Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 26, 2009
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: William H. Macy, Raúl Esparza, Elisabeth Moss.
Piven’s replacement is the sublime William H. Macy, who in addition to boasting impressive Hollywood bona fides he scored in films like Fargo, Magnolia, and Thank You For Smoking, is also an intricately experienced Mamet interpreter on stage and screen. (Macy, like Mamet, is a founder of the Atlantic Theater Company, where this production’s fine director, Neil Pepe, is the artistic director.) That shows in his performance in a way it didn’t in Piven’s, and is enough to restore bracing new life to a slam-bang evening that had become little more than a punch line.
At first blush, the 58-year-old Macy might seem too old to play the brash Bobby Gould, who’s just been made head of production at a major Hollywood studio after toiling in the trenches for some 11 years. But the contrast between who Bobby is and what he claims injects him with an abrasive poignancy - something a younger actor couldn’t summon. When Bobby is handed a surefire success by his friend and former bottom-feeder colleague Charlie Fox (Raúl Esparza), then intoxicated by the possibility of doing a film that matters at a suggestion from his gorgeous young temporary secretary Karen (Elisabeth Moss), you believe that both his career and his life rest on the decision he makes.
The wrinkles that crease Bobby’s face, the throbbing tension in his neck whenever he raises his voice (which, as this is a Mamet play, happens often), and even the clothes he wears identify him as someone constantly at odds with himself. He might want to relax in his new, expense-account-appointed digs, but he can’t deny he’s facing outliving his usefulness, fading into complete obscurity, or even crashing and burning just when he’s being tempted with success.
In the play’s first and third acts, you see the boundaries of the spectrum across which this new Bobby must move. Early on, he merely looks like he’s trying to dress young - his black T-shirt, blazer, and blue jeans are the epitome of forced hipness - to mask the ambition that’s evaporated en route to his new position of power. Near the end of the play, when exposure to Karen’s fondness for an “Eastern sissy novel” Bobby asked her to give a courtesy read has reawakened his long-dormant humanistic instincts, his shimmering, pastel-heavy wardrobe makes him look like a man even more pathetically disconnected from reality.
By virtue of his natural business-schlub-next-door charm and his lickety-split spitting of Mamet’s decadently staccato dialogue (something Piven did not quite possess), Macy has transformed a character completely unlike his familiar screen personae into one exactly like them - while losing nothing along the way. He completely fulfills Mamet’s requirements as the fulcrum of this blisteringly funny satire of the moviemaking mindset, but he also inspires many other speculations about what these choices may mean for people of any age - all of which makes events more trenchant and substantial than they were before.
The only semi-victim of all this rejuvenation is Esparza. Opposite Piven, his Charlie was a spring-loaded fireball, a frivolous force of nature and the only one in complete command of the rules governing the game all three characters are locked in. While Esparza has lost none of his energy, competition from Macy’s percussive self-bullying and acidically deadpan line readings cause his shots to hit less often than they previously did. Esparza has also injected more melancholy into Charlie in Act III, somewhat blunting the blows that must crack the shell of respectability Karen convinced Bobby must cover everything he does.
Esparza’s sacrifice, however, is the rest of the production’s gain. Macy’s presence evens all the odds, and changes a story you thought you knew into one you’ve never quite seen before and - even better - one you might have thought couldn’t exist at all. As long as Macy steers clear of seafood, the only thing you have to fear from his Bobby is that he won’t succeed at realizing the dreams he’s cultivated for decades. Macy, however, has, and proves it here: He’s made Speed-the-Plow truer, sadder, and more exciting than ever. And whether or not you saw it with Piven, he’s also made it a must-see all over again.