And, like the Wallendas, the safety net for these self-assured young Hollywood producers gets rolled-up and hauled away, for added drama. It happens when a lovely young secretary begins asking some awkward questions: "Why does Hollywood have to make bad movies?" being chief among them. Sigrid Sutter is Karen the outsider, a temporary stenographer who gets handed an over-wrought novel that might possibly be turned into an evanescent art house film. Unless, of course, Michael James Reed, as bare-knuckles, back-lot conniver Charlie Fox, can rely on the bonds of Hollywood's old boy network to turn it all around to his own good fortune.
Mr. Reed has a blaze inside that leaves him dripping in sweat most of the way through this 1988 drama, filled with the usual near-misses of dialog, as the characters try to make their trapeze-like connections, well over the heads of their movie-going public. He spends a good 2/3rds of the play cosseting and cajoling Christopher Hickey, as Bobby Gould, a junior executive at an unnamed studio out west. Bobby is more of a human super-computer, processing incredible amounts of informationweighing Charlie's package-deal movie, featuring some of Hollywood's biggest names, against his temp secretary's beautiful and impassioned plea for that art house film.
It's Reed's incomparable anguish and excitement that speeds this play to its rough-and-tumble conclusionwith Mamet's usual flourish of violence and misogyny at no extra charge. And, after Karen makes her glorious pitch for a story of human transfiguration at the end of the world, Charlie goes into full attack mode on behalf of a buddy picture that begins with a fantasy of gang rape behind bars. Caught between those two competing visions, Bobby is left spinning in mid-air, not knowing which way to turn. It's a great, fast-paced story of the spirit versus the flesh, with a Hollywood-ending guaranteed ... one way or another.
There's also a lovely bit of a time capsule at work herethe New Jewish Theatre has never done a Mamet play before, and much of its regular audience is quiet, older, thoughtful and convivial, like the Broadway audiences of old. As a result, you actually get some of those same reactions of shock all around you, to the "edginess" of 25-year old Mamet, without ever having to plunge into the latest, 21st century version of human degradation on stage. It's strangely charming, like the 1980s suspenders the men wear, and like that same era's unquestioning self-assurance: that each one of us is secretly the smartest, wisest, and manliest man in the room.
Through February 24, 2013, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, a block west of Lindbergh and Schuetz (between Page and Olive Blvds.). For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org or call (314) 442-3175. There are no Friday performances.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US.