How do you like your steak? Rare? Medium-well? Seared? David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, currently being staged by New Jewish Theatre, doesn't offer such choices. It's the stage equivalent of a slab of raw meat, bloody on the plate and hold the garnish. Eat it and like it. Don't like raw meat? Fuck you.
The pundits would have us believe that Speed-the-Plow is Mamet's Hollywood play, and indeed, the script debuted on Broadway in 1988, when Mamet's occasional screenplays were being mangled by insensitive directors. His movie status would soon change: Mamet would become a director and get to mangle his own scripts. Yet in Speed-the-Plow, his wrath is aimed not at directors but rather at producers.
Or is it? As usual, everything with Mamet is cryptic assumption. We are led to believe that this play takes place in a Tinseltown movie studio, but neither playbill nor script identifies the location. Despite the occasional reference to "this jolly town" which is "a sinkhole of slime and depravity," Speed-the-Plow is not really set in Hollywood. Like most of his scripts, Speed-the-Plow plays out in MametLand, a stylized, kabuki-like universe where reality is as remote as exposition. With a few minor changes, the events in Speed-the-Plow could just as easily transpire in a publishing empire, at a real estate office (except that Mamet covered that terrain, and more effectively, in Glengarry Glen Ross), in Silicon Valley...wherever power and jealousy collide.
The premise is that Charlie Fox (Michael James Reed) and Bobby Gould (Christopher Hickey) started out together in this mythical movie-studio mailroom. Bobby has just been made production head. Charlie is still riding his coattails. But Charlie suddenly receives unexpected access to a major movie star who wants to make a shoddy, commercial prison script. Break out the cigars and Champagne. But wait. Karen (Sigrid Sutter), a hapless temp who can't even make coffee, encourages Bobby to produce an allegorical movie based on an artsy-fartsy novel about a post-apocalyptic world. Karen believes in Bobby's goodness and is prepared to back up that conviction with her body. What's a producer to do?
Although MametLand usually exists in a timeless netherworld, time has caught up to Speed-the-Plow. Twenty-five years ago the prospect of a post-apocalyptic movie elicited laughs. Today the apocalypse is in vogue. New post-apocalyptic dramas are being released almost every month. Even the Hunger Games trilogy takes on the apocalypse. Mamet's antiquated premise feels about as immediate as Singin' in the Rain.
But his supplicants don't attend Mamet's plays for plot. They go for the human cockfights. Apparently there's a vicarious satisfaction in watching actors tear at each other. But something is amiss in Speed-the-Plow. Not only is Mamet's writing lopsided; in this Tim Ocel-directed New Jewish staging, the acting is too. This production is all about Michael James Reed, whose assault-weapon delivery triggers the evening forward. (Indeed, when Reed is not onstage, this Speed-the-Plow has all the bite of a 1930s Philip Barry comedy of manners.) Owing to misdirection or miscasting, Ocel has not been able to level the playing field between Reed and Hickey.
What should an actor do? Should Reed be made to hold back his performance? Somehow that doesn't seem fair. At the same time, Reed's pile-driver portrayal is so merciless that it morphs into a kind of theatrical bullying. Near evening's end, Charlie screams at his ambivalent boss, "You want somebody to take charge? I'll take charge." But he's only stating the obvious. The take-charge Reed began to pummel this production in its very first minute. By the end of the play, you almost wish a referee would step in and stop the bloodbath.