The great disparity in the critical reaction to Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, now playing Off Broadway, serves to remind us that opinions are just that–neither right nor wrong, but rather well argued or not. However, if one mark of the true artist is the willingness to take risks and to venture into uncharted territory, then Churchill is the genuine article. For more than two decades, almost every offering by this fiercely political British playwright has been innovative and intellectually stimulating.

Churchill quickly established herself more than twenty years ago with Cloud Nine. In this early work, the characters age just twenty-five years between Acts One and Two, even though the first is set in British colonial Africa in the 1880s and the second in a London park a century later. To add that Cloud 9 calls for its cast members to cross-dress should begin to suggest one of the play’s implicit messages: that in spite of our self-proclaimed sexual liberation, our generation is every bit as confused about gender issues and sexuality as the Victorians were.

Churchill’s theatrical imagination took even greater historical leaps in her subsequent play, Top Girls (1982). By bringing together a fantastic assortment of significant figures at the same dinner table (including a thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan, a Victorian female explorer, the ninth-century Pope Joan and a very contemporary woman who relinquished nearly everything worthwhile in her climb up the corporate ladder), the provocative Churchill got to have her feminist cake and criticize it too.

While continuing to defy categorization, the more mature Churchill has discovered novel ways of saying more with less. The second half of Blue Heart–which was imported to BAM three years ago with its British cast intact–concerns a 41-year-old con artist claiming to be the son of various mothers who had given up their baby boys for adoption. As he meets with each of these elderly women in hopes of hoodwinking them, the play’s language progressively breaks down. More specifically, the words “blue” and “kettle” increasingly creep into their conversation, in place of more logical words. In the end, the characters’ language is reduced to mere syllables, but they continue to communicate as if they understand one another. Churchill’s striking linguistic experiment pays off handsomely, as we realize that language may be used equally to misinterpret what others say, according to what we wish to hear.

Far Away also features an uncommonly economical use of words. In a sense, the story has to be pieced together by what is not said–between the lines, as it were–even as it reveals itself to us gradually. Though no time frame or setting is given for the hourlong play, we’re told in the program that “several years” pass between each of three brief acts, which culminate in what would appear to be the near future. But it doesn’t take long to recognize Far Away for what it is: an urgent wake-up call regarding the horrific, totalitarian conditions that seem to be proliferating all over the world.

The audience is greeted by a painted curtain, which depicts a storybook cottage poised on the edge of a brook. The attendant sounds of gurgling water and chirping birds contribute to the idyllic effect–which is as deliberately deceptive as the play’s first scene. The curtain rises to reveal Harper, a middle-aged woman, in a comfy old easy chair, lulling herself to sleep with a song. It’s 2 am and dark inside the house, when Harper is jolted awake by the appearance of her young visiting niece, Joan, who can’t fall sleep.

Harper offers Joan extra blankets and warm milk, but the dazed girl is too frightened to be appeased by such consolations. A shriek had compelled Joan to slip out of her bedroom window earlier that night. It was only an owl, Harper tells her. But Joan slowly divulges that she heard people whimpering in a parked truck in the yard. She also noticed blood on the ground, and eventually observed her uncle in a shed, beating people with a metal rod.

While acknowledging that Joan “found out something secret…something you shouldn’t know,” Harper claims that Joan’s uncle was helping these people escape, but that some of them proved to be traitors who needed to be disciplined. With a nervous smile playing around her mouth, Frances McDormand, in a masterful performance, helps achieve the desired, ambiguous effect in Harper’s dissembling, which Churchill’s script reveals with great subtlety.

It’s more subtle still–mysterious, even–how the playwright makes us aware that such deceptions foisted on an impressionable child also help to inure the adult Joan to the world in which she lives. Though she avoids making the point directly, Churchill’s chilling message is that we, too, are deceived by those in authority, and are becoming dangerously indifferent to the encroaching hazards that abound around us, contributing all the more to our peril.

In the play’s second sequence, Joan is a college graduate with a new job in a hat factory. Her colleague Todd, a six-year veteran of the hat-making enterprise, explains that they used to have two weeks to create gorgeous headwear for people to don in government-sponsored parades; but now that the parades have become more frequent, they have only one week. Certain remarks in their seemingly casual banter both intrigue and baffle us, such as when Todd says he likes watching “the trials” on TV every night. The grisly connections between the trials, the parades and the hats become only too clear when the rear wall of the stage rises and we’re shown an actual procession.

The whole world is mobilized and at war in Far Away‘s third segment. It’s not just people and nations who battle, but animals, insects, vegetation, minerals. We learn, for instance, that “the cats have come in on the side of the French,” and that mallards “commit rape, and they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans.” Wasps, butterflies, pins, grass and hairspray have also been pressed into service by one side or the other. The weather is involved, and reportedly cooperating with the Japanese. Even musicians and dentists have formed international coalitions, and “all children under 5″ are to be killed. Given such perilous times, Harper doesn’t know what to think about Todd: Though he married Joan some years ago, he now seems to be for the crocodiles, and he isn’t aware that the deer switched sides a few weeks ago–all of which makes Harper suspect that he’s joined the enemy clandestinely.

