When Hollywood meets Broadway, sparks fly and Tinseltown's incinerated - especially if the flamethrower is David Mamet.
So it is with "Speed-the-Plow." Now, 20 years after its premiere - in which Madonna took much of the initial limelight - the beautifully played revival that opened last night establishes the play as a modern classic.
The cast - Jeremy Piven as a freshly anointed Hollywood producer, Bobby Gould; Raul Esparza as Charlie Fox, Bobby's best friend, mailroom buddy and underling; and Elisabeth Moss, Bobby's new temp - are all superb, but this time around, it's Neil Pepe's smooth-as-silk direction and the play itself that hold the stage.
Charlie has been offered a "buddy" movie complete with a superstar lead and brings it, like a friendly terrier, to Bobby. The two plan a future full of riches based on selling surefire schlock.
Enter Karen, Bobby's new secretary, all wide-eyed freshness and, as she herself points out, naivete.
She fascinates Bobby, who gives her a book - a rather pompous one on radiation, God and death - and invites her to report on it later that night, at his house. She does. The next morning, it's the radiation film Bobby plans to green-light, rather than Charlie's sure thing.
Not surprisingly, Charlie - who sees his big break disappear - goes berserk, and a newly tougher Karen enters the fray.
Pepe's direction and Scott Pask's set, abetted by Brian MacDevitt's lighting, are spot-on slick for Mamet, holding up the mirror at just the right angle to a twisted society.
The performances catch the play on the wind. Piven (of TV's "Entourage") finds the burnt-out hollows beneath an overpromoted hack executive, while the always amazing Esparza is the pushy underdog, all rapid-fire action and virtuosic language.
Finally, there's the elegant Moss (the sveltely conniving Peggy Olson from "Mad Men"), slithering through the play's undergrowth like a grass snake.
Twenty years ago, I thought no cast could match the original trio of Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and (what a surprise she could stand still, let alone act) Madonna.
I was wrong. For its acting alone, this new "Speed-the-Plow" is a must-see.
The Barrymore Theater should provide seat belts for as long as Neil Pepe’s revival of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” is in residence. The production that opened Thursday night — starring the ace team of Jeremy Piven, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss — pursues its corkscrew course at such velocity that your instinct is to check yourself for whiplash.
When the curtain falls on this short and unsparing study of sharks in the shallows of the movie industry, it’s as if you had stepped off a world-class roller coaster. The ride was over before you knew it, but you’re too dizzy and exhilarated to think you didn’t get your money’s worth.
Is cynicism supposed to be this energizing?
“Speed-the-Plow” has no business feeling so fresh. There was novelty in Mr. Mamet’s acid-etched portrait of greedy, foulmouthed Hollywood players when it opened in 1988. But since then the dirty business of film production has become the stuff of daily business pages, nightly telecasts, snarky Web sites and a slew of self-flagellating movies about movies, from “The Player” (1992) to the current “What Just Happened.” Yet this production is, for me at least, even more vital than the original, which starred an excellent Ron Silver and Joe Mantegna and a shockingly unmemorable Madonna. And the reasons have very little to do with film and everything to do with theater. What makes “Speed-the-Plow” so exciting is its power to define and destroy an entire self-contained world through the tools and weapons of spoken words, expertly wielded by a very live cast.
Boil this 85-minute work down to the sort of single selling sentence that is the lingua franca of its moviemaking characters, and it isn’t much: Two foulmouthed Hollywood executives are all set to pitch a can’t-lose deal to the big boss when an unexpected obstacle blocks their way. This obstacle never pushes its characters out of their insular natural habitat. There’s nothing as extreme as a murder (as in “The Player”) or political crisis (à la “Wag the Dog,” the Hollywood-meets-Washington spoof on which Mr. Mamet worked as a screenwriter).
What there is is talk. And as in his earlier “American Buffalo” (to be revived on Broadway later this season) and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” talk is rich, even when it sounds cheap: a mighty means of measuring and asserting power, of confirming one’s place in the scheme of things.
The slangy, zingy patter of exaggerated insult and tribute swapped by the studio executives Bobby Gould (Mr. Piven) and Charlie Fox (Mr. Esparza) isn’t just air filler; it’s the existential warp and woof of their lives. (Scott Pask’s tasteful, sterile sets for Bobby’s office and house are blank slates; words are what furnish these rooms.) “Speed-the-Plow” is about what happens when the shiny bubble produced by this talk is punctured by someone who doesn’t speak the language.
