Witty repartee keeps New Rep’s ‘Plow’ moving
WATERTOWN - There was reason to worry about the vitality of the New Repertory Theatre last month when Kate Warner began her tenure as artistic director with a sluggish production of the dated “Mister Roberts.’’
Paging Dr. Mamet: With “Speed-the-Plow,’’ a Hollywood satire by the ever-provocative David Mamet, the New Rep stage has come back to life. Cursing, scheming, down-and-dirty life.
Though “Speed-the-Plow’’ sags a bit in the middle, Mamet was mostly in top form with this tale of two blockbuster-obsessed movie producers and the idealistic temp who upends their moral universe. The playwright ingeniously maps the shifting balance of power, as first one character seems to be holding all the cards, and then another, and finally another.
“Speed-the-Plow’’ has a production history as colorful as the events onstage. It twice created a stir on Broadway: first, at its premiere in 1988, when Madonna made her stage debut amid great hullabaloo (with costars Joe Mantegna, and Ron Silver), and again last December, when Jeremy Piven abruptly left the cast because of elevated levels of mercury in his blood, which he attributed to the excessive consumption of fish. “My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer,’’ Mamet cracked at the time.
In the snappy New Rep production, Robert Pemberton plays Bobby Gould, the newly appointed head of production at a film studio. As Gould is sitting at his desk one day, rolling his eyes while giving a “courtesy read’’ to “The Bridge,’’ a turgid piece of literary fiction about radiation and the Meaning of Life, in walks a lower-ranking producer, Charlie Fox (Gabriel Kuttner), with some marvelous news.
Fox has uncovered an old action-caper script from a studio file, gotten it into the hands of a major movie star named Doug Brown, and Brown loved it! He wants to make the film! The script is preposterous, of course. Here is how Gould sums it up after hearing Fox’s outline: “. . . a buddy film, a prison film, Douggie Brown, blah, blah, some girl . . . action, blood, a social theme. . .’’
And dollars. Lots and lots of dollars. Fox, who is badly in need of a break, is jubilant. But beneath his excitement is a discernible undercurrent of resentment toward the more successful Gould. Unable to resist tweaking him, Fox bets Gould $500 that he cannot seduce Karen (Aimee Doherty), Gould’s temporary secretary. Gould takes the bet. He asks Karen to read “The Bridge,’’ then come to his house that night and give him a full report on whether it would make a good movie. She does so, which is when things get complicated. A seduction does indeed take place, but who seduces whom? And which movie will get made, the sure-thing blockbuster or the art film?
As these questions get entertainingly thrashed out, director Robert Walsh gives us Mamet in all his complexity. An actor who has performed in Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre,’’ Walsh knows that the suspense in Mamet-land stems from the sense that just beneath the verbal violence lurks the threat of physical violence. Sooner or later, Mamet’s people run out of words and things get primal.
But while few writers deliver a jolt to the nervous system (or a punch to the gut) quite like Mamet, the dialogue is of course central to his work, including “Speed-the-Plow.’’ With its choppy, rat-a-tat-tat rhythms and half-finished sentences, Mamet-speak poses a challenge to actors: If it doesn’t seem like their natural idiom, you could end up with the stilted tough-guy patter of, say, HBO’s “Deadwood’’ or ABC’s “NYPD Blue.’’
In their fast-paced scenes together - part conversation, part duel - Pemberton and Kuttner avoid this pitfall. Kuttner endows Fox with an edge of desperation; he has jittery limbs and jumpy eyes, like a man who knows this is his last chance. There is a stillness to Pemberton’s Gould; for all his bluster, he sometimes appears to be listening to an inner voice. Is that his conscience calling? Doherty’s nuanced Karen, meanwhile, has an air of mystery. Does she have an agenda? Is she as interested in power as everyone else in Hollywood? The actress smartly leaves us guessing.
Eric Levenson’s set establishes a visual correlative to the prevailing mood: It is all sharp planes and angles, not unlike the characters. But as always with Mamet, it is our ears, not our eyes, that have most of the fun.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.