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A CurtainUp Review

Life in the movie business is like the, is like the beginning of a new love affair: it's full of surprises, and you're constantly getting fucked.—Fox
But why should it all be garbage?—Karen
Why? Why should nickels be bigger than dimes? That's the way it is.—Fox
Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss in Speed-the-Plow (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
A three-actor play is like a three-legged stool. If one is weak, it saps the whole enterprise. That's why Madonna, the third leg in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow when it opened on Broadway in 1988 was so underwhelming that, despite the excellent performances of Joe Mantegna and Ron Silvers as the Hollywood sleaze specialists, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox, it never registered in my memory book as a major Mamet play. (That premiere production did have a modest success with 279 performances).

But lo and behold, the Speed-the-Plow revival now at the Barrymore Theater is a stool with all three of its legs rock solid. But don't mistake solid for stolid. These are exciting, explosive performances. And the play holds up extremely well.

Bobby Gould is played by Jeremy Pivens, well know to TV viewers as the agent in Entourage) and to theater goers for his role in Fat Pig by Neil LaBute, who, like Mamet, specializes in badly behaved males is Bobby Gould. Raul Esparza, equally at home in Broadway musicals and plays (Company, The Homecoming), is Charley Fox. Pivens and Esparza are a bit young to play men who have been relentlessly pursuing their big break in La La land for twenty years. But no matter. They are both riveting, individualizing their characters yet finely attuned to each other and to Mamet's turbo-charged dialogue. Their chemistry extends to the physical pherformances. Piven's less physical Charlie seeming more introspective in contrast to Esparza's Fox. The latter exacerbates his greater desperation and hostility about years of not being recognized and ramps up the high-speed Mametian Hollywood schmoozing with all manner of agile leaps and jumps.

As for Elisabeth Moss's Karen (you may know her as Mad Men's Peggy Olsen), though ultimately a third banana to Bobby and Charlie's long-standing relationship, she brings just the right mix of wide-eyed naivete and savvy realism to the role of the temporary secretary who throws a monkey wrench into the plan to to cement Bob's new job as Head Production Manager and abet Charlie's foxy determination to catch a ride on his coattails with a worthless but potentially money-making movie. Moss's portrayal gives the two-way power play between the two men, a trenchant three-way twist and adds a piquant ambiguity to the ending so that you leave the theater exhilarated but —as Mamet intends— without any of these people more likeable.

The play itself is almost eerily relevant. I had to check my script to make sure that the several references to mavericks weren't added in for this production. But no — Mamet beat Senator McCain and Governor Palin to it by way of Fox. I doubt Fox's "Everybody says Hey, I'm a maverick. . .But what do they do? Sit around like, hey, Pancho-the-dead-whale" got as many laughs in 1988 as it does these days.

Maybe even Hollywood moguls no longer refer to their secretaries as my girl and expect them to serve coffee. But the dumbing down of culture and the greed driving executive decision making (in banking as well as Hollywood circles) has escalated rather than become dated.

And so Mamet's story line is still all too believable: With his name and title freshly painted on his office door, Gould welcomes his old buddy Fox's bringing him an option to nail a box office winner and a big name actor to go with it. The quality and taste level of the property is never in question — until the fresh-faced temp (Karen) enters the room. The guys aren't swayed by her asking why all movies have to be garbage (as per one of my favorite witty quotes at the top of this review). But being Mamet men (and basically grown-up versions of the college buddies in Boys' Life, Howard Korder's play of the same era currently in a 20th anniversary revival at Second Stage), Fox, recognizing Gould's attraction to her, leads to a wager, about how easily she'll fall into his bed (Fox cattily bets that she won't).

As Mamet's satire revolves around three characters, it plays out in three acts, without an intermission: 1. The men's plan to present their big money, big star movie to Bobby's boss, ending in the bet about bedding Karen 2. The seduction in Gould's apartment that turns out to be mutual 3. The big blowout that has Charlie fighting for his gold ring on the Hollywood merry-go-round. Under Neil Pepe's guidance, those three acts zip by with never a dull moment, pausing just long enough to allow Scott Pask's set to swivel from Gould's still underfurnished office, to his apartment and back to his office. Laura Bauer's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting add to the production's visual enjoyment.

Another David Mamet play, American Buffalo is also scheduled for a comeback starring John Leguizamo and directed by Robert Falls and there are rumors that a revival of Oleana is not far behind. For more about Mamet's work and links to reviews of other productions of his plays, see our freshly updated Mamet Backgrounder

By David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Raúl Esparza (Charlie Fox), Jeremy Piven (Bobby Gould), Elisabeth Moss (Karen)
Set design:Scott Pask
Costumes: Laura Bauer
Lighting design: Brian MacDevitt
Fight direction: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: Matthew Silver
Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th St. 212/239-6200.
From 10/03/08, opening 10/23/08; closing 2/22/09
Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday–Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm and Sunday at 3 pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer Oct. 28th
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