Bobby is the new head of production at a movie studio; Charlie is his longtime (and lower-tier) associate, who shows up with the deal of a lifetime: the chance to make a prison-themed buddy picture with the box-office king Douggie Brown. Bobby happens to have on his desk an apocalyptic, literary novel by “an Eastern sissy writer,” the antithesis of the kind of movies these men stand for.
The obscenities, sentence shards and machine-gun cadences common to Mr. Mamet’s dialogue are in evidence as Bobby and Charlie celebrate the commercial project and dis the arty one. But unlike the two-bit con men and salesmen of “Buffalo” and “Glengarry,” these small-minded Hollywood big shots, who happily describe themselves as whores, have been endowed with a sense of irony, of self-consciousness.
Both satirical and sentimental about who and what they are, they turn conversation into a ritualistic art. Under Mr. Pepe’s juggernaut direction, Mr. Piven and Mr. Esparza invest that art with the souped-up, self-inflating rhythms of cokeheads (which seemed to be the condition of everyone in Hollywood in the 1980s, even non-users).
Listening to their rapid-fire exchanges is like watching top-seeded tennis opponents locked in an endless rally. And when Karen (Ms. Moss), a temp agency secretary working for Bobby that day, enters the room, you feel the deflation that comes when such volleys end. In speech Karen is a plodder, earnest and dogged. This means that in Bobby’s world she’s exotic, and he starts to listen to her as if she were a siren singing.
Mr. Mamet has provided very little back story for these three characters outside of their professional relationships. Yet as embodied by Mr. Piven, Mr. Esparza and Ms. Moss, they’re not just moral archetypes or linguistic athletes. We know where they’re coming from. Or we do by the end of the show, when we realize just how carefully these performers have set us up for the final payoff.
Mr. Piven has the pivotal role, and he executes it with uncanny grace and intelligence. A three-time Emmy winner as the amoral über-agent on “Entourage,” he would be a natural for the hungry-like-a-wolf Charlie. But here he mines a subtler vein, letting you glimpse the genuine, self-questioning weariness beneath Bobby’s macho bravado. Far more than Charlie, this Bobby knows he’s playing a part, a perception that could be fatal.
In contrast, Mr. Esparza runs full speed ahead with his ambition-stoked character, tapping the full kinetic force he artfully kept under wraps in recent revivals of “Company” and “The Homecoming.” But while Charlie may be an animal in perpetual fight-or-flight mode, Mr. Esparza finds many shades and textures — of pride, humiliation, anger and resentment — within that primal instinct. And the portrayal of the shifting alpha-male status between Charlie and Bobby should be mandatory viewing for sociologists and, come to think of it, zoologists.
Ms. Moss is best known for playing another ambitious secretary (turned copywriter) in a testosterone-drenched world, on the AMC series “Mad Men.” But she definitely doesn’t just repeat what she does on television. When Madonna played Karen — as woodenly as she was to play most subsequent parts — she got a pass from the critics, who said that her role was too enigmatic to do much with. Ms. Moss proves the lie in that assessment, bringing a naked clarity to her unvarnished, tinny-voiced Karen that makes the play hang together in ways it didn’t before.
I suppose there are a few aspects of “Speed-the-Plow” that date it. That arty end-of-the-world book (titled “The Bridge”) that everyone says would never make a major motion picture sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s end-of-the-world book “The Road,” which has been made into a major motion picture. The word “maverick,” for obvious reasons, gets laughs that it didn’t in 1988. But the idea of a high roller in a money-driven society suddenly sensing a scary void beyond the getting and spending acquires a new relevance in 2008.
Not to get all deep on you, because in the final analysis, “Speed-the-Plow” isn’t much deeper than its characters. But through the simple devices of vibrant, perfectly chosen words delivered vibrantly, this production takes on helium that lifts it and its audience into the ether.
“Oh, man, I can’t come down,” says Charlie, intoxicated by the prospect of humongous success. We know how you feel, Charlie. For as long as you and your nasty workmates are on stage, we’re just as high as you are.
The play may be 20 years old but David Mamet's astringent observations on the supremacy of commerce over art in Hollywood are still as fresh as last night's rushes. With the dismantling of studio specialty divisions and the increasing struggle of non-mainstream fare to find a foothold in the marketplace, "Speed-the-Plow" remains on-target in its sardonic skewering of an industry run by self-confessed whores and driven by the public's appetite for mindless escapism. Despite a weak midsection, Neil Pepe's taut Broadway revival keeps the verbal sniper fire swift and scathing, while the three accomplished actors make the air between them crackle with tension.
