Ghosts hover in the wings of two short plays by David Mamet, “Prairie du Chien” and “The Shawl,” currently paired on Atlantic Stage 2. In “Prairie du Chien,” a raconteur (Jordan Lage) passes the time on a train by telling the story of a man who murdered his wife and hanged himself after discovering her affair with a Black farmhand; while searching his burning house for survivors, the raconteur and the local sheriff see a figure moving at the top of the stairs, only discerning a red dress. In “The Shawl,” the psychic John (Arliss Howard), who may or may not be a fake, is goaded by his boyfriend Charles (Jason Ritter) into steering the wealthy Miss A (Mary McCann) to contest her mother’s will and place the management of the retrieved money into their hands.
Mr. Lage, with a silky, tobacco voice, has nailed the rhythm of “Prairie du Chien.” Mr. Mamet, of course, is famous for directing with a metronome, and too frequently one can hear the tick-tick-tick in the heads of his actors, who have trouble juggling the precise pacing with a verisimilitudinous performance. But Mr. Lage, who faithfully reproduces every one of his author’s pauses, nevertheless speaks with fine fluidity, his rolling basso accented by the vibrating chugs of the train lulling us into a near-trance state. Mr. Howard, too, defines the tone of “The Shawl,” his light drawl revealing what a cynic might doubt—the possibility of clairvoyance—but concealing his character’s ordinary emotions: love, pity, a sense of betrayal.
Short plays often fail because they feel too much like sketches: the premise is simply a setup, the conclusion a punchline. But with Ghost Stories, Mr. Mamet constructs an atmosphere that often overshadows narrative. The ghosts are not literal, and we are left with a sense of a recent past gradually receding into a collectively forgotten history.