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Speed-the-Plow

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 29, 2008

Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet's 1988 play about Hollywood, is a bore.

Now, perhaps it wasn't back in 1988; maybe then it wasn't a cliche for a pair of movie executives who speak what can only be called Mametian to alternately curse at one another, bemoan the fact that they have sold their souls for filthy lucre and have become "whores," and contemplate the nature of art and their places in the universe. In 2008, thanks to an overload of Mamet revivals in New York City plus all of the Mamet imitators/followers, there's nothing surprising or illuminating that I can find in the three oh-so-brief acts that comprise this play.

Here's how it goes down. Act One: Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould agree to go to Bobby's boss with a major picture package that will finally make Charlie into a "player"; Bobby also bets Charlie $500 that he will bed his temporary secretary Karen tonight. Act Two: At Bobby's apartment, Bobby wins his bet. But Karen ups the ante. Act Three: Bobby tries to double-cross Charlie.

I don't want to give the ending away, but I have to admit that as it plays out, it's really hard to care. Mamet's plotting here is fairly unconvincing; and even if the details did add up better, it would still be tough to comprehend why Bobby Gould's morality or lack thereof is supposed to matter to us, because Mamet simply has not given us enough information about the man to give his dilemma any heft.

Jeremy Piven (who is 43, according to Wikipedia) plays Bobby as an overgrown twentysomething; he never seems a match for Raul Esparza's Charlie (who seems to be the age Mamet specifies, about 40). His weightlessness and immaturity make Bobby's arc even less tragic than the script spells out. What I kept looking for was some meat to Bobby's character—something that would make what happens to him in the play feel urgent and substantive; cathartic even.

But the playwright is as arrogant vis-a-vis his audience as his "heroes" are vis-a-vis Karen and each other. Fuck it; we're all whores; nothing matters—that's finally the conclusion of Speed-the-Plow. Do we really want to see this stuff anymore?

Karen is played by Elisabeth Moss, who fails to bring much to the role. Neil Pepe's direction is oddly slow-moving, given the short overall length of the play; transitions between the acts are particularly lumbering. Scott Pask's sets are excessively spare, especially the oddly-shaped office that he's provided for Bobby. Brian MacDevitt's lighting in the middle act feels dim enough to invite audience members to doze. Laura Bauer's costumes are fine.