LOCAL THEATRE GROUP TAKES ON A PLAY OF MAMET PROPORTIONS
Story by James Harrison
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Illustration by Brian Rea
I’ve been to a few Soulpepper performances over the years, and I always enjoy them. So while I missed out on Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010, I was excited to get to see them take on David Mamet’s Speed the Plow.
Mamet plays are hard to do well, which is why I’m generally apprehensive on behalf of those who attempt them. His fast-paced, curse-heavy, interruption-laden dialogue (“Mamet speak”) requires actors of a certain caliber to pull off. Speed the Plow (and let’s not even get in to Glengarry Glen Ross) alone boasts Kevin Spacey, Jeff Goldblum, William H. Macy and Elizabeth Moss as alumni.
The play, first performed in 1988, is classic Mamet (before he turned into a crazy Palin-boosting neocon). A central thematic argument is established, and then argued onstage by the characters, most often revealing that the argument was a false one all along. Mamet’s typical cast of characters are here as well; two sharking sleazeball Hollywood producers, and the enigmatic female.
The play surrounds newly minted head of production Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen), who is paid a visit by old friend and struggling producer Charlie Fox (Jordan Pettle). Fox has a blockbuster and wants Gould’s studio to make it. Along the way Gould’s temporary secretary Karen (Sarah Wilson) convinces him (Gould) that the movie that Fox wants to make is meaningless and that he should instead make a meaningful film based on the mystical apocalypse-novel “The Bridge, or Radiation and the Half-life of Society”. Karen’s motives are questioned as Gould struggles to make a decision about which film to make.
On the surface the play is a satire of the movie business, and is as true as it ever was. Morally bankrupt people clambering over one another for a chance to make lousy movies that will make them a lot of money. However, if you think the play is just your average art vs. money satirical sendoff, you’ve missed the point. What’s interesting in this play is Gould’s existential crisis—is everyone just trying to get something from him? Has he ever done anything meaningful? Has he wasted his life? Gould becomes convinced of a crisis in his own life, and reaches for the very first solution that comes his way, and Mamet intentionally gives us a ludicrous object (the book) to glom on to, packaged charismatically via Karen. These are things we all feel, and we all want easy and available solutions that give us some feeling of wholeness, yet those band-aid solutions seldom work. That’s really what makes Speed the Plow relevant today.
For all of it’s thematic heft, Speed the Plow is a difficult work to pull off. It’s funny, and the banter is enjoyable, however I’m not sure the audience is ever fully convinced by Karen and The Bridge (so far as the actual script goes, not the acting). It also creates a delightfully ugly character in Charlie Fox that script-wise, is far more interesting that the other two. The third act is difficult to execute for both of these reasons.
The players make a valiant effort. Given the difficulty of the material, Wilson absolutely comes to life in the second act with evangelical fervour. Pettle’s Charlie Fox is the dancing weasel he should be, with a palpable sweat of desperation on his brow. Cohen as Gould is strong in the first act as a guy who just won’t shut up. That said, the “brass balls” required of Mamet’s macho characters fades in and out, and the third act is difficult for all involved. Storch executes a well directed play, using the stage adeptly. Sets are simple, but what else do they need to be?
If you’re up for an enjoyable and seldom performed play by of the most influential playwrights of the modern age (You only need to watch the Simpsons, or the Wire, or Seinfeld to see his influence), the Soulpepper performance delivers. You’ll definitely have something to talk about on the way home.
Speed the Plow runs until September 22 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts