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A whiff of staleness and a very weak link

David Mamet revisits `Speed-the-Plow,' but a key character and some ideas remain muddled.

February 09, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

A generation has passed since David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" debuted on Broadway in 1988, but the play's swipes at the movie industry have hardly lost their sting. Jokes that could have been lifted straight from George S. Kaufman or Nathanael West (were they not dripping in profanity) still detonate with the same hilarity. Evidently, when it comes to satire, Hollywood at its venal, empty-headed worst never grows stale.

I'm afraid the same can't be said for the drama as a whole, which seems thin and contrived in the uninspired Geffen Playhouse revival that opened Wednesday. Mamet has superficially revised the script so that the budgets of talked-about films reflect contemporary fiscal reality. But the crater at the center of the plot hasn't been filled in. In fact, it seems to gape wider than ever. Or perhaps it's simply harder to overlook now that the author's signature staccato style has become more familiar and Madonna's celebrity is no longer inducing the theatrical equivalent of a solar eclipse.

The weak link in this three-character play is Karen (Alicia Silverstone), the office temp who threatens to foul up the big deal between Bobby Gould (Jon Tenney), recently promoted to head of production, and his old pal and underling Charlie Fox (Greg Germann), who has brought him an opportunity to make a buddy picture with a huge star from another studio. The movie is sure to be trash -- and an instant blockbuster that will put both men in a new league. All they need is the approval of their boss, who won't be back until the morning, leaving just enough time for trouble.

Karen, the subject of a bet between Bobby and Charlie involving sex, begins to influence Bobby with her wide-eyed idealism. She wants him to make a film based on an apocalyptic book about radiation poisoning that he's asked her to do a "courtesy" read on. Moved by her passion for a prestige project that sounds as inane as Charlie's guaranteed cash cow, he begins to waver in the hours before his big meeting on which movie to back. Needless to say, Charlie, suspecting his friend of temporary erotic insanity, is ready to clobber him.

Silverstone plays the role originated by Madonna and ends once and for all the widely held conviction that the Material Girl can't act. In comparison to the current interpretation of the part, Madonna's Sphinx-like performance has the subtlety of Eleonora Duse in Ibsen. One shouldn't blame Silverstone for the playwright's inability to write a convincing female character. Randall Arney's direction, however, compounds the problem by treating the character as a total simpleton whose every naive utterance evokes the eye-rolling thought "Out of the mouths of babes."

Mamet has made his name capturing the way male ruthlessness talks to itself. With a poet's precision, he has recorded the language of crooked self-interest, cleverly patterning its rhythms to shed light on how guilty consciences are assuaged by a fetishistic focus on the rules of the game as it is unjustly played.

Bobby and Charlie are better-dressed versions of the petty thieves in "American Buffalo" and the real estate con men in "Glengarry Glen Ross." They're larcenists with generous expense accounts, and Mamet has a field day writing dialogue for them.

"If it's not quite 'Art' and it's not quite 'Entertainment,' it's here on my desk," Bobby tells Charlie. Later, he explains that now that he's got some decision-making power, everyone is trying to "promote" him. "Guys want me to do remakes of films that haven't been made yet," he says, with a weary, self-satisfied grin.

When Karen asks why the movies they make should all be garbage, Charlie impatiently responds, "Why should nickels be bigger than dimes? That's the way it is."

Bobby, however, is smitten by Karen's innocence.

He's been wondering whether anyone can love him for himself and not just for his power to green-light a picture for up to $40 million. Could this dewy-eyed numskull who loses his calls and can't even get him a cup of coffee be the one to reassure him that people really do count for something in this dog-eat-dog business?

Understandably, Mamet wants to avoid setting up a black-and-white conflict between Charlie's purely mercenary impulses and Karen's apparent integrity. Slowly but surely, the play exposes her manipulative tendencies, which are thrown into relief in the final standoff with Charlie.

Too bad Karen never amounts to more than a figment of a testosterone-fueled imagination. Dangerously seductive though she may be, she's no match for fragile male egos in cahoots. And Silverstone, playing right into the guys' fantasy, might as well have delivered her performance in a baby doll.

Naturally, the men fare better. Tenney turns Bobby into a shark with a tender side. His competitiveness is obnoxious and his haughtiness grates, but you can't help sympathizing with the vulnerability that lies beneath his no doubt obscenely expensive suit.

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