Temps in the Jungle
For more than 30 years, David Mamet has been America's bard of capitalist burnout. Most of his plays are notable, first and foremost, because they feature people with no ideals whatsoever who traded in their virtue for amoral pragmatism so long ago, and so gamely, that they're no longer aware something is missing. They are predators among predators. And when someone different appears — the mild and trusting James Lingk of Glengarry Glen Ross or Karen in Speed-the-Plow — they're as out of place on Mamet's stage as aliens.
This is especially true in Speed-the-Plow at GableStage. If you're casting for predators, you can't do better than Paul Tei and Gregg Weiner — two nice-enough lads who, through some accident of genetics or upbringing, nevertheless look ready to cheat at cards, seduce your girlfriend, or snort a beach. And if you're casting for lost-lambish innocence, you can do no better than Amy Elane Anderson. When she appears onstage in Speed-the-Plow, her character's sweetness is so out of synch with her costars' reptilian cool that, addressing them, she seems to speak some foreign tongue. Half the time she's like the grownups in Peanuts: she opens her mouth and wah-wah-wah.
In the play's early scenes, her wah-wah-wahing takes place in the office of an upper-level executive at a big-time Hollywood studio. The executive, Bobby Gould (Tei), is enjoying a recent promotion that enables him to pitch movies directly to the studio head. He's delighted when his longtime friend and cohort, Charlie Fox (Weiner), bursts into his office with surprising news. This very morning, superhot movie star Doug Brown drove up Fox's driveway to say he wanted to make a movie out of a script Fox had given him some time ago. It's a buddy picture that's set in a prison. The movie features thwarted homosexual rape, gratuitous violence, and a hopeful moral about self-improvement and redemption. Fox and Gould agree: This pic will be huge. They also believe it's doomed to artistic vacuity. But who cares? Fox and Gould are not critics. They're certainly not aesthetes. They're profiteers, and the Doug Brown vehicle is their chance to score unimaginable riches. Fox and Gould schedule a meeting with their boss for the next morning.
As all of this is happening, a weird little script about life, death, and radiation is languishing away on Gould's desk. Gould is supposed to give it a courtesy read before telling the author thanks-but-no-thanks. But he delegates this responsibility to his new temp secretary, Karen (Anderson). He does this to make her feel important. He also does it to soften her up for a bedding. Unfortunately for Gould, Karen loves the script, is moved by it in ways she didn't know she could be moved, and persuades her boss to ditch the Doug Brown vehicle and produce this thing instead. Then they fuck.
As you'd expect, there's considerable acrimony when Fox realizes his big payday won't be forthcoming, and Speed-the-Plow opens up into a smart, trenchant meditation on art, commerce, and real life.
At GableStage, under Joe Adler's cool direction, Speed-the-Plow is almost everything you could want Mamet to be: funny, fast, outrageous, and deep. Its one glaring flaw is a lack of slickness in the early scenes. Mamet's dialogue usually flows like baby oil through a sluice; here it just feels unwieldy. There are times when it seems Tei and Weiner holler past one another, each indifferent to the nuances of the other's performance. Maybe the script demands a certain species of indifference — Gould and Fox are not the most empathetic people — but this feels wrong. They are too loud, and their patter lacks the wise-guy rhythms you'd expect out of two movie mercenaries who've shared the trenches for 11 years.
This problem fades by mid-play and is gone altogether by the time Fox learns of Gould's betrayal. Tei's Gould is uncharacteristically heartsick at the prospect of telling his friend that, no, he won't be a millionaire anytime soon, and Weiner's Fox is so pissed he looks about ready to pop a vein. Weiner roars like a lion and soothes like a salesman — every lesson of those 11 trench-bound years is brought to bear on talking Gould out of his madness.
And when Weiner turns his rage on Anderson's Karen, she reacts just as she should. She has no way of knowing what kind of wicked little world David Mamet has plunged her into. Confronted with the truth of it for the first time, she is shell-shocked, speechless, and glacier-white. She barely knows what's going on. But she'll learn the ropes soon enough. In Mamet's theater, everyone does.
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