By David Mamet
Directed by Jerry Whiddon
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Theater J is kicking off its 2007-08 season with a play about movies. And I’m glad it is. David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is as funny today as I’m sure it was 20 years ago when it premiered on Broadway, even if this production’s cast doesn’t include Madonna.
Meghan Grady is a worthy substitute for Madonna as Karen, a secretary temping in the office of a major Hollywood studio’s head of production. Bob Gould was recently promoted to the job, and he is loving his newfound power. His long-time peer, however, is a bit resentful. Nevertheless, Charlie Fox proves his loyalty by bringing a script to Bob that is certain to make them both so rich, they’re “gonna have to hire someone just to figure out the things [they] wanna buy.”
As Bob Gould and Charlie Fox, Danton Stone and Peter Birkenhead bring to the stage a near-perfect blend of cutthroat antagonism and half-phony, half-genuine brotherhood. They are ambitious, they are egotistical, they are crude, they are … idiots. Their offbeat chemistry-Stone is constantly drowning out Birkenhead’s frenzied dialogue with his “yeaaaahs” and “uh-huuuhs” and incessant questions-is highly amusing. These two may be satirical characters, but thanks to Mamet’s quick, witty script and Jerry Whiddon’s skillful direction, they never become caricatures.
In fact, Bob in particular is deeper, but also dumber, than he first appears. He carelessly bets Charlie (“Charle,” as he calls him) that he can get the attractive and seemingly ditzy Karen into his bed by letting her read a throwaway script. But it turns out Karen is sharper than she first appears, and she ends up sleeping with Bob just to get him to greenlight the film-sure to be cinematic gem but a box office flop-instead of the trashy blockbuster Charlie is promoting.
When Bob realizes why Karen really slept with him, he is dismayed. And this is why Bob is an idiot. Or maybe just incredibly full of himself. If he can sleep with Karen to win a $500 bet, why can’t she sleep with him to change his mind about a movie? This is show business, after all.
Bob may not be able to grasp why an attractive young woman finds only his power attractive, but Bob’s ultimate decision-which self-serving Charlie frantically coaxes out of him-proves he does understand the movie industry. His job is to put asses in seats. Charlie’s job is to “eat [Bob’s] doodoo.” And everyone’s “gotta have principles, no matter what they are.”
Mamet’s script is funny and entertaining, but it’s not flawless. Bob’s new job lets him greenlight one film on his own, as long as production will cost less than $20 million. All big-budget films require the approval of Bob’s boss, the head of the studio. I found myself wondering why Bob couldn’t greenlight Karen’s film and also get approval for Charlie’s seat-filler. Technically, this wouldn’t break Bob’s contract, although Karen’s pet project likely would make him “a punch line in this town.” I suspect the real reason Bob cannot greenlight both projects is because that wouldn’t make for a very compelling play. And since it is a compelling play, I guess that has to be good enough for me.
The only other, very minor, complaint I had was with Bob’s desk. He repeatedly refers to it as the metaphorical power desk, but it’s just a small wooden item that does not effectively convey any sort of clout. If I can see your legs under your desk, sir, how much power can you really have?
Daniel Conway’s design is as utilitarian as it is aesthetically pleasing. I actually enjoyed watching the stage crew transform Bob’s mid-paint-job office into his swanky living room, with the help of rotating wall panels and a few drop cloths. The audience evidently enjoyed the scene change as well; it’s not often they applaud the crew mid-show. And that desk does much better in the living room.
The scenery and the performances were allterrific, but the highlight of my evening at Theater J came when Charlie referred to sex as “hiding the afikomen.” This is hands-down the best euphemism for sex I have ever heard, and it’s Jewish humor, to boot! For this line, for the fine comedic performances and for the impressive set design, I give the green light to Speed-the-Plow.
(Running time: 1:45 minutes, with intermission)
When: thru Nov 25 Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Washington, DC, Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street N.W. (at Q Street), Washington, DC.
Tickets: from $20 (students) to $50, with other discounts available.
Info: Call 1-800-494-TIXS or buy online.