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Review of Speed-the-Plow in a New Production

Speed-the-Plow: Barrymore Theatre the night after Jeremy Piven withdrew from the cast claiming mercury poisoning from sushi. LATER he was replaced by Bill Macy and that review appears in 2009 issue.

This night’s performance had a replacement for Jeremy Piven, whose parents grew up acting in Chicago area theatre at the time Mamet was starting out. The replacement, however, Jordan Lage, was excellent and at the conclusion the other two performers fell on him with congratulations and there was wild applause from the audience for him. Fortunately, Lage had lots of Mamet background, having worked on the recent Broadway Glengarry as well as Off-Broadway on Edmond and Water Engine. So he was well-versed in Mamet.

The issue of verse is important, as Newsweek reviewer Jeremy McCarter observed: “Deep-down he’s a poet, writing a delicate form of verse with a precise, Runyonesque rhythm” (1 Dec. 2008:57). McCarter rightly notes how well Raul Esparza “all but sings the role of the craven producer, flickering from deadpan comic understatement to high, excited shrieks.” The remarks are appropriate because Mamet stripped this play so bare of plot or suspense that what remains primarily is acting—and if one can really get it to work, Mamet’s plays become vehicles for the kind of great acting that Shakespeare potentially creates in his actors. It is this kind of performance that Esparza delivers.
I would not have traced the secret of the performance to the verse, but it was a mystery to me how Esparza was so absolutely compelling. Initially he enters the office almost wild—grabs a cigarette from the desk and smokes in such a peculiar aggressive way that you sense he wants to inhale everything, the same way he attacks each puff of the cigarette. It should have been off-putting, as too nervous or twitchy an actor can exhaust an audience, but it never came close to this—he would go still, as if in thought, then take off with a burst of energy. Often his lines were given so fast they could barely be followed. All that was lacking was a physical sense of the close connection of the two old whores, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox. The actors didn’t have that kind of rapport that it takes a lot of rehearsing and working together to create.
But when the explosion came in the third act it came courtesy of American Buffalo—Fox went ballistic smashing Gould in the face, bloodying his nose, and then throwing every script off the desk, pages flying everywhere… and then, like John in Oleanna after his explosion and beating of Carol, he subsides instantly into quietly picking up the pages of the scripts one by one, kneeling on the floor while Gould sits at the desk mopping up his nose. The venom of Fox was then unleashed on Karen for the finale, and his face went into an almost demonic mask when she entered.
The audience went silent for this final confrontation: “If you said ‘No,’ would I have gone to bed with you?” Silence. Wait for the audience to catch the crucial moment when she waits for the response. What worked even more magically, and better than in any other production I’ve seen was a line in which the audience audibly gasped in astonishment at the faux pas: “Bob, we have a fucking meeting.” The gaffe made clear, in a single line, that she had suddenly moved in to think she was in control, and it was “we” who made decisions. It resonated nicely back to the opening scene when Fox brings the idea for the Buddy film to Gould, and they are going to take it to the head of the studio—“Let me talk, no disrespect . . . ” (16). Tell me about the picture. He had no idea other than the one sentence summary—but wanted full credit. There may be “we” as co-producers in his office, but only “I” when he goes to meet with Ross. The blunder was beautifully rendered by Elizabeth Moss who brought a little girl naïve quality to the character I hadn’t seen so clearly before. But once Gould exits, it was chilling when she asked,
KAREN: What did I say . . .?
FOX: . . . Uh huh . . .
KAREN: I don’t understand.
FOX: I’ll send you the coverage. Goodbye. You’ve said your piece. Now go away. (80-81)
The whole audience, however, did understand. Well, that’s an exaggeration. I was down in the fifth row center house seat—my friend Jeanne Krier up in the balcony followed six young women down after the play saying, “Whatever. … Next time I’m picking the play.” Clearly, if you don’t fill in the gaps in this play as in the other Mamet works, from Duck Variations on, then you’ll just hear empty clichés and nothing happens. No sex scene. Minor violence. Over. Whatever.
