IMPOSSIBLE TO LEARN TO PLOW…
SPEED-THE-PLOW AT GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE
Hollywood mini-mogul Bobby Gould has a good thing going with his promotion as head of production for a major film studio, able to greenlight any project under $40 million without answering to anybody over his typically perilous head. This is also a boon for his longtime partner-in-crime Charlie Fox in David Mamet’s 1988 “dramady” Speed-the-Plow, a play mostly famous for the rather inauspicious theatrical debut of an international musical pop diva known only by one name. Now in a generally snappy revival at Geffen Playhouse, Speed-the-Plow seems even more relevant today—at least here in our city so overshadowed by the churning wheels of Hollywood—than when first presented nearly two decades ago.
Jon Tenney and Greg Germann work splendidly off of one another, with Tenney’s nicely underplayed Bobby a perfect foil for the enormously physical performance by Germann as Charlie. As Bobby furls his nostrils and drinks in the paint fumes of his impressively grand new executive office (still craftily under renovation in Robert Blackman’s appropriately Feng Shui-ed set design), Charlie paces and pounces around the leather Ikea-haute furniture as the tiger that he is, proposing a project to his friend and mentor so foolproof that they’ll get so rich they’re “gonna hafta hire someone to help them figure out what to buy.”
It’s a perfect relationship before the entrance of a supposedly inexperienced young office temp named Karen (Alicia Silverstone), who may or may not be as naïve as she seems. After coming to Bobby’s home the night after her first day in his employ on an obvious pretense, Karen begins a dual-purposed seduction, offering her charms, it appears, in return for her boss agreeing to produce a risky picture based on a dryly academic and possibly science-fiction-ish tome about the dangers of global radiation. After a night of spectacular attitude-altering lovemaking, Bobby decides to leave behind Charlie’s blockbuster project and film the book instead, much to Charlie’s chagrin.
“It’s a summer picture, right?” Charlie quips, thinking he’s going along with a joke, but soon the reality of the situation begins to sink in. “Have you read this book? Have you?” he asks Bobby incredulously. “I’ve read the coverage,” Bobby snaps back. “What do you want from me, blood?” Hooray for Hollywood.
As with Madonna before her, Silverstone, so good in Mamet’s otherwise ill-conceived and poorly acted Boston Marriage at this same theatre last season, is doomed simply by playing the role of Karen. To say Mamet doesn’t write well for women is a well-worn given, but here the problem is more apparent than anywhere else in his body of work. As a wide-eyed, lip-chewing innocent in the first act to an instant Industry shark in the second, Karen’s emotional makeover is not in any way believable. Throw in the characteristic inability of most actors who work primarily in movies to be able to sustain a complete character and find a transformative arc in more than briefly filmed takes, and the result isn’t pretty here.
Why one of our most gifted theatre directors, the Geffen’s own Randall Arney, couldn’t help Silverstone through this (any more than Blackman’s glaringly obvious costuming, transforming Karen from Ugly Betty to The Devil Wears Prada in one flash of an intermission) is anyone’s guess, except that Mr. Mamet simply gives him nothing with which to work here. Originally casting a superstar in a severely underwritten role was a bad idea 19 years ago, but Madonna’s participation in the original version of Speed-the-Plow at least took the heat off of the playwright all those years ago. Today, particularly considering the performance of the usually quite watchable Silverstone, the problem is obviously in the writing.
Funny, I was once part of a one-act festival that shared the bill with a play by David Mamet’s sister Lynn, a piece that showed clearly what a huge problem she had with liking men. Wouldn’t it be interesting to time-travel back to Chicago in the 50’s and be a fly on the wall of the Mamet household as these two grew up? I for one would love to see what made both kiddies so hard on the opposite sex.
The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood; for tickets, call 310-208-5454.