Playwright David Mamet's remarkable Speed-the-Plow is as true to the contemporary American cityscape as an Edward Hopper painting. Mamet's tough-mouthed dialogue--always a series of interruptions and eruptions--falls with an intoxicating rhythm on the ear. His is the prose-poetry of the street, with its low-life hustlers, as well as the equally profane patter of the upper-class offices in which business executives turn the tricks of their trade. Lines of dialogue pile up, obscuring and then revealing the real issues of the play--all of which are moral, male and meaningful. A fascinating production by Roundfish Theatre Company (temporarily housed at the LIDA Project) does a masterful job of focusing on the big picture that Mamet paints with such muscular strokes.
The story unfolds in the studio office of newly promoted Hollywood executive Bobby Gould. Bobby and Charlie Fox, his protege and friend, discuss their relationship and Bobby's promotion. Charlie is grateful to Bobby--so grateful that he brings Bobby a plum: a sure-thing deal, a package that includes an action mega-star in a prison buddy film. Bobby sets up an interview with the studio chief for the next morning, and both men toast each other as whores of the industry. They know each other so well that they interrupt each other constantly, jumping each other's words as they leap from idea to idea like brother apes.
In the course of their banter, we learn a lot about the movie industry, and the sheer nastiness of it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows much about the entertainment business. But not even People magazine exposes as much of the raw Hollywood mindset as Mamet does here--nothing but Robert Altman's scathing movie The Player comes as close to telling the truth about the movie industry.
In Mamet's view, as in Altman's, the really dangerous thing about Hollywood execs is their self-knowledge, efficiency and economic savvy. They are proud of their cupidity, and that makes them very scary guys. They make pictures that "people will come to see," and what that translates into is very expensive exploitation. Mamet doesn't have to lecture us on the evils of the system--he just describes what it's really like: loveless, immeasurably self-interested and mean as hell.
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As the play progresses, Bobby and Charlie chat about all kinds of stuff--how the money will roll in once the picture is made, how much they owe each other, how the business works. But into their tight twosome a new secretary stumbles. Bobby bets he can bed her that very night, and Charlie takes the bet. So Bobby gives Karen an apocalyptic book he's been asked to give a "courtesy read" and suggests that she come over after work to give him her review in person. Flattered, she complies. But Karen is no babe in the woods. She knows what she wants: She wants Bobby to make a picture of the end-of-the-world story. Bobby's willing to go along to get her in the sack--but the formidable Charlie proves a much harder sell.
Christopher J. Petersen gives Bobby a touch of vulnerability beneath the draconian scales. He aches (just a little) to do something important, to be remembered, even to be loved. Karen seduces him with the illusion of honor--the idea that he's capable of doing the right thing. And Shana Kelly, an actress who grows visibly with each new role, makes the wide-eyed Karen just enough of a hustler to give credence to every creepy accusation Charlie hurls at her the next morning. J. Brody Goodman rounds out the trio as the slick, oddly boyish Charlie, who grows into a scheming, cold-blooded ogre before our eyes.
The strong cast is aided in its image-making by Nolan Patterson in his directorial debut. Patterson does a fine job of illuminating the hidden nuances in the play, keeping the actors sputtering and spitting like grease on a hot griddle. And Mamet is so smart and speedy that, despite the dark subject matter, he sends viewers out of the theater alight with the pleasure of his words and insights. His greatness lies in his ability to tell the truth without giving in to despair--to criticize humankind without succumbing to misanthropy, no matter how depraved his subjects.
Speed-the-Plow, through August 23 at the LIDA Project, 50 South Cherokee Street, 293-9193.