By David Mamet. Hartwig Arena Theatre, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. 30 Oct.- 2 Nov. 1997
Nine years after the Broadway premiere of Speed-the-Plow director Monica Hayes has mounted a spirited production of Mamet's play at the University of Southern Mississippi's intimate (100 seat) Hartwig Arena Theatre. A veteran Mamet director, in 1991 she directed American Buffalo at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Her production of Speed-the-Plow was well cast with two extraordinary actors, both graduate students in their late 20s, Andre Carriere as Bobby Gould and Daryl Phillipy as Fox, and 19-year-old sophomore Kristin Mauritz as Karen. Hayes's production captured Mamet's caustic humor and verbal brutality as she evoked a typical Mametian theme, potential virtue overcome by commerce, for an enthusiastic college audience. In a subsequent interview, Hayes emphasized the educational benefits of doing a Mamet play for the actors: "Mamet is brilliant. He writes the rhythms and tempos of the characters right into the dialogue; he puts his directing notes, through punctuation, into the text. When actors learn to treat Mamet's text structure with the same respect as they would Shakespeare's, the whole play comes to life--character, humor, status, intention, conflict, etc."
The dynamism between Carriere's Gould and Phillipy's Fox was right on target as the duo sparred with each other, their timing rhythmically perfect as they played Mamet's artful linguistic games. Theirs was not a battle of old whores--40-year-old Hollywood pros seasoned in smoky rooms--but rather a gathering of young lions prime for a kill, green lighting each other for even more daring dreams and boasts. As played by Carriere, Gould looked swanky in a mauve shirt and slacks; he even seemed intellectually astute. Carriere's suave energy made Gould both more terrifying and more vulnerable at the same timeterrifying because he appeared to have serious reasoning power; more vulnerable because his youthful sincerity actually made his Third Act-conversion to do The Bridge more plausible. Subtly suggestive, Gould reverts to promoting the sleazy prison film in a traditional business shirt and tie.
Phillipy was spellbinding as Fox; he became a sophisticated Teach with almost unstoppable energy. Taller, darker, more muscular than Carriere, Phillipy was convincingly aggressive, easily suggesting the combat at the center of Fox's life and career. When he hit Gould in Act Three, Phillipy finished the job by kicking him when he was down. Even the humor was physicalized. Hayes has him starting to unzip his trousers when discussing how he could land a contract. Still, Phillipy brought down the house just with his delivery of Mamet's funniest lines--"I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don't want to film them." At the other extreme, in response to Gould's injunction to be careful what he says about Karen, Phillipy's delivery of "It's only words, unless they're true," elicited tremors of shock from the audience which he seems to attack as much as Gould with his cold-dead stare. Like a predator or a postmodern Iago convincing Gould that "grace. . . . It's not for you," Phillipy encircled the playing area restlessly and dangerously. Phillipy's change of costume from Act One to Act Three--he is ominously absent from Act Two just as mogul Richard Ross is from the entire play--was symbolically effective. In Act One, Phillipy wore a black shirt with a tan suit, making him seem like another petitioner at the Whore of Hollywood's bordello, but in Act Three he dons a Beatle's jacket without a collar, the renegade without boundaries, conventions, or limits. Phillipy's Fox was the magister ludi of contracts without commitments.
Under Hayes's direction, Kristin Mauritz eliminates some of the ambiguity from Karen's role. Lithe and blond, she was credible, sincere, and passionately devoted to her moral cause, hardly the witch that Fox thinks she might be. In her performance there was no self-aggrandizement masquerading as aesthetic sensitivity, as in other Plows. When Gould asks her the ultimate question--"Would you of gone to bed with me, I didn't do your book. (Pause)"--a look of pained incredulity flashed across Mauritz's face, reinforcing her moral superiority with the audience and making the men seem like even bigger scoundrels than they already are.
The Hartwig Arena was beautifully suited for Mamet's dramaturgy. The audience sat around all four sides of the small playing area, close enough in fact to touch the actors and some of the props. This proximity easily accommodated one of Mamet's hallowed beliefs--that the separation between actors/characters dissolves in performance. The Hartwig audience was intimately involved in all the shady deals being concocted before them. Props and stage design were also subtly suggestive. In Act One, Gould sat behind a large desk with several scripts scattered to one side, a sign perhaps of the scarcity of provocative ideas in a Hollywood world of fruitless fictions. After a short intermission, Act Two began in Gould's apartment just a few feet away from the desk in Act One, reinforcing Mamet's suggestion that the predatory manners of a studio executive do not change in his domestic sphere. Next to an empty glass-top coffee table, Hayes placed some decorating books--how to select paint for the office--further suggesting the materialism and the poverty of imagination of Bobby's studio world. The stage was covered with mauve, rust, and ocher tiles suggesting the "in" colors of 1997 Hollywood as well as giving the audience the impression that the characters were movable figures--pawns--on a chess board.
As we draw closer to the millennium, with its evocation of doomsday, Speed-the-Plow may become Mamet's most performed play. As the script of The Bridge has it, "our life is ending. Yes. It's true. . . . these are the Dark Ages. They aren't to come, the Dark Ages--they are now. We're living them." Equally apocalyptic, radiation is all around us "in all things: not just in bones, in microwaves, in power, in air travel . . ." And it was also present, metaphorically speaking, in the electrifying production that Monica Hayes and her student actors performed before a deeply appreciative but clearly challenged audience.
PHILIP C. KOLIN
University of Southern Mississippi