            But for those who enter into the world of the play, something entirely different happens. First, as usual Mamet asks you to pick sides. In this case, we pick the side of purity vs. mammon. Karen’s “naïve” questions in act one are anything but. Instead, they ask about the values of Fox and Gould, who dismiss such concerns, and revel in being old whores, just out to make money. In the second act, however, this easy identification of values is complicated by her enthusiasm for The Bridge. A big-time HBO producer/editor asked me after seeing this production, which he loved, what are we to make of those quotes from the book. They sounded so stupid, yet whatever background he’d found on the play implied a kind of profundity to them: “He puts his hand on the child’s chest, and he says “heal,” as if he felt he had the power to heal him, he calls on God …” (47) This sounds like simple religious enthusiasm, and in a sense it is, but it is also just a web of clichés without any profundity at all. Her opening quotation of Act Two concludes:
…and the problems which assaulted him: they do not disappear, but they are forgotten. He says: years later: it did not occur to him ‘til then that this was happiness. That thing which he lacked, he says, was courage. What does the Tramp say? ‘All fears are one fear. Just the fear of death. And we accept it, then we are at peace. And so, you see, and so all of the events . . . the stone, the instrument, the child which he met, led him there. (47)
Two points jump out of this quote: the first are the Tramp’s clichés which she takes to be so profound. The second is that all this is radically unfilmable, non visual. It is purely abstraction. The meaning of an event is only revealed years later—and the event is the loss of fears. This might work in a novel—but it is not profound except as the dream is to the dreamer, but not to anyone else.
            So by associating Karen, and then Bobby Gould, with this piece of claptrap, the play takes the weirdest turn. Their quest for purity has found a purifying object which confers purity on all who touch it. But it is not a movie. And, as Charlie argues, it will not make money; it will instead destroy Bobby’s career just as it’s about to take off. And so we root, as we do later in Oleanna, for the house, the job, the money—all the middle class trappings become our values, and we turn in the third act to hope that Charlie can bring Bobby to his senses, and de-brainwash him from the cult he’s bought into—the cult of Karen and The Bridge.
            Unless one holds on to the values of purity against mammon. Then one roots for Karen and Bobby to hold to their principles. For the quotes aren’t quite stupid enough that anyone could say they were pure drivel. There might be something to them. Only every time someone reads a passage, it falls flat. The best is the last which Karen reads profoundly, and then stops, and says, “No, that’s the wrong bit. That’s not the part...” (80). But it never is the right part—every passage drips with meaning, but is, when held up to the light, purely transparent. Charlie makes this clear at the end when he picks up the book and reads a passage arbitrarily: “The Earth burned. But the last man had a vision…” (80).
            The import of the whole play, therefore, pivots on the performance of Karen. Fox and Gould can do whatever they want, and audiences would be attracted because they’re such great parts. Leslie Kane writes interpreting the play as Karen’s attempt to convert the true Jews into Christians—her sympathies in the book are all with the Jewish religion, so Karen is clearly the enemy. Others, particularly feminists, rightly see that Karen’s role is to disrupt the male patriarchal buddy system, and so side with her quest for purity, and see The Bridge as a utopian attempt to cleanse the world through radiation; Jeanne-Andree Nelson viewing her as sincere. Ruby Cohn concludes that Mamet’s linguistic powers failed him because what he tried to do as satire is taken seriously by other critics.
            Ideologies will separate us, so the burden of performance is on Karen. If the actor is too sincere, as Elisabeth Moss tended to be, then the balance will be thrown off. On the other hand, the best way to act comic lines is to play them seriously (as Raul Esparza did incredibly well). So the actress can’t tip her hand either, or satirize the character’s sincerity in her performance making Karen into a cartoon. Madonna avoided the problem by going with Mamet acting: she gave away nothing, no emotion, no help to the audience with interpretation. And the critics, used to actors who signal what they are to think, were lost and blamed Madonna’s lack of charisma and failure to act. But in fact, as Greg Mosher surely knew, playing it straight down the middle is the best solution. But it puts a substantial burden on the audience to do the work of interpretation.
The balance also tips on how she plays the second act. If she is too pure, then the sexuality of the act will be totally incongruous; if she is too sexual, then the sincerity and passion for the The Bridge will be lost. Karen confesses she knew when he asked her to his house he wanted to sleep with her, and she still came. “ I said, why not? I’m weak too. We all need companionship, the things we want…I wanted them. You’re right. I shouldn’t act as though I was naïve. I shouldn’t act as though I believed you. You/re . . . . but but but:” (58).
