Opened Jan. 9, 2008, American Conservatory Theater
Mamet plows into Hollywood brio with `Speed’
Three ½ stars Hot he-man hurly-burly
David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow may be notorious for allowing Madonna to make her critically reviled Broadway debut in 1987.
But the play, which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, should be better known as one of Mamet’s more enjoyable comedies. To be sure, this is Mamet territory, which means the “comedy” is laced with testosterone-fueled ignorance, misogyny and violence.
The really interesting thing about the play isn’t its skewering of Hollywood. That’s easy. People in Hollywood are shallow, greedy arbiters of cultural taste who willingly sell their souls (if they ever had them) in pursuit of sex, fame and fortune.
No, it seems Mamet is after something altogether different here, and Hollywood is as good as any other manly man playground to explore it.
Director Loretta Greco sets the play (which comprises three scenes played out in about 100 minutes) on a Hollywood soundstage (set by G.W. Mercier). We see stagehands place the cut-out palm trees behind the window in the office set. Carts of costumes are rolled across the stage, and big movie lights (lighting by York Kennedy) re-create the Southern California glare.
This is a play, like so many Mamet plays before and since, that belongs to the men. Bobby Gould (Matthew Del Negro) is the new head of production for a big movie studio. His longtime friend and lackey, Charlie Fox (Andrew Polk), is still toiling in the producer trenches, but he’s lucked onto something big.
One of the major stars – think Tom Cruise – has fallen in love with one of Charlie’s scripts and wants to make the movie. So Charlie takes the project, which will be the making of his career – to his old friend Bobby.
The two producers strike a deal to co-produce and are ready to make the presentation to the studio’s head honcho. They can already taste the filthy lucre that will come pouring into their personal coffers.
They call each other old whores and love it. “They kick you upstairs and you’re still just some old whore,” Charlie says to Bobby. “You’re gonna decorate your office. Make it a bordello. You’ll feel more at home…and come to work in a soiled nightgown.”
But then the woman enters. Bobby’s temp secretary, Karen (Jessi Campbell), brings the men coffee, and thus begins the action of the plot as she, knowingly or not, attempts to break apart the Charlie-Bobby love fest.
Speed-the-Plow really is a love story of sorts between the two men. But they’re not in love. They’re in power, which might be even more bonding. Each of the play’s three characters relishes the notion of making decisions, holding sway over people’s lives and livelihoods.
Bobby has the most power because he has the fanciest job. He can green-light a movie or get a movie green-lighted with just a single meeting. When Bobby spends an evening at home with Karen, she messes with his mind (and, to some degree, his heart). She’s been assigned a “courtesy read” of a popular novel from the Far East about the end of the world. She’s supposed to provide “coverage,” which means a summary, and demonstrate why the book would make a terrible movie.
But she falls in love with the book, which is essentially about confronting mankind’s one overriding fear – fear of death – and making peace.
Mamet would have us believe that Karen, for all her supposed naiveté, is just your average ambitious Hollywood bimbo. But in Campbell’s capable hands (and under Greco’s astute direction), we’re not quite sure where Karen’s sincerity ends and her ambition begins.
But as a woman in a Mamet play, she must be punished for coming between the men. Bobby decides to forgo the big-budget, fortune-making movie with Charlie in favor of the world-healing Eastern novel with Karen. Let the punches fly, the blood flow and the male bonding resume. B’bye, Karen.
Del Negro and Polk have crackling chemistry, though, and this is a strange criticism, Del Negro is just too handsome as Bobby. This guy, if he were really a Hollywood power player, would be dripping in starlets, and his bet with Charlie to see if he could bed Karen would be a total no-brainer.
But where it counts, in terms of dialogue and character motivation, the actors are sharp and effective.
When their relationship is threatened – when their power marriage is upset – they come right back to the “old whore” imagery. Charlie says to Bobby, with venom in his voice this time, “You’re a bought-and-paid-for whore, and you think you’re a ballerina cause you work with your legs? You’re a whore.”
Well, they’re whores for each other, and their commitment to garbage-driven commerce (ie, show business) and to their mutual power-love, is terrifying to behold.
Speed-the-Plow continues through Feb. 3 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.