GREAT BARRINGTON — In the first scene of David Mamet’s “The Christopher Boy’s Communion,” one homicide detective asks another whether the devil exists.
A central question, as it turns out, in Mamet’s 80-minute, one-act drama, now receiving its East Coast premiere in a Great Barrington Public Theater production directed by Jim Frangione.
“Communion” embeds an inquiry into the nature of evil and the essence of the human soul within the framework of a story about a horrific murder. Or, rather, vice versa — an approach that makes “Communion” more theoretical exercise than play.
That has too often been the case with Mamet in the past decade. Indisputably one of the most important dramatists of his generation, he has seemed to lose interest in communicating with audiences, turning out opaque dramas like “China Doll” (which starred Al Pacino on Broadway in 2015) and “The Anarchist” (which featured Patti LuPone and Debra Winger and closed after two weeks on Broadway in 2012).
While “Communion” works better than both of those tedious plays, it’s still a work that is more interesting to think about than to experience.
Some of the ideas in “Communion” are provocative, even profound, but they would be more compelling if they were more fully harnessed to character. Investing in story would add momentum and a dramatic shape that would make “Communion” feel less like a symposium on theology, philosophy, and personal ethics (with a breakout session on political correctness).
Keira Naughton partly breaks through the play’s abstraction with a chilling lead performance as Joan, a wealthy woman and devout Catholic whose son has been accused of the rape and murder of a classmate.
There’s no suggestion in “Communion” that the boy is innocent, and Joan clearly views questions of guilt or innocence as beside the point. The mother is simply determined to get an acquittal for her son (unseen in the play), and if that means smearing the dead girl’s character, Joan is fully prepared to take that step, to the horror of her husband, Alan (David Adkins).
The victim was Jewish, and Joan has no compunction about expressing her antisemitic bigotry in the most crude and vile terms. As for her ruthless amorality, Joan frames it as a “practical’' approach to the situation. “Does that make me a monster?’’ she says. “I couldn’t care less.’’
Not once but twice, Joan tells a defense attorney (played by Boston favorite Will LeBow) that she wants done “whatever it costs” to get her son freed. When the lawyer expresses the faintest trace of tactical indecision, Joan immediately fires him. She also expects her parish priest (Nathan Hinton) to unquestioningly do her bidding, up to and including lying on the witness stand, as repayment for the family’s hefty financial contributions to the church.
We first hear of the murder via the quintessential Mamet tableau: Two weary middle-aged guys sitting at a table, with one doing most of the talking. Their conversation contains some of the reliable pleasures of Mamet-ese, that cryptic, pungent, clipped yet digressive style of discourse he perfected in classics like “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His influence can be detected today in the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis and Neil LaBute and the TV series of David Simon.
As Hollis (Kevin O’Rourke) delivers a quasi-monologue to fellow detective Burke (Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon) about the case — and about the suicide of their partner who arrived on the scene and was severely traumatized by what he saw — Hollis gives voice to Mamet’s ink-dark view of human nature. The detective is convinced the family’s wealth will enable the boy to get away with murder.
Ultimately, the outcome is more complicated than that. When Joan has a climactic encounter with a mysterious and Mephistophelean figure named Mrs. Charles (Diane Prusha), we learn just how literally the mother meant it when she said “whatever it costs.”
THE CHRISTOPHER BOY’S COMMUNION
Play by David Mamet. Directed by Jim Frangione. Presented by Great Barrington Public Theater. At McConnell Theater, Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington. Through Aug. 8. Tickets $30-$40. 413-707-2901, www.GreatBarringtonPublicTheater.org