Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 23, 2008
Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Cast: Jeremy Piven, Raúl Esparza, Elisabeth Moss.
Not uplifted yet? You will be when you hear these scintillating sentiments - and so many more - erupt through the impressive revival of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the Barrymore, thanks to director Neil Pepe and his largely excellent cast of Jeremy Piven, Raúl Esparza, and Elisabeth Moss.
This is not, however, a political play in the traditional sense - it probably didn’t even seem like one when it premiered in 1988, with Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver, and Madonna starring. It focuses on a shyster other than the kind that inhabits Washington, D.C.: the Hollywood mogul. He earns a magnificent living peddling fantasies with one hand, but he can gleefully crush them with the other. You want your movie made? Assemble the perfect package - the star, the setting, and the blurb (the shorter the better) - and you’ve got it. Art? Meaning? Life? That’s another ballgame - one that’s constantly being rained out.
Sound familiar yet? Watching this production is like watching what John McCain and Barack Obama’s presidential debates should have been: two men admitting the acidic rules of operation, but exhibiting the myriad ways they can still work within those strictures to win the day. Neither Bobby Gould (Piven), the new head of production for a major studio, nor the producer Charlie Fox (Esparza), is vying for a country - at stake for them is the surefire blockbuster Charlie has attached a star to, provided he gets his answer immediately. But at these levels, Mamet argues, Big Business and Big Politics are one and the same.
For neither, at least at the outset, is there a question about the film’s commercial worthiness. There’s merely a nagging background formality for Bobby, a “courtesy read” the studio head has promised an “Eastern Sissy Writer” of his new novel The Bridge: or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society about, among other things, the potentially catastrophic effects of radiation on the body and soul. For this task, Bobby has the perfect patsy: his temporary secretary, Karen (Moss), an apparently innocent but deep-feeling girl he bets Charlie he can get into bed.
Mamet’s telescoping of every part of the war to make one of these films, from the simmering build-up to the explosive finale, is the ideal documentary for our times. Even more so than Mamet’s bubbly electoral comedy November, also seen at the Barrymore earlier this year, Speed-the-Plow is a catalog of our culture’s corrosive corruption that mesmerizes even as it melts the humanity that holds us together. This play, however, tackles this at a local, rather than a national, level. It explores the effect of all choices, even and especially inconsequential ones, on all people, even and especially inconsequential ones.
That’s Karen, the go-getter who professes a purer way of living while she uses her full arsenal to pull any string she likes. Moss, currently starring in the TV series Mad Men, is a wonderfully flighty embodiment of Tinseltown hopes when she’s flaunting Karen’s outward naďveté. She’s less convincing in her scene alone with Bobby, when she must reveal her own cunning underbelly as she battles for the script she believes in: Too often, Moss seems to be reading from a litany of platitudes, none of which coalesce into a complete picture of this woman’s secret ambition.
Esparza offers no such hints of softness. While this is unusual for an actor who’s made much of his career of traversing tormented psyches of men in musicals and plays as diverse as Company, The Normal Heart, and The Homecoming, it results here in a fiery, unforgiving depiction of success-hungry despair. Whether bellowing (for Charlie does little else) with outrage flooding his eyes or with his face pasted with the impish, off-center smirk of an inveterate trickster, Esparza is terrific at cutting to the heart of even the deepest deception to unleash the real-world truth beneath it.
Pepe’s caffeinated, spark-inciting staging does not typically make this difficult. There are times, though, particularly in the scene at Bobby’s house, that the pace slackens enough for Mamet’s chopping-block dialogue to stiffen into a caricature of itself. Like most Mamet plays, this one is at its best when it doesn’t give you too much time to absorb what’s happening: Mamet aims for your gut rather than your heart.
That’s why he is, and one imagines always will be, more playwright than politician. With the first Tuesday in November edging ever closer, the notion of two men arguing for what’s in our worst interests shouldn’t go down easily at all. Mamet ensures it does, because he tells you what you need to know rather than merely what you want to hear. It’s an irresistible irony that that’s exactly the behavior Bobby and Charlie decry when the subject is making movies - for the “sensible” characters in Speed-the-Plow, those two roads can never cross. But for the play itself, and this production, they certainly - and electrically - do.