David Mamet was sipping tea in front of the fireplace in his Chelsea duplex, whose spacious living room sports original artwork and a baby grand piano. In another room the telephone was ringing impatiently, and the playwright was complaining about how unpleasant it is to live in New York. "The city's nuts," he said. "It's a society that's lost its flywheel, and it's spinning itself apart. That's my vision of New York. It's a kind of vision of hell."

This grim imagery is the fuel that ignites Mr. Mamet's latest play Edmond. The Off Broadway production that opens Wednesday at the Provincetown Playhouse has been imported intact from the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where the play had its premiere last June. Like the production, Mr. Mamet was born in Chicago and lived there for awhile before coming to New York (by way of Vermont, where he spent several years). Much of his work is set in his home town, including Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, the plays that propelled him to success in the mid-'70s. Edmond, however, is his first major play to take place in New York, and not by accident is it also his darkest. 

Edmond, which the author calls "a fairy tale, a myth about modern life," traces the descent of a successful middle-class businessman who walks out on his wife to seek in sensuality a relief from some unnameable malaise. He plunges into the Times Square underworld, where he loses his bearings and falls into racial hatred, sexual coercion, and terrifying violence, both as victim and perpetrator. Finally, he is imprisoned for murder.

"It's a play about an unintegrated personality," Mr. Mamet explained. "Throughout the play, people are divided by sex, by sexual preference, by monetary position, by race." Because Edmond allows himself to express his hatred of blacks and homosexuals, Mr. Mamet said, "he thinks he's free, that he's faced the truth of himself. Only at the end of the play, after having completely destroyed his personality, does he realize how incredibly destructive and hateful an attitude that is. In fact, he winds up in a homosexual alliance with a black guy. Because of that alliance, because he resolves those basic dichotomies, I think it's a very, very hopeful play."

The stark, almost hallucinatory progression of the play's 25 short scenes and its proliferation of man-as-animal imagery prompted reviewers in Chicago to label Edmond a contemporary version of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, and Mr. Mamet agreed that his play "has something to do with Woyzeck." But his most conscious model for the play was Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. "I've read that book 10 times since I was a little kid," he said, "and it's always struck me what a great achievement it would be if I could one day write a scene to make people understand why somebody killed."

In Edmond, the combination of Buchner, Dreiser, and the clipped, often explosively obscene dialogue for which Mr. Mamet is famous may seem to add up to an intense and almost relentlessly bleak portrait of urban life. yet the playwright pointed out, "There are moments of real beauty in the play, and I think that rather than being about violence, it's a play about someone searching for the truth, for God, for release."

Edmond is Mr. Mamet's first major new play to be produced in new York since 1979, when the Circle Rep presented Reunion and Dark Pony starring Michael Higgins and Lindsay Crouse, whom Mr. Mamet met and married in 1977. But the playwright has hardly been idle for the last three years.

For one thing, like fellow playwrights Michael Weller and John Guare, he turned to writing screenplays. Director Bob Rafelson hired him to write the screenplay for the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice; he has also written two films for Sidney Lumet, The Verdict (which will bee released in December) and Malcolm X.

"I had spent years trying to get jobs writing movies," Mr. Mamet said. "I was lucky that Rafelson liked my stuff and wanted to work with me, because he actually gave me a course in screenwriting. He would screen movies for me and give me screenplays to read, and then we'd talk at length about them. He taught me that the purpose of a screenplay is to tell the story so the audience wants to know what happens next, and to tell it in pictures. That's basically it. It's a very simple process. It's not difficult to learn, but it's difficult to get good at.

"Movies are basically about plot. They're about the structure of incidents, one incident causing the next to happen. A play doesn't have to be that. It has to have a plot as some sort of spine, but the spine can be very simple: two guys waiting for Godot to show up. I always thought I had a talent for dialogue and not for plot, but it's a skill that can be learned. Writing for the movies is teaching me not to be so scared about plots. In Edmond, things actually happen that cause other things to happen."

Edmond was completed while Mr. Mamet was writing The Verdict, in which Paul Newman plays a down-and-out lawyer who makes a bid for personal and professional redemption. Perhaps not surprisingly, the play and the film tell a similar story from different angles. "The Verdict is a much more realistic drama about the loss and regaining of faith," Mr. Mamet said. "Paul Newman in the movie is desperate and depressed because he's denying the life of the soul, which he knows exists. Edmond presents the tragic view of a man who doesn't think faith exists. He is committing the modern New York heresy of denying the life of the soul."

Some may consider selling out to Hollywood the modern New York heresy among playwrights, but Mr. Mamet said he has no intention of forsaking the theater. It helps that he is one of the few writers in American who makes a living from his plays. And he has, in fact, been extremely industrious -- if not highly visible in New York -- over the last three years.

He and Miss Crouse have worked together on his play, The Blue Hour, which received a workshop production at the Public Theater; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which he directed at the Circle Repertory, and the cable TV version of Reunion. (Miss Crouse also appears in The Verdict.) He wrote two short plays, Shoeshine and A Sermon, which were done at the Ensemble Studio Theater, of which he is a member. And he directed a revival of his play, The Woods at the Second Stage, where it was panned as resoundingly as it was when Joseph Papp produced it at the Public in 1978.

Also during this period, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and the Long Wharf in New Haven both presented highly-praised productions of his early play, Lakeboat. The Goodman Theater, where Mr. Mamet is an associate artistic director, also presented Lakeboat as well as the premieres of Lone Canoe and Edmond. And the Long Wharf mounted a major revival of American Buffalo starring Al Pacino, which moved to New York for a long Off Broadway run.

It would seem that Mr. Mamet prefers to work in the regional theater, where there is less pressure and more community spirit than in the commercial theater, but he was quick to correct the impression that the choice was his to make. "Many New York producers came out to see Edmond in Chicago and said they found it incredibly moving and couldn't get it out of their minds. When we asked them to produce it, they'd say things like, 'I'm going to...Oh, my golly, you know, it's so funny, I left my checkbook in my other suit. Let me get back to you.' And that's the last we heard of them." The production at the Provincetown Playhouse is being produced by the owners of the theater themselves, in conjunction with the Goodman.

Mr. Mamet's frustration with the New York theater world is reflected in the very structure of Edmond. Almost all his previous plays portray a number of characters coming to terms with a common situation -- three would-be gangsters planning a burglary in American Buffalo, an older actor imparting his wisdom to a younger colleague in A Life in the Theater, four young singles seeking romance in Sexual Perversity. But in Edmond the title character makes his savage journey alone, and in a sense this is Mr. Mamet's image of the theatrical artist's plight in New York.

"In Chicago, it's very possible as an artist to be well respected as a member of the community," he said. "The values of continuity and reliability and consistency are cherished by the people in the theater community and the audience. New York, on the other hand, is a society where there are no values, because there's no community, so novelty is always cherished. We don't have a regular theater-going public anymore. There's a very small coterie of people who go to Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway, but a large, knowledgeable theater public doesn't exist. The producers have, in a certain sense, done themselves in by advertising on television, by miking, by putting television actors on stage. Rather than building an audience, they're destroying the audience, so they have to go farther and farther afield. They have to appeal to a lower and lower common denominator of theatrical knowledge.

"There are no theatrical stars anymore," he went on. "It should be sufficient to say 'David Dukes in' or 'Patti LuPone in' or 'Lindsay Crouse in' and attract a solid audience you can count on year after year. But it's not sufficient anymore, so you have to gaff 'em -- to use an old carnival term -- grab 'em off the street with invidious comparisons like 'such and such is the best musical ever.' It's demeaning."

As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Miss Crouse came up the stairs lugging a baby stroller and Willa Ives Mamet, the couple's 4-month-old daughter. She was returning home from a long day's work on Sidney Lumet's film-in-progress The Book of Daniel, in which she and Mandy Patinkin play fictionalized versions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. One of those actresses capable of physically transforming herself from role to role, Miss Crouse looked almost unrecognizable in a close-cropped haircut that resembled her husband's dark, bristly flat-top. "I wear wigs throughout most of the movie," she explained, "and this is what I wear to the electric chair."

Turning the baby over to a live-in nurse, Miss Crouse settled down on the floor to exchange news of the day. "I spoke to your mother-in- law," she said to Mr. Mamet, "and she's worried about you. She thinks you should write a comedy once you're done with Edmond and Malcolm."

"I'd love to write a comedy," Mr. Mamet replied. "I just wish I was funny. You gotta talk about the truth. This is a very violent society full of a lot of hate. You can't put a band-aid on a suppurating wound. The morality of the theater is to tell the truth the best way you can. When you're not doing that, you're being immoral."

New York Times, 1982