            The question is, are these lines sincere? Is she aware of his sexual desires, and so self-conscious that she knows this is her own weakness? Or is she a witch/seductress who puts on an act of naiveté in order to become a producer of a film—in this case, the only one to which she has access, The Bridge? Did she have sex with him to get to work on the movie? Or was she convinced of the merit of the story, wanted purity herself, and so was drawn to it? My HBO producer friend had an interesting take on this choice of purity from Bobby Gould’s perspective. He said he could understand the sudden conversion between acts two and three of Bobby as that of a producer who’s risen to be head of production by making some not-so-artistic works—in fact, that’s exactly what Bobby reveals to Karen in Act One where he says, he’s not an artist. But she offers him a chance to repurify himself—to create one meaningful film that would atone, in a sense, for past failures and would show his desire to be head of production not merely for the pay and perks, but for the good of the work itself. Is that what Karen believes? Or is it a con, as Charlie Fox clearly believes. Again, the issue is how does the actress play it?
            Morally and dramaturgically the crucial point, and one at which my audience went into total and complete silence, was when Charlie asks Karen, “If he had said ‘No,’ would you have gone to bed with him?” (77). Her answer is, of course, first a Pause. And then she avoids answering, so Bobby has to ask it “You’re living in a World of Truth. Would you of gone to bed with me, I didn’t do your book. (Pause.)” She answers: “No. (Pause.) No.” (77). What is fascinating about the exchange is that she could have lied, and Fox would have been defeated. That she didn’t testifies to her desire to be pure, despite falls and weakness; so she does indeed tell the truth.
            For Bobby, however, that destroys her credibility though, for me, it reinforces it. He can only respond, “Oh, God, now I’m lost.” He demands time to think—and perhaps he would have reached my conclusion, but in this production the culminating line which brings a final recognition to the audience is one changed from the printed text:
             GOULD: I have to stop. I have to think now.
            KAREN: Bob…
            GOULD: … No.
            KAREN: Bob, we have a meeting. (Pause.)
            FOX: I rest my case. (Pause.)
When her line was given, my audience audibly gasped in shock that she said the meeting was “We” as well as the addition of the word “fucking” before meeting! This word which Mamet was stereotyped with isn’t used in this play at all, after over one hundred uses in both Buffalo and Glengarry. And its appearance here was stunning as a result—that the pure and naïve girl would use it completely alters the equation. Clearly she’s using the language of show biz men, and it is as if she’s been simply wearing a mask of innocence al the time before. Here, at last, the true Karen is revealed.
            So as much as I loved the line, I hated the way it eliminated the ambiguity about Karen’s motivation. My sense is that the audience, in general, seems to side with Charlie against Karen anyway. And for her to suddenly confirm their view is unnecessary. Rather, my experience with the play is usually that I become Bobby Gould. I am lost. I thought purity was preferable to mammon, and I could have been seduced by purity (see Measure for Measure?), but at the end I cheer for good old middle class values—home, job, income—and no values at all. As Karen rightly argued in act two, “Look, I read the script. Mister Fox’s script, that prison film. That’s, that’s just degradation, that’s the same old… it’s despicable, it’s … It’s degrading to the human spirit….it…. (55). Whatever her motives, we know she’s right because Fox telling Gould doesn’t need to fill in the plot. Two sentences of the set up, and Gould knows exactly how the rest of it goes. “They blah blah,  so on…” (13). It clearly is a retread, with no redeeming value. And no one can question that, yet at the end of the play, we are rooting for Gould to return to it instead of the purifying Bridge. So when we reach that point, we are as lost as Gould and Karen. Fox is the only one who remains committed to his valueless quest for money alone. And he concludes the play rejecting her values: “And what if this fucken’ ‘grace’ exists? It’s not for you. […] I know what you wanted, Bob. You wanted to do good.” (81).
FOX: Well, so we learn a lesson. But we aren’t here to “pine,” Bob, we aren’t put here to mope. What are we here to do (pause) Bob? After everything is said and done. What are we put on earth to do?
GOULD: We’re here to make a movie. (82)
So after we’ve hoped this would be the conclusion, when we get it, we also have to take along with it that making money is amoral. It has no values at all, and we almost have to put values aside in order to make money, to be Bobby Gould. But this is what we, at least temporarily as audience, become. And for that reason, like him, we’re lost.
