be made to stand in for a wall, for instance. And if you’ve ever wondered where women in hoop skirts hide the handkerchiefs that period playwrights are forever requiring them to flutter, you’ll know by the time Alessandra’s D’Ovidio’s glittering gowns have been assembled on the actresses.CP