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Life in the Food Chain

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SPEED-THE-PLOW

Remains Theatre Ensemble

at Wisdom Bridge Theatre

". . . because the scene was written [by David Mamet] in a serious manner and yet the style is funny" --Robert De Niro, as quoted by Gene Siskel, explaining why he'd had a tough time with a scene in a movie he was working on.

You've heard of must-sees. David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow is definitely a must-see. Not only because it's very, very good, but because you've got to see it if you want to find out what makes it so good.

Merely reading the thing won't do.

Some plays can be read, but I tried reading Speed-the-Plow and it didn't work at all. In fact, it was extremely disappointing. Here was the celebrated Mamet dialogue, with its sprung rhythms, its broken phrasings, its idioms and improvisations--at once poetic and stenographic--expressing the rhetoric of hustle, the dance of the food chain. But that language seemed to have gone soft somehow this time around. The banter seemed aimless, the serious bits insufferably portentous. I got the sense that Mamet had stage time to fill and was filling it reflexively, with imitations of himself. Glengarry Glen Ross had practically glowed up at me from the page: so sharp, so absolutely focused, even when it appeared to be taking great long rides around the point. Speed-the-Plow didn't even glimmer. It just sort of sat there, looking gray and empty, trivial and yet terribly self-important--a famous playwright's deeply significant dud.

Well, I was wrong. As the new Remains Theatre production demonstrates nicely, Speed-the-Plow is not only not a dud, it's a masterpiece. A Brechtian satire with Chekhovian ambiguities: harsh and subtle, painful and cool, compassionate and hilariously nasty.

How'd I manage to miss all that? I suppose part of the problem had to do with linguistics. I couldn't read Speed-the-Plow because I didn't understand the language it was written in. Glengarry Glen Ross speaks the language of middle-aged, lowbrow, halfway slimy real-estate salesmen who I'm willing to bet you grew up on the Jewish west side of Chicago during the depression, making their way up the Kedzie Avenue Trail into Albany Park, Rogers Park, Lincolnwood, and Skokie after the war. I know those guys. I'm familiar with their assumptions, their enormous stores of panic. And so I don't need a translator when Mamet gets them talking.

Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, takes place in Hollywood, where hotshot movie exec Bobby Gould, fortysomething, has just been anointed head of production at some studio. He and his compadre Charlie Fox speak a schmoozy, jumpy "Who's on First" patter, full of weirdly random breaks. Charlie, especially, cuts into Bobby's lines gratuitously, at odd and apparently arbitrary angles. I couldn't suss the idiom until I saw the show and realized--midwestern innocent that I am--that their talk reflects the blood-in-the-nostrils excitement of capitalists pumped up not only on nerves, like the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, but on cocaine as well. Suddenly Charlie's little frenzies made sense.

But decoding Charlie wasn't my basic problem in reading Speed-the-Plow. My basic problem was that I missed its most exquisite aspect: its lovely, masterful round of ambiguities.

Take the business about the book, for instance. In Speed-the-Plow, Charlie Fox comes to Bobby Gould with a dream deal: a chance to make a high-concept movie--"action, blood, a social theme"--starring a wildly bankable actor, Doug Brown. Bobby's crazy for it. (Hence the blood in the nostrils.) But then along comes Karen, the temporary secretary with a conscience, who convinces Bobby he ought to have one too. In the course of their night together, Karen tries to get Bobby to reject the Doug Brown money-maker and to bankroll a socially responsible film instead, based on a book about Radiation, Destiny, and The End of the World. The final third of the play gives us Charlie wrestling Karen for Bobby's heart and mind.

Fine. I understood the function of the book in the plot. What I couldn't figure out from the script alone was whether or not I was expected to share Karen's solemn ecstasy over it. The parts of it that are read out loud--"How are things made round? Was there one thing which, originally, was round?"--are pretty lame. But once Bobby's hooked, only Charlie's willing to say they're lame. And he's a confirmed philistine with an ax to grind. So who was I supposed to prefer? Charlie, the shark with wit enough to recognize bullshit? Or Karen, the twit with a cause?

The answer, of course, is that I got the questions wrong. Speed-the-Plow isn't about the struggle to make quality movies in Hollywood. It isn't Mamet's indictment of a corrupt industry for failing to turn silly, socially responsible books into silly, socially responsible movies. It's about a condition of being; about economic structures and cultural assumptions--a whole complex of social determinations--that can melt us down and mold us into whatever form they please, turning even our best intentions to their own ends. Twisting us up so we wouldn't even recognize ourselves--assuming we'd known ourselves in the first place. Very much like Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan & Lemon, Speed-the-Plow records the slow drift from being the person you thought you were to being the person you've become. Whether or not the radiation book is worth making doesn't even figure.

And I wouldn't have known any of this if I hadn't seen the Remains production, under Joel Schumacher's cunning direction. Somebody told me William L. Petersen and D.W. Moffett are miscast as Bobby and Charlie, and it's true: Petersen's much too handsome to play a man who thinks he's got to trick a woman into his bed, and Moffett's much too goyishe to be spouting lines about playing "hide the afikomen." Just consider that another part of the play of identities Mamet's giving us. They're both more than serviceable, and Moffett's positively amazing defending his movie package with his coked-out mama-tiger hackles up. A Vassar grad herself, Hope Davis makes perfect sense of Karen as the young woman who has always gotten a lot of strokes but knows herself not at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lascher.

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