David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” contains everything anyone could want in a comedy: copious laughs; a suspenseful plot; a significant moral question at its core; and brevity. Randall Arney’s stylish revival of the 1988 work at the Geffen Playhouse gains additional zing by virtue of its being staged in the community that sits squarely in Mamet’s crosshairs. It’s Hollywood playing itself as a high-class bordello.
Chief practitioners of the oldest profession are Charlie Fox (Greg Germann) and Bobby Gould (Jon Tenney), 11-year veterans of the studio rat race whose ship has come in. Two days into Gould’s tenure as head of production, old pal Fox has brought him the holy grail: Douggie Brown, the hottest star around, will commit to a prison picture if Gould can get his boss’ OK by 10 a.m. next day.
The inanity of the Brown project comes through hilariously in the guys’ rapid-fire shorthand synopsis written and delivered in trademark Mamet style. It unquestionably fulfills what Gould knows to be their mission: “Make the thing everyone made last year. Make that image people want to see.”
Scorn is reserved for “The Bridge,” an artsy novel about radiation and the impending end of the world ( “a summer picture,” jokes Fox) to which Gould has been told to give a courtesy read.
But a devil (or angel? you pick) appears on Gould’s shoulder in the form of Karen (Alicia Silverstone), a ditzy but dishy temp who knows only that movies should be beautiful and change people. As a prelude to sex, he assigns her to deliver coverage on “The Bridge” at his home that night. To his horror, not only does she urge him to greenlight the unfilmable apocalyptic tome, but she begins to persuade him that his personal redemption depends on it.
The pulse of the production is provided by Germann, gleefully dancing like a jerky marionette at the prospect of the power and wealth (and revenge) attendant on a co-producer credit on a tentpole. Amusingly, Arney directs the frumpily naive Silverstone to echo the same spastic energy as she describes the impact a film of “The Bridge” could have on a frightened and hopeless public.
They make for well-balanced antagonists as Gould considers whether, in his first official act as a studio boss, he will do good or do well.
The third leg of the tripod is unfortunately wobbly. Tenney lacks the twinkle and ruthlessness of the master manipulator, as well as the fundamental fear that Karen sees and exploits. Rushing his reactions, and directed to move at inappropriate times — as when someone hits him between the eyes with a home truth — he doesn’t inhabit his spacious office or home digs any more fully than he, as yet, inhabits the nuances of his role.
Tenney’s too-square approach, combined with Silverstone’s character’s awkwardness, means the production suffers a letdown of energy and interest when they’re alone during scene two.
But Germann returns to jump-start scene three, maybe the single most skillful and enjoyable sequence of Mamet’s writing career to date. Germann negotiates every emotional transition from incredulity to dismay to fury at his friend’s betrayal and plaintive aspirations to purity. “You’re a bought and paid-for whore,” he screams, “and you think you’re a ballerina because you work with your legs?”
In the inevitable showdown between God and Mammon for Everyman’s soul, the audience holds its breath as if the fate of nations were at stake. This is first rate, scintillating stuff.
Designer Robert Blackman captures the ominously temporary look of a Hollywood player’s bungalow, outdoing himself in a shift to an elegant living room for Karen and Bobby’s pre-coital story conference. Through the tall vertical blinds pop glimpses of the lights of the Hollywood Hills, symbolic of the material success that lies, at one point or another for each of the characters, tantalizingly within reach.