Speed-the-Plow in Los Angeles
Odyssey Theatre production April 9, 1997
By David Mamet
Odyssey Theatre, Los Angeles
9 April 1997
The Los Angeles production of Mamet’s Speed-the Plow appropriately captures characters who don’t wear their dialogue like an untailored suit. Actors Jack Stehlin (playing Charlie Fox) and Casey Biggs (Bobby Gould) become the charming, vulnerable, fast-talking Hollywood producers who alternate between swimming with the sharks and becoming shark bait.
Director Elina de Santo obviously has allowed a very talented ensemble the freedom to “play-work” this intensely dark, biting comedy. As an audience, we not only see the pain and fear engulfing Bobby and Charlie, but we move through it in laughter—the survival mechanism to cope with misery and fear. The actors wisely take the risks to explore the drama inherent in Mamet’s unspoken words, offering paradoxical views of individual characters’ plights.
Charlie Fox brings newly-promoted studio executive Bobby Gould a hot property, a Doug Brown prison film on which Charlie has a twenty-four hour option. The symbiotic relationship between these two is clearly seen in back-scratching, butt-sniffing, name-calling that marks them as separate but necessary entities to each other. During the customary game of flattery that is an obvious jockeying for position, the marvelously inventive business of Bobby tossing M&M’s at Charlie becomes the focus. While Charlie rolls around the office in Bobby’s new office chair, Charlie attempts to catch those M&M’s in his mouth, sometimes succeeding—sometimes not. When he misses, he simply retrieves them off the floor and eats them anyway, accentuating that Bobby has been tossing “bones” to Charlie for years. The script that Charlie brings to Bobby on twenty-four hour option is tantamount to the “dead bird” that Charlie is dropping at his mentor’s feet.
When Bobby pulls a box of Junior Mints out of an obnoxious basket of movie concessions sent to congratulate him on his promotion, he teases Karen (Stacy Solodkin) with a leering “candy, little girl?” attitude. Karen eagerly accepts the candy and “innocently” allows Bobby to feed them to her, beginning the seduction tango that will characterize their interaction. With the addition of Karen as a potentially different partner/ player in the game, the main question arises: “Whose game is it, really?” Karen complicates the boys’ game by her ambiguous responses to her understanding of Bobby as emotionally and sexually vulnerable. She wants to lead (or to play), and she knows how—by manipulating Bobby’s desire to “do the right thing” and “green light” art. Her only miscalculation is Charlie’s power and his truth: “You’re a whore . . . Bob,” says Charlie, who is vocal when he needs the air cleared.
Bobby’s seduction of Karen in act two is hampered by her overwhelming desire to discuss the urgency of making the end-of-the-world film. Bobby, in his white wine haze, permits Karen, metaphorically, to strip him naked and seduce him and, in the process, Karen gets Bobby to commit $15 million to her end-of-the-world film. Bobby’s need to be loved by Karen is more important to him than Charlie or his career; the film could mark the end of Bobby’s career, yet he remains blind to that fact.
Enter Charlie, the seeing-eye dog. Charlie takes charge in the final act as he orchestrates the revealing of certain truths to Bobby. For him, they are no longer in a game; their actions have risen to a situation of life and death—for both men. Bobby’s career is well on its way to becoming “a punch line,” says Charlie, acknowledging that his livelihood is inextricably linked to Bobby’s. Finally violence surfaces between the two; Stehlin’s on-stage punching is shocking and brutal as words fail Charlie and Bobby — or as words themselves provoke violence.
Nonetheless, these slimy characters have become likable in their openness and truth-telling about the exact nature of the game they’re playing, and, yes, they are whores in a town filled with whores, madams, and pimps. By the end, Charlie, after sending Karen packing (“You ever come on the lot again, I’m going to have you killed!”), pushes Bobby toward a clean shirt, and the boys are off to the big meeting with Ross to pitch the trite Doug Brown prison film. We know that no matter how hard they try to pursue art, they, in their genuine humanness, will always be tempted to stick with the money, the known entity, in what they see as tangible security. As acted by Jack Stehlin and Casey Biggs, the two men cannot risk being themselves; to do so is to risk being vulnerable. In turn, their fear of exposure prevents their exposure. Thus, Mamet presents the men retreating to the safety of the dance/game they know so well, strutting and whoring.