Speed-the-Plow, Any Day Now
by Richard Seff
David Mamet speeds words at you as though they were coming straight from the mouth of an automatic rifle. I’ve never acted in one of his plays but even in my salad days I think I’d have been terrified to try. For it’s boom bang bing; it’s all manic music. You must play the piece with only your body and voice as instruments, and there are no notes on a music stand. You’re not on your own. No, you’re in it together, you and your fellow players, for the speed and energy must be maintained or the effect is diminished, and the simplicity of the plot may be revealed, which would not be good.
So it is that I was curious to see if Norbert Leo Butz could cut it in this revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. He had stepped into the Jeremy Piven role of Bobby Gould almost overnight when Piven, claiming mercury poisoning, left the cast suddenly. Could Butz possibly get through it, let alone own it? At the matinee I caught on January 7th, days after he’d entered the cast, he let me know within seconds (for it is he who has the opening monologue) that he was in full command. The overlapping wordage that followed for a good ten minutes was startling in its power.
Two speeded up movie executives, one (the Butz character) newly appointed head of the studio, the other an old and dear friend Charlie Fox, (played by the equally gifted Raúl Esparza) who works under him as an ambitious writer, joyously salivate over the situation brought into the room by Fox. For you see, Fox has pulled a coup. He has enticed a best selling novelist to allow Gould’s studio to film a hot novel of his, even though he had a relationship with the studio next door. If Gould will greenlight the movie by 10:00 AM the next morning, the property is his. If not, he loses it to a competitor. Even though Gould does not much like the property, at the end of Fox’s brilliant argument touting the commercial possibilities of this cop story, he firmly agrees to greenlight the movie. Into this fierce exchange, a temp secretary Karen, (played impeccably by Elizabeth Moss), brings them much needed coffee, and at scene’s end, Fox bets Gould $500 that Gould will date her and bed her, despite Gould’s denial that he has any personal interest in her at all. Fox leaves and Gould gives Karen an assignment; to read a dark and intensely philosophical doomsday novel that Gould had been asked to give a “courtesy read” to see if it would make a film. He knows that it would not, but he uses the bait to get Karen to accept an invitation to come to his home that evening with her report. He’s already decided the novel is not for him, but he’d like to win the $500 if only to show his friend how irresistible he is. “Aha!,” we think as the curtain falls on Scene One. The chase is on.
Well, Bobby was right! In the second scene we are in Gould’s Beverly Hills mansionette, a sumptuous living room overlooking a garden and pool. There, that very night, Miss Karen has shown up, shorn of her very proper temp secretary little black dress, now in a cardigan, a shirt and torn jeans and sneakers. From the first moment she is in full control and by the last moment she has turned everything around and confused the hell out of Bobby Gould. She has, in great detail, convinced him that this very uncommercial novel has a spine that is universally appealing, though it deals with radiation ending the very planet on which we live. In this second scene, playwright David Mamet’s misogynistic soul is revealed, for Karen (no last name offered) is everything she would appear not to be. She says several times that she wishes she were not so naïve, but she needn’t worry. She is kith and kin to “Oleanna”, one of Mamet’s heroines, a student who manages to figuratively castrate and destroy her professor, by twisting and turning everything to her own ambitious advantage. This Karen too is totally manipulative, knows just which buttons to push on Gould, whom she’s only known for a day, and though her inexperience will do her in in the end, we know she’ll show up in another play of Mamet’s and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that next time she will catch and destroy her prey.
The third and final scene of a play that lasts only 80 minutes without intermission but packs about two hours worth of incredibly rich and revealing dialogue, resolves the situation. I won’t tell you which way it goes, but I can tell you that it will grip you until its final moments.
I reviewed this play in London in April of this year, with a dynamite duo – Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. The very beautiful musical comedy actress Laura Michelle Kelly, who had created a stir in the revival of My Fair Lady and in the London premiere of Mary Poppins, played Karen, and though I found her perfectly credible at the time, this Moss lady easily raced past her in terms of finding all the nuance – the sweetness, the naiveté, the ruthless ambition, the blind conviction in her thesis and the hidden power inherent in this young and lithe Hollywood lass. With Ms. Moss in this New York triumvirate lifts the Roundabout production to the new champion as far as I’m concerned.