Attention has focused chiefly on the casting of Jeremy Piven as newly anointed studio head of production Bobby Gould, a character inhabiting the same universe as the actor's profanity-spewing agent Ari Gold on "Entourage."
Piven's tightly wound physicality and easy command of rapid-fire, hectoring dialogue make him a natural fit for Mamet. But Bobby allows himself to be bamboozled in a way that would never wash with Ari. Fear runs as thick as cynicism in his bloodstream, feeding a destabilizing epiphany and then a stinging reawakening. It's when the two characters diverge radically that Piven shows what a terrific actor he is, bringing unexpected pathos to a guy aptly described as "either scheming or ziggin' and zaggin'." Rude charm and smugness rarely go so smoothly hand in hand.
Bobby has scrambled up the studio ladder alongside aspiring producer Charlie Fox, who sweats nicotine and testosterone and reeks of hunger in Raul Esparza's wired performance. Resentment and his own sense of impatient entitlement are clearly itching away under Charlie's skin, but he needs Bobby to elevate him to the next level. The key to that advancement is a project packaged around top box office star Doug Brown.
The pitch scene in which Bobby and Charlie complete each other's staccato sentences while boiling down the inane-sounding film's plot into bite-sized nuggets for presentation to the studio chief -- "a buddy film, a prison film, Douggie Brown, blah, blah, some girl ... " -- is classic Mamet. And Piven and Esparza attack it with the relish of virtuoso violinists.
Charlie has just 24 hours to secure a greenlight for the picture, which is a no-brainer with Bobby's support and protection to ensure he's not left behind in the deal. But a wrench in the works materializes in office temp Karen (Elisabeth Moss). As leverage to help him win a bet with Charlie that he can get her into bed, Bobby enlists Karen to do a "courtesy read" on a pretentious impending-apocalypse novel by an artsy East Coast intellectual, titled "The Bridge: Or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. A Study of Decay."
Mamet's joke is that such a lofty decline-of-civilization treatise would never get even a glimmer of Hollywood development interest, but somehow, Karen's impassioned, idealistic response to the material and its spiritual answers to life's punishing emptiness touch a chord in Bobby. He ends up believing this is his opportunity to do work that means something. And to Charlie's enraged, panic-stricken horror, he's willing to use his discretionary power to greenlight one picture a year under $10 million to get it made.
Watching Moss, who brings a mix of unsophisticated blankness and quiet, observational savvy not unlike that of her character on "Mad Men," it's perplexing to think this thin role originally was played by Madonna. Given that the underpowered second scene is driven by Karen, it also explains why the play and production's merits were largely overshadowed by the pop star's casting at the height of her Material Girl fame.
Karen projects wide-eyed, trusting naivete while fueling the suspicion she may be no less ambitious than the men. The simple, unaffected directness of her questions -- "Why?" "Is it a good film?" "Are you ever wrong?" -- is so alien to these guys with their smartass repartee and know-all, shoot-down responses, she's like a fascinating toy to them. It's arguable whether Madonna has ever had an uncalculating or unself-conscious moment in her life, so it's hard to imagine her not sabotaging the play. Moss is a little vocally monotone and can't make the scene move any faster, but she keeps you guessing about Karen's ambiguity.
However, Mamet invariably is at his best writing male characters, and the real juice here is in the opening and closing interplay between Bobby and Charlie. Even when these guys are warmly engaged in mutual backpatting, there's animosity in the air. Piven's casting pays off when Bobby is caught off-guard and the audience in turn is equally surprised by his vulnerability. And with his dark, hooded eyes and manic struggle to keep a lid on his anxiety, Esparza's flashier turn provides the ideal counterpoint.
The muscular rhythms of Mamet's dialogue appear to be second nature to Pepe, who has a long association with the playwright as artistic director of Off Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, of which Mamet is a founding member. Knowing the words are what matters, Pepe's sleek production provides no distractions, marking the scene changes between Scott Pask's uncluttered sets -- a creamy Hollywood-deco office and a stylish but not too swanky earth-toned living room -- with a flickering projector beam.
The play is not top-tier Mamet. Even with its current echoes about the chastening of greedy capitalists, it lacks the insight into moral bankruptcy and the erosion of the human soul that made "Glengarry Glen Ross" such a punch in the gut. And there's a vague whiff of condescending superiority in Mamet biting the hand that has so often fed him. But the comedy is pithy, smart and performed with prickly energy. Plus, it's only 80 minutes, so you can still get to a late show of that prison-buddy-action movie at the multiplex.