Speed the Plow

By David Mamet
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
At the Lyric Stage
Clarendon St, Boston (617) 437-7172 Through November 24th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Speed the Plow" may be minor Mamet , but in its present incarnation at the Lyric Stage it is elegant and amusing, a well-wrought demonstration of the adage that the medium is the message. For devotees of the art of the drama there is something particularly satisfying about being invited to laugh in the theatre at the antics of the arrested adolescents who manufacture celluloid dreams for a public that once upon a time bought them hand-crafted on the stage.

Janie E. Fliegel 's Lyric set is a touch of genius. It's a Hollywood producer's office. Carpet and walls are neutral gray, the executive desk a slab of glass. All other features are swathed in off-white paint-stained tarp -- the office is being redecorated. The back wall is dominated by a huge window, through which can be seen a pale blue sky filled with puffy clouds. The back wall has two other openings in it, high up and to the left, openings the size and shape of the slots in a projection booth through which film images pour out onto a movie screen. Behind these slots the same sky and clouds can be seen, and the "sky" and "clouds" continue past the side wall of the set, where they are revealed to be on a painted backdrop hanging from a pole, with one of lighting designer Linda O'Brien 's theatrical spots in plain view aimed to light up the sky. The set itself is a blatant metaphor, the perfect comic abstraction.

"Speed the Plow" -- the title is a variant of "Godspeed", the blessing on a journey, or on the farmer's labor-- is another of Mamet's portraits of men at work, "Glengarry Glen Ross" at the upper end of the food chain. This time out the satire is relatively gentle -- after all, Mamet the playwright is nibbling away at the Hollywood hands who feed Mamet the screenwriter-director.

Charlie Fox ( Phillip Patrone ), a hustler who has spent years lurking at the outer edges of the movie business snapping up what crumbs he can, suddenly has a hot action star agree to play the lead in a jail-break buddy film that Charlie optioned out of the slush pile -- if Charlie can close a deal in 24 hours. Fox goes straight to his old pal Bobby Gould ( Ted Reinstein ), who has just been promoted to a position where he can "greenlight" films for a major studio.

Bobby agrees with Charlie about the box-office potential -- with this star, the buddy film will be like a license to print money. Bobby quickly recognizes that Charlie's loyalty in bringing the project to him is both a payoff for past favors and a testament to Charlie's faith that Bobby is going to do big things in his new position. Charlie must look at Bobby sitting in his executive chair and see a man whose lackeys will be well rewarded. The first fruit of Bobby's gratitude is the promise of an above-the-title co-producer credit on the jailbreak picture for Bobby's old friend Charlie Fox. Bobby sets up a meeting for them with the studio head for the next morning.

The guys will be playing the game on a whole new level, but that's their reward for always playing by bottom line rules. None of that art or social relevance crap, or doing it for love. "You're a whore, I'm a whore", Charlie exalts, as he envisions the delightful difficulty he'll have figuring out how to spend all the money they're going to make. But of course neither of them are whores -- a whore performs, she works for her money. These guys are just panders. They don't write, they don't act, they don't direct, they don't edit -- they don't even read the scripts they reject or approve.

Once in a while a script or book comes in recommended as "good" by somebody related to somebody with clout, obliging Bobby to give it what is called a "courtesy read". The procedure is to assign some underling to read it and write a report so Bobby can explain why it can't be made into a picture. The novel currently sitting on Bobby's desk awaiting this treatment is a real loser. The subject alone -- the end of the world brought about by nuclear radiation-- is box office poison. Since literary merit is the last thing a realistic businessman would look for in a potential "property", neither of the guys aspires to be qualified to judge "art crap". An appreciation for anything other than the bankability of a film project would be a handicap to success in the business.

Early on, we're given a glimpse of Bobby's new office temp, Karen (Heather Glenn Wixson), a young woman good-looking enough to draw Charlie's admiration, but mostly notable for her secretarial incompetence. Charlie, in a sputter of foxy overconfidence, bets Bobby $500 that he can't bed this girl, and in a smooth and practiced move, Bobby asks Karen to give the "courtesy read" to the hopeless novel about the end of the world and report on it to him that night at his place. Every sentence read aloud from the novel gets a laugh. It's one of those Books that has a single Big Idea and expresses it over and over with a leaden, reverent, monosyllabic pomposity. This particular Big Idea sounds like a parody of Mamet himself in one of his oracular essays: Schopenhauer on Vallium. It's hard to believe that anyone has praised The Book's literary merit, but it does sound like just the kind of novel that inspires a conversion experience in people who don't read books: -- "Don't you see? It's so true--it's--us-- It's what's happening-- it's Life!" And who knows what kind of visual transmogrification might take place if somebody based a script on it? If "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" a can become a blockbuster movie, anything can.

Mamet has made Karen a blank. That may be proof of the critical contention that the author can't write female characters, or it may be because Mamet intended to leave Karen's role open to wide interpretation. He cast Madonna in it first time out in NYC. So--is Karen a stealth bomber? There's evidence that she isn't an experienced secretary. Did she bribe or scheme her way into her temp assignment, knowing that the radiation book was up for Bobby's consideration, with the intention of influencing him to greenlight it for production? Maybe she wrote it. Maybe her lover wrote it. Or maybe she just wants to break into the movie business, and latched onto the novel as the way. Or perhaps Karen is meant to be Bobby's Good Angel, sent by Providence or the Muses to give the producer a chance to do one noble deed to redeem his mendacious career?

Heather Glenn Wixson maintains the character's ambiguity, but at the price of making her less vivid or strong than she might be. Wixson's Karen begins awkwardly, as an inexperienced employee who wants to please her boss but isn't sure how to go about it. Once she has been given the Radiation Book, she reads passages aloud with the pale inexpressive fervor of a Jesus freak accosting a stranger in the Port Authority Bus Station.

Convinced by a night spent with Karen's innocent enthusiasm -- or what appears to be her innocent enthusiasm-- Bobby decides to scrap the prison flick and make the apocalypse-by-radiation-but-its-OK-we're-evolving picture instead. When he tells his pal Charlie, Charlie flips out. Desperately switching back and forth between venting his rage and working on Bobby's weaknesses to get him to revert to type, Patrone plays his macho variations with such skill that is shear joy to watch him.

Ted Reinstein is fun to watch, too. The actor gives Bobby a kind of lordly ease and earnestness. His body language makes it clear that owns the space in his office, he's king of the jungle -- at least for the time being. His trailed-off tones and the shapes his hands sculpt in the air tell another story, one of vulnerability. Bobby keeps his sentences gracious but minimal: indicating the direction the conversation should go, but only hinting how far. Patrone's Charlie has to fill it in, which he does in energetic bursts which send him scurrying back and forth across the carpet, his body pumping up into a sort of war-dance and then subsiding into grovels and genuflections of submission. This leader-henchman exchange of strokes is vintage Mamet, full of repetitions and verbal tics and commercial code, and director Spiro Veloudos keeps it all so well paced and brilliantly delivered that your laughter makes you forget that you've heard it all before. It's only later, when you pass a marquee advertising six of the pieces of schlock that these guys are gratified to manufacture, that you realize that the joke's on you.