It is clear that Mr. Mamet does not have a lot of love for the Hollywood crowd, and though he’s written and directed many films, they’ve all been done in situations where he had control. He is essentially a playwright, our own Harold Pinter as it were, though Pinter wrote with a quill pen and Mamet uses a stiletto. Evidently the brilliant Norbert Leo Butz was only signed on as a temp himself, to keep the curtain up until William H. Macy, who’d been engaged to replace Piven when his contract ended in early February, takes over. Macy is another fine actor, and one very much connected to Mamet in the past, so I’m certain he’ll be fine too. But I must thank Messrs. Butz and Esparza, as well as Ms. Moss, for the perfect antidote to a freezing rainy January afternoon. If you get a chance, c’mon up and visit these three ignoble characters, but only if you’re in the mood to have an afternoon or evening watching lions lunching on gladiators. Fair warning. It’s thrilling theatre, and the actors do get to live to play again tomorrow.
There is a series in Gotham running from January 6 to February 7 which is doing just what an innovative series should be doing. Called “InGenius” and performing at Manhattan Theatre Source on MacDougal Street in the west village, it is presenting 16 plays including three full length ones. One of these, Any Day Now written and directed by Nat Cassidy, drew me on a cold and wet Saturday night in January. I don’t often get to cover off/off Broadway, for there is something going on there almost daily and nightly, but I’m glad I came down to see this.
Far from perfect, and about 40 minutes too long (it ran three hours), it should offer Mr. Cassidy, who has a gift for dialogue and characterization, a chance to see where his family (dysfunctional) play wanders and becomes unfocused. He’s written a piece about the sort of misfits that fill the current August; Osage County and Dividing the Estate; that is, the younger generation is doing poorly at school, her uncle drinks too much, her grandmother is slipping into senility, another uncle vehemently denies that he is totally controlled by his wife. You know, the usual assortment of broken souls, with one slight exception. Grandpa was buried a week ago (dead, you know) and here he is, sitting right in the middle of the kitchen while his widow is preparing chicken salad for a family dinner. And rumor has it that others like him are beginning to dot the landscape.
Not your usual run-of-the-mill family comedy (or drama, for that matter). But Mr. Cassidy has directed his play well, and cast it soundly with actors who bring conviction to it, and fill it with humor and pathos. It’s a fine cast of seven, an ensemble that plays as though it were in the middle of a long run, which is meant as high compliment indeed. Waltrudis Buck and Anthony Spaldo play Mom and Dad (he dead, she on her way), Tim Ewing and Arthur Aulisi play the husbands, Paige Allen and Elyse Mirto play the wives, and Anna O’Donoghue is the college student who’s just been expelled. All of them are fine, and when given a scene that’s tight, suspenseful and scary, Tim Ewing and Elyse Mirto play it with energy, conviction and truth. It makes us wish there was more structure to the play as a whole, for without it, it is more interesting than involving over the long evening. But festivals of new works should inform their playwrights and give them a chance to play before audiences, who help shape a finished work. I give InGenius, and its first class production of this play, an A for effort. There are two other full length plays in the series, one featuring Tandy Cronyn.
Any Day Now has 2 more performances at the InGenius festival: Jan 29 & 30 at 7 pm. The festival continues through Feb 7 at the Manhattan Theatre Source,
I’d just read that 13 shows closed on Broadway in the first 2 weeks of January. InGenius is one of those enterprising groups that proves there are lots of talented people warming up in the bullpens getting ready to replace them all. The fabulous invalid, ill as always, is likely to survive.
I hope that remains true for all of you, that you are not letting the sub-freezing weather get to you. I still marvel at the cool beauty of the Obamas as they walked up Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day wearing what looked like autumn overcoats. In small doses, I actually like the cold weather. But I’m wearing turtle neck sweaters, lined gloves, hand made scarves, thick rubber soles and walking very gingerly between the sneaky bits of ice poking up from the sidewalks. I suggest you do the same.
Coming soon – Richard Seff sits down with Brian d’Arcy James