The play may be 20 years old but David Mamet’s astringent observations on the supremacy of commerce over art in Hollywood are still as fresh as last night’s rushes. With the dismantling of studio specialty divisions and the increasing struggle of non-mainstream fare to find a foothold in the marketplace, “Speed-the-Plow” remains on-target in its sardonic skewering of an industry run by self-confessed whores and driven by the public’s appetite for mindless escapism. Despite a weak midsection, Neil Pepe’s taut Broadway revival keeps the verbal sniper fire swift and scathing, while the three accomplished actors make the air between them crackle with tension.
Attention has focused chiefly on the casting of Jeremy Piven as newly anointed studio head of production Bobby Gould, a character inhabiting the same universe as the actor’s profanity-spewing agent Ari Gold on “Entourage.”
Piven’s tightly wound physicality and easy command of rapid-fire, hectoring dialogue make him a natural fit for Mamet. But Bobby allows himself to be bamboozled in a way that would never wash with Ari. Fear runs as thick as cynicism in his bloodstream, feeding a destabilizing epiphany and then a stinging reawakening. It’s when the two characters diverge radically that Piven shows what a terrific actor he is, bringing unexpected pathos to a guy aptly described as “either scheming or ziggin’ and zaggin’.” Rude charm and smugness rarely go so smoothly hand in hand.
Bobby has scrambled up the studio ladder alongside aspiring producer Charlie Fox, who sweats nicotine and testosterone and reeks of hunger in Raul Esparza’s wired performance. Resentment and his own sense of impatient entitlement are clearly itching away under Charlie’s skin, but he needs Bobby to elevate him to the next level. The key to that advancement is a project packaged around top box office star Doug Brown.
The pitch scene in which Bobby and Charlie complete each other’s staccato sentences while boiling down the inane-sounding film’s plot into bite-sized nuggets for presentation to the studio chief — “a buddy film, a prison film, Douggie Brown, blah, blah, some girl … ” — is classic Mamet. And Piven and Esparza attack it with the relish of virtuoso violinists.
Charlie has just 24 hours to secure a greenlight for the picture, which is a no-brainer with Bobby’s support and protection to ensure he’s not left behind in the deal. But a wrench in the works materializes in office temp Karen (Elisabeth Moss). As leverage to help him win a bet with Charlie that he can get her into bed, Bobby enlists Karen to do a “courtesy read” on a pretentious impending-apocalypse novel by an artsy East Coast intellectual, titled “The Bridge: Or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. A Study of Decay.”
Mamet’s joke is that such a lofty decline-of-civilization treatise would never get even a glimmer of Hollywood development interest, but somehow, Karen’s impassioned, idealistic response to the material and its spiritual answers to life’s punishing emptiness touch a chord in Bobby. He ends up believing this is his opportunity to do work that means something. And to Charlie’s enraged, panic-stricken horror, he’s willing to use his discretionary power to greenlight one picture a year under $10 million to get it made.
Watching Moss, who brings a mix of unsophisticated blankness and quiet, observational savvy not unlike that of her character on “Mad Men,” it’s perplexing to think this thin role originally was played by Madonna. Given that the underpowered second scene is driven by Karen, it also explains why the play and production’s merits were largely overshadowed by the pop star’s casting at the height of her Material Girl fame.
Karen projects wide-eyed, trusting naivete while fueling the suspicion she may be no less ambitious than the men. The simple, unaffected directness of her questions — “Why?” “Is it a good film?” “Are you ever wrong?” — is so alien to these guys with their smartass repartee and know-all, shoot-down responses, she’s like a fascinating toy to them. It’s arguable whether Madonna has ever had an uncalculating or unself-conscious moment in her life, so it’s hard to imagine her not sabotaging the play. Moss is a little vocally monotone and can’t make the scene move any faster, but she keeps you guessing about Karen’s ambiguity.
However, Mamet invariably is at his best writing male characters, and the real juice here is in the opening and closing interplay between Bobby and Charlie. Even when these guys are warmly engaged in mutual backpatting, there’s animosity in the air. Piven’s casting pays off when Bobby is caught off-guard and the audience in turn is equally surprised by his vulnerability. And with his dark, hooded eyes and manic struggle to keep a lid on his anxiety, Esparza’s flashier turn provides the ideal counterpoint.
The muscular rhythms of Mamet’s dialogue appear to be second nature to Pepe, who has a long association with the playwright as artistic director of Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, of which Mamet is a founding member. Knowing the words are what matters, Pepe’s sleek production provides no distractions, marking the scene changes between Scott Pask’s uncluttered sets — a creamy Hollywood-deco office and a stylish but not too swanky earth-toned living room — with a flickering projector beam.
The play is not top-tier Mamet. Even with its current echoes about the chastening of greedy capitalists, it lacks the insight into moral bankruptcy and the erosion of the human soul that made “Glengarry Glen Ross” such a punch in the gut. And there’s a vague whiff of condescending superiority in Mamet biting the hand that has so often fed him. But the comedy is pithy, smart and performed with prickly energy. Plus, it’s only 80 minutes, so you can still get to a late show of that prison-buddy-action movie at the multiplex.