David Mamet’s satirical expose of the office policies and in-house politics of the Hollywood dream factory first opened on Broadway in 1988. It received less attention for its mercenary look at silver-screened commercialism than it did for showcasing an insufferable performance by Madonna. Minus Madonna, it is possible to judge Mamet’s play more objectively. Boasting a splendid, artistically compatible cast, the current revival can be appreciated without distraction. It’s a blisteringly funny dramatic comedy.
The traditional Mamet-schooled rhythms are back on track and re-considered with a renewed forcefulness that is breathtaking to experience. “Speed-The-Plow” has been given a stylish production under the direction of Neil Pepe. Pepe, who has been the artistic director of the Mamet-founded Atlantic Theater Company since 1992, has brought an invigorating and freshly considered resonance to the play. “Speed-the-Plow” is short, only 80 minutes with no intermission. It is mostly a series of foul-mouthed tongue lashings and even a knock-down brawl, and is middle-career Mamet, but seen in a new light, one of his best.
Probably just a bit more Mamet-ized than his co-stars is Raul Esparza, who plays Charlie Fox, a relentlessly ambitious, aggressive Hollywood producer. Charlie is looking to secure a deal for a “buddies-in-prison” film that he hopes will be his first breakout hit. The object of Charlie’s seriously over-the-top sales pitch is his friend for the past 11 years, Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven), the new (dunder) head of production at a major Hollywood studio. During the first scene, which is also Bobby’s first day in his own office at the studio, Charlie pitches to Bobby a can’t-lose “package” deal that he previously has negotiated. But unless he receives the studio chief’s go-ahead within 24 hours, the participation of the film’s star, as well as the entire deal, is off.
Mastering Mamet’s overlapping and flat staccato speech rhythms can be no picnic even for the most accomplished and technique-supported actors, but Esparza and Piven are not only convincing as two double-talking wheeling-dealing minor moguls, but also mesmerizing in their brutal, cynically created realm of quasi-reality. To watch their body language and listen to them as they bait, bamboozle, scheme, prod, plot, and finally cajole their way back to a mutual understanding and tentative partnership is both spellbinding in its machinations and thrilling in its execution.
There is a ferociously comical but always desperate edge to Esparza’s performance. He can’t be accused of chewing up the scenery but he does chew up a number of cigarettes in the scene where he attempts to re-energize his former friendship with Bobby, his old crony. He also isn’t above crawling on his knees to solidify the deal. Esparza, who should have won the Tony for Best Actor for his work in “The Homecoming” last season (as well as for just about every other role he has played) delivers his artfully fragmented, crudely vulgar dialogue with motor-mouthed precision.
Piven, who is probably best known for his role as super agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage,” measures up with a vigilant pragmatism that is equally stunning. Together they create a seriously distorted sense of truth, at least as it manifest itself in Hollywood. Mamet’s characters are stereotypical archetypes, written to reflect the coarsest side of moviedom’s movers and shakers.
The plot takes a terrific spin when a supposedly inexperienced secretary walks into their world, an office temp named Karen (Elisabeth Moss), who gets talked into doing a “courtesy read” of a pretentiously artsy “Eastern sissy novel” under consideration. Is Karen able to shift Bobby’s allegiance from the sure-fire “buddies-in-prison” film to the esoteric drivel in the novel about the decay of Western civilization? Far be it from me to tell.
Unlike the original performer who caused the audience to shiver with distracted disbelief back in 1988, Moss seems to have fully connected to the play’s style, its satirical slant, and the terse, elemental designs of the dialogue. The role of Karen has an inherently funny dimension to it as she is given to pontificating on the novel’s meaning, as well as reading aloud its more portentous passages. Moss, another import from TV land (she plays Peggy Olson on AMC’s “Mad Men”), is no slouch among the big guns. It’s to Moss’s credit that we see Karen’s agenda implode with such unexpected results.
Unlike Mamet’s scalding real-estate drama “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and the slimy realism of his small time crooks in “American Buffalo” (a revival of this play just closed in New York), “Speed-the-Plow” really doesn’t have anything uniquely fresh nor unexpectedly foul to say about Hollywood, but it is great fun to see and hear these tenacious denizens chip away at each other’s vulnerability. Some words in the text in the light of today’s news, such as the twice-mentioned “maverick” take on comical dimension of their own. The flickering lights (credit lighting designer Brian MacDevitt) of a movie projector provide a visual as Scott Pask’s spare but effective set moves from Bobby’s unpainted office to his home and back again. This is terrific theater. ****
“Speed-the-Plow,” Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. $49.50 to $110. 212-239-6200.