The story is a greedy tug-of-war tale for a chance at greatness (its definition is also up for grabs). Producer Bobby Gould moves into his new office after a sizeable promotion following years of toil as a film studio underling. His right-hand man, Charlie Fox, has his own promotion of sorts, but not one that will alter the title on his business card. His currency of the day is a sure-fire script attached to a star performer from a competing studio. With Gould's position of increased influence and Fox's hot new project, the two are set to rake in the cashuntil an attractive woman arrives with a competing offer.
On temp secretary Karen's first day, Gould asks her to complete a courtesy read of a Far East-set novel that the studio has no intention of producing. She falls in love with the philosophical tale weaved within a post-nuclear winter world. This is art in the highest form, Karen believes, and she makes it her mission to see the film through to the red carpet premiere. Forget the millions that Fox's project will deliver. She is committed to a higher purposeartand she's willing to seduce her way through this mission.
Mamet's quick-witted, raw dialogue embellishes the storyline, pitting Fox's fierce loyalty against Karen's feminine guile for the ultimate prizea green light from Gould and the studio head. The text requires the trio to volley a fierce verbal back-and-forth, in which each must make a forceful power-grab if his or her project is to prevail.
When I first read Speed-the-Plow a few years ago, I had trouble putting the script down. It's one of Mamet's best. Unfortunately, director Robert Walsh's interpretation does not jump off the page with the force and humor I'd imagined it might.
Scenic elements don't fit within the indulgent, self-obsessed Hollywood Mamet lambastes. Eric Levenson (set) and Jarrod Bray (properties) use a minimalist approach, always a viable option, but their design choices are so stark that they appear constrained by budget. Sparse office furniture doubles as a living room in the second scene. It's tough to imagine that anyone is impressed by Gould in what should offer a home-court advantage in both instances.
Charles Schoonmaker's costumes suggest that director Walsh retains the era from Mamet's original Broadway production in 1988. It's not clear why Walsh wouldn't set the play in 2009 to avoid a dated feeling that lingers throughout. There's not much I noticed that wouldn't work in today's film world, other than the lack of obnoxiously vibrating BlackBerrys on hips (although at the performance I attended, this production did unintentionally feature distracting music from an adjoining room in the arts center; hopefully that has been resolved since the opening).
New Rep's actors do their best without much design support, but they seem to be missing something, too. Robert Pemberton is fine as Gould, but doesn't deliver the charisma the newly minted producer must have employed to climb his way upward. Aimee Doherty misses the chance to show Karen's true colors, fueled by too little of the ambition beneath the secretary's naïve exterior. The talented Gabriel Kuttner delivers the most solid performance of the night, especially as the stakes get higher in the final scene, but it's unclear why Walsh cast him as a slick Los Angeles producer-type.
The big-picture responsibility for any production ultimately lies with the director and the producers. Perhaps my aesthetic expectations for Speed-the-Plow vary greatly from those of Walsh and New Rep's artistic director Kate Warner. Sometimes that happens when different people interpret the same art.
Speed-the-Plow runs through November 7 at the Arsenal Center of the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. For tickets and information, visit the box office, call 617-923-8487, or purchase online at www.newrep.org.
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