(November 2, 2008) We left the Barrymore Theater last Friday evening with a renewed appreciation for David Mamet, but with growing doubts about straight theater on Broadway.
Speed-the-Plow (written in 1988) is one of two Mamet plays currently on Broadway. The other is American Buffalo (written in 1976); each play deals with betrayal of a business partner and a deal that goes bad. Speed-the-Plow is a compact and extremely fast-paced play, three acts without an intermission. Even though our show started ten minutes late (at 8:10 p.m.), its three actors were taking their bows before 9:30 p.m. In fact, Speed-the-Plow is short enough that the producers should have considered making it the first part of a double bill with Mamet’s one-act play Bobby Gould in Hell, based on one of the three characters in Speed-the-Plow. We would have liked to have seen it.
David Mamet plays generally leave you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, so we knew the high spirits in the first act were too good to be true. The first character we meet, Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven; his picture here is from a movie role he had several years ago), is a Hollywood producer whose job is to identify film projects that will make money, regardless of artistic merit or social value. He’s doing well enough to have authority to green-light film projects with budgets under $10 million, but not well enough, apparently, to have a decent office.
Into his office roars Bobby’s old friend Charlie Fox (Raul Esperanza), a lower-ranking producer at the same studio, who has, in a manner of speaking, just won the lottery. One of Hollywood’s biggest action stars has just read a script Charlie gave him (for a cliche of a prison buddy movie), loved it, and told Charlie he wants to do it with Charlie and his studio. Testosterone washes all over the stage as the two plan to present Charlie’s coup to the boss and fantasize about how rich they’re going to be.
Trouble enters when Bobby calls in his temporary secretary, Karen (Elisabeth Moss) to get them coffee and a lunch reservation. Bobby and Charlie brag to her about how they find projects like the prison film that will put butts in the seats, and how they give the thumbs-down to movie proposals based on artsy books like one that his boss, the head of the studio, has just agreed to give a “courtesy read.”
The book, “The Bridge,” is in fact a pretentious, oqaque, philosophical novel about radiation and the end of the world. (We know it’s unreadable because Charlie and Bobby read passages from time to time; one thinks of Thomas Pynchon.) Bobby and his boss both know that it has no potential as a movie. Looking for a pretext to get Karen into bed, Bobby passes off the job of reading this ghastly abomination to Karen and asks her to bring him a review at his apartment that evening. He fails to anticipate (as the audience does) that she will fall under the book’s spell and use her sexual power to persuade him to recommend “The Bridge” to the studio head instead of the sure-hit prison buddy movie.
I suppose Speed-the-Plow is hard to act. I suppose any David Mamet play is hard to act. Mamet doesn’t expect actors in his plays to take turns speaking their lines; in Mamet-speak, characters are constantly interrupting each other, speaking in sentence fragments, and talking at the same time — much like real-life conversation.
Unfortunately these actors, especially Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss, don’t quite get it down. They can’t seem to get past the notion that they shouldn’t trample on one other’s lines, even though that’s just what Mamet intended them to do. The result is dialogue that’s ever so slightly choppy.
We blame it on television. The program indicates that Jeremy Piven’s resume is mostly in television and the movies, even though his pedigree is in stage acting (here’s a good piece on Piven in the N.Y. Times); currently, it seems, he’s in an HBO show called Entourage (we’d never heard of it), while Elisabeth Moss is apparently in another cable TV show called Mad Men (we hadn’t heard of it, either). Not surprisingly, Piven and Moss act like television actors, going for cheap laughs, yelling their lines instead of projecting them, content to be johnny-one-notes, playing to the camera instead of the theater audience. (See this post on why Emsworth doesn’t watch television.) Sadly, the audience at our show seemed to like them that way.
Not so with Raul Esparza, a fine actor who shows considerable acting range even within the confines of so manic a character as Charlie Fox. This was the second time we’ve seen Esparza, who played Lenny in a revival of Harold Pinter’s nightmarish The Homecoming that we saw last winter; we liked him even better this time. We were grateful for this chance; we don’t get to Broadway often enough to be able to see its best actors in multiple roles.
Fortunately, the play’s strong enough to compensate for the shortcomings of this cast. For as long as Emsworth can remember, people have pretended to despise Hollywood’s commercialism and its unwillingness to make “meaningful” movies. None of this hypocrisy for Mamet! Who else would have the nerve to write a play in which a character is presented with a choice between a commercial hit and a “art” film — and in which the moral choice is the commercial hit? Or in which the character who champions the “art film” turns out to be the real “whore”? There’s more substance in Spiderman than in a dozen critically praised independent “art” films that we’ve long since forgotten.
In Speed-the-Play, Bobby and Charlie spend a good of time calling themselves “whores” for commercial Hollywood, reflecting the ambivalence of American society toward capitalism. We don’t think David Mamet himself is so ambivalent; the published edition of the play begins with a quotation from Thackeray’s novel Pendennis: “Which is the most reasonable, and does his duty best: he who stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest?” Bobby and Charlie weren’t giving themselves enough credit.
Twice during the play Jeremy Piven, as Bobby Gould, turned to the audience to advise us that “there are no mavericks” — a topical reference to the Republican national ticket and Tuesday’s election day. He got his laugh each time (it wasn’t especially funny), but at the expense of the play’s momentum.
What does “Speed-the-Plow” refer to? There’s an explanation from David Mamet himself in the Wikipedia entry for the play.
UPDATE (January 15, 2009): By the unlikeliest of chances (we never, ever watch morning TV), our television came on this morning just as Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America was announcing her next guest, which happened to be Jeremy Piven. Piven had apparently agreed to let Sawyer cross-examine him about his deserting this production of Speed the Plow several weeks ago, with a couple of months to go in the run. Piven’s people had claimed he was suffering from mercury poisoning from a constant diet of fish and was unable to go on with the show; to our surprise, his departure got publicity not only in the New York tabloids but also in the national press.
Sawyer pointed out to Piven (a) that several medical experts she had consulted found it unlikely that he would suffer any noticeable impairments from the levels of mercury reported, (b) that it was widely rumored that Piven’s real problem was late-night partying, and (c) that none of the show’s producers or investors believed Piven’s story for a minute.
But Piven stuck to his guns and said that his “illness” had frustrated a lifelong dream to perform Mamet on Broadway. Like a well-coached politician charged with scandal, he told Sawyer that he’d been frustrated that he hadn’t been able to get his story across till now. He warned the audience earnestly about the dangers of eating fish. Uh-huh.
William H. Macy, an actor we greatly admire, has now taken Piven’s place in the cast. Wish we’d seen him instead of Piven.