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A CurtainUp London Review
In terms of stereotypes I cannot think of anything more diverse than David Mamet and Englishness. Of course with Mamet's recent screenplay for that most English of plays, Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, we can see how restrictive stereotypes can be. American Buffalo was a sell out hit at the Donmar last month, with many people according it the highest of praise, and only this week, Mamet's film, House of Games was shown on terrestrial television. Now Speed-the-Plow, his 1988 drama set in the tooth and claw world of the Hollywood film industry returns to London. The special draw is that another playwright, director, actor and one time comedian, Patrick Marber, author of Dealer's Choice and Closer plays one of the three roles.
Even in England, where people still talk about new money, the 1980s was the decade of "Thatcherism", the era of the "yuppies" when large fortunes were made in that special kind of gamble, the rise and fall of the Stock Exchange. Mamet's two main characters are Hollywood film executives. One, Bobby Gould, has just been promoted head of production at his studio. The other, Charlie Fox, has hung on to Gould's coat tails for years. As Gould tries out his new office, Fox brings news of a great deal, a film which will be a sure fire hit. The balance of power briefly skews between the two men as Fox speculates on what this will mean to him financially. A temporary secretary, Karen is the subject of a callous bet and is lured to Gould's flat on a pretext. She advocates that Gould should make a more meaningful film and it looks as if Fox's deal might fall through.
It is Mamet's gift for dialogue, natural, fast, as sharp as shards of glass, which creates the play's special almost poetic, rhythm. Some of the exactness of the idiom may be lost on English ears but there is no doubt as to his meaning although the simile may be unknown. Add to this combination of a taut plot and well honed words, an ironically icy humour, as Mamet satirises these nasty men, and you have a powerfully funny play. The mire in which they ruthlessly operate is the antithesis of the illusionist dream industry that they create. The film is a commodity, the bottom line is not art but dollars. Such is Mamet's skill that we do not warm to either of the men for one moment.
Mark Strong as Gould lives up to his name. His acting is as sleek as the successful mover that he is. Patrick Marber's Fox is seedier. He works out less, smokes more and has all the resentment of a man who has been denied promotion, the "remembered pain" of years of insignificance and belittling. An American actress, Kimberley Williams plays Karen, the very pretty, temporary secretary who keeps apologising for her naïveté. She seems an innocent, a victim but Fox's spin on her role creates enough of an ambiguity as to her motivation to add tension to the play's outcome.
John Gunter's office set is functional. Paint pots give evidence that it is being redecorated for its new occupant. Gould's flat has a stage filling mural of a leopard and a tiger, the visual pun being that we are in the presence of two man eaters.
Peter Gill's direction allows the designer suited Gould to come out from behind his desk, stretching up to his full height or draping his legs over the furniture, a man occupying his new territory. Fox is prehensilely slouched, hunched over, but bursting with excitement. In the scene on the sofa as Gould plots to win his bet and fill his bed, he and Karen echo each other's body language and clothes.
The big question left relates to Karen's role. It seems that Mamet meant Gould's choice to be between a popularist film and a riskier one with more depth. However he has written it with much of the description of the latter film coming over as pretentious psychobabble. "…all radiation has been sent by God to change us. Constantly." Our only reaction can be to laugh. If we cannot believe in the sincerity of this film, it makes it difficult to believe in Karen's purity. Maybe the point is that we are all cynics, in Oscar Wilde's words, we "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
With Harold Pinter's latest play Celebration opening at the Almeida this week and being shown with his first play, The Room, it is an ideal opportunity for London audiences to compare his work with that of David Mamet who has been called the American Pinter.
Editor's Note: For CurtainUp's Playwright's album feature on David Mamet, with links to other plays by him that we've reviewed (including the production of American Buffalo that played at the Donmar Warehouse -- go here
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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