Churchill’s poetic truth becomes all the more alarming as we realize how perfectly the absurdist elements she employs actually allegorize the inexorable, hostile direction in which our world seems to be moving. Not since Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner has there been as potent–or disturbing–a drama about the plight of the world today.

The play’s power to move us is marvelously reinforced by the expert hand of Stephen Daldry, who directed the original London production two years ago, as well as the current one at the New York Theater Workshop (through January 18). McDormand receives solid ensemble support from Marin Ireland as Joan and from Chris Messina as Todd. (Alas, typical of child actors, Alexa Eisenstein never lets us forget that she’s reciting her lines as the younger Joan, in the opening scene.) The fifty or so extras who drudge along in both drab prison garb and fanciful hats make for a gruesome stage image that cannot easily be shaken.

With American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet has written at least two plays that will probably endure for the ages. Each of those works offers a scathing view of the backstabbing tendencies of capitalism: In the first, several petty thieves betray one another as their scheme to steal a rare coin goes awry. In the second, a team of cutthroat real-estate salesmen undermine themselves in the course of competing with each other.

Both American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross also feature the terse, ultrarealistic and frequently uncouth dialogue by which Mamet established himself as a playwright to be reckoned with in the mid-1970s, with The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. But to judge from the majority of his ensuing plays–not to mention his essays and other prose–Mamet is a celebrity writer with a supremely inflated reputation who is resting on his macho laurels.

When Mamet’s new play, Boston Marriage, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge three years ago, it was welcomed as an elegant, Oscar Wildean departure from the crude ethos that marks the bulk of his work. But judging from a London production last winter, as well as the play’s current mounting by the Public Theater (nearing the end of its run), Mamet has indeed managed to mimic Wilde’s aphoristic style–without capturing his indispensable wit.

The term “Boston marriage” is an old-fangled euphemism for a lesbian couple. Welcome to the fashionable Victorian parlor of Anna, who’s about to learn that her lover, Claire, is smitten with a much younger girl. Act I ends with the overly contrived discovery that this young girl is the daughter of a married man with whom Anna has been having a longstanding affair. A subplot regarding a telltale necklace is straight out of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and there are ongoing exchanges with Anna’s Scottish maid that can only be called surreal. But as Anna and Claire hurl empty epigrams at each other, the plot proves as diaphanous as their highfalutin talk.

Given their brittle, snobbish airs, it may seem, at first, as if Gwendolen and Cecily have stepped out of The Importance of Being Earnest to wind up in this Wilde-lite spinoff. (Neil Simon wrote a much more winning parody of those two fluttery creatures of Wilde’s, who appear as the subordinate Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple.) But apart from their upper-crust frills, furbelows and pretensions, Anna and Claire are really cut from the same cloth as Mamet’s more customary bottom-feeders and scheming hucksters: Though Anna eventually consents to help Claire pursue her new love interest, she insists on manipulating the seduction as well as being a voyeur. Then, with an outrageous authorial fillip, Anna and Claire outfox each other in the end.

Even if the play’s language is a departure for Mamet, it mostly comes across as stilted–as arch and derisive as his attitude toward his two protagonists. Indeed, the contemporary theatergoer may feel greater need for an antiquarian dictionary than a program, in order to follow the story. Consider Anna’s telling us: “He has been discovered in a malversation, do you see, of his wife’s jewelry. And how was it discovered? His daughter came to a depraved and illicit assignation and spied it draped round the neck of her intended’s tribad paramour.” Nor can Mamet resist his famous penchant for sprinkling profanity and vulgarity throughout the script, which makes Anna and Claire seem even more inauthentic as characters.

Under Karen Kohlhaas’s uneven direction, Kate Burton almost renders a credible Anna–and certainly improves on Zoe Wanamaker’s one-dimensional version in London last year. But even Burton’s juicy performance can’t put enough flesh on such a skeletal character. Nor does she receive much help from Martha Plimpton, who condescends to her character of Claire, or from Arden Myrin, who simply seems lost as the housemaid. This first New York production of the play is, at least, always pretty to look at, with Paul Tazewell’s gorgeous period costumes and Walt Spangler’s handsome bonbon of a set. But if, as many have conjectured, Boston Marriage was written to combat the notion that Mamet is a misogynistic writer who previously avoided tackling female characters, it has produced the opposite effect.

While Mamet often focuses on con men in both his plays and his films, he’s offered up evidence that he is something of one himself. As relayed by John Lahr in a profile of Mamet that appeared in The New Yorker, a colleague referred to his “intellectual Barnumism” and once told another interviewer, “[Mamet] would be talking–‘As Aristotle said, blah blah.’ Or, ‘I was rereading Kierkegaard the other day.’ I remember saying, ‘Aristotle never said that! You weren’t reading Kierkegaard!’ And he’d go, ‘Sshhh! Don’t tell anyone.'”

In that same New Yorker profile, Mamet described his playwriting method: “The trick is leaving out everything except the essential…. the more you leave out, the more we see ourselves in the picture, the more we project our own thoughts on it.” This may have been true of American Buffalo. And it is definitely true of Churchill’s Far Away. But in terms of the bluff and bluster in Boston Marriage, as Wilde himself wrote, “I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.”