David K. Sauer
12/16/08
This night’s performance had a replacement for Jeremy Piven, whose parents grew up acting in Chicago area theatre at the time Mamet was starting out. The replacement, however, Jordan Lage, was excellent and at the conclusion the other two performers fell on him with congratulations and there was wild applause from the audience for him. Fortunately, Lage had lots of Mamet background, having worked on the recent Broadway Glengarry as well as Off-Broadway on Edmond and Water Engine. So he was well-versed in Mamet.

The issue of verse is important, as Newsweek reviewer Jeremy McCarter observed: “Deep-down he’s a poet, writing a delicate form of verse with a precise, Runyonesque rhythm” (1 Dec. 2008:57). McCarter rightly notes how well Raul Esparza “all but sings the role of the craven producer, flickering from deadpan comic understatement to high, excited shrieks.” The remarks are appropriate because Mamet stripped this play so bare of plot or suspense that what remains primarily is acting—and if one can really get it to work, Mamet’s plays become vehicles for the kind of great acting that Shakespeare potentially creates in his actors. It is this kind of performance that Esparza delivers.
I would not have traced the secret of the performance to the verse, but it was a mystery to me how Esparza was so absolutely compelling. Initially he enters the office almost wild—grabs a cigarette from the desk and smokes in such a peculiar aggressive way that you sense he wants to inhale everything, the same way he attacks each puff of the cigarette. It should have been off-putting, as too nervous or twitchy an actor can exhaust an audience, but it never came close to this—he would go still, as if in thought, then take off with a burst of energy. Often his lines were given so fast they could barely be followed. All that was lacking was a physical sense of the close connection of the two old whores, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox. The actors didn’t have that kind of rapport that it takes a lot of rehearsing and working together to create.
But when the explosion came in the third act it came courtesy of American Buffalo—Fox went ballistic smashing Gould in the face, bloodying his nose, and then throwing every script off the desk, pages flying everywhere… and then, like John in Oleanna after his explosion and beating of Carol, he subsides instantly into quietly picking up the pages of the scripts one by one, kneeling on the floor while Gould sits at the desk mopping up his nose. The venom of Fox was then unleashed on Karen for the finale, and his face went into an almost demonic mask when she entered.
The audience went silent for this final confrontation: “If you said ‘No,’ would I have gone to bed with you?” Silence. Wait for the audience to catch the crucial moment when she waits for the response. What worked even more magically, and better than in any other production I’ve seen was a line in which the audience audibly gasped in astonishment at the faux pas: “Bob, we have a fucking meeting.” The gaffe made clear, in a single line, that she had suddenly moved in to think she was in control, and it was “we” who made decisions. It resonated nicely back to the opening scene when Fox brings the idea for the Buddy film to Gould, and they are going to take it to the head of the studio—“Let me talk, no disrespect . . . ” (16). Tell me about the picture. He had no idea other than the one sentence summary—but wanted full credit. There may be “we” as co-producers in his office, but only “I” when he goes to meet with Ross. The blunder was beautifully rendered by Elizabeth Moss who brought a little girl naïve quality to the character I hadn’t seen so clearly before. But once Gould exits, it was chilling when she asked,
KAREN: What did I say . . .?
FOX: . . . Uh huh . . .
KAREN: I don’t understand.
FOX: I’ll send you the coverage. Goodbye. You’ve said your piece. Now go away. (80-81)
The whole audience, however, did understand. Well, that’s an exaggeration. I was down in the fifth row center house seat—my friend Jeanne Krier up in the balcony followed six young women down after the play saying, “Whatever. … Next time I’m picking the play.” Clearly, if you don’t fill in the gaps in this play as in the other Mamet works, from Duck Variations on, then you’ll just hear empty clichés and nothing happens. No sex scene. Minor violence. Over. Whatever.
            But for those who enter into the world of the play, something entirely different happens. First, as usual Mamet asks you to pick sides. In this case, we pick the side of purity vs. mammon. Karen’s “naïve” questions in act one are anything but. Instead, they ask about the values of Fox and Gould, who dismiss such concerns, and revel in being old whores, just out to make money. In the second act, however, this easy identification of values is complicated by her enthusiasm for The Bridge. A big-time HBO producer/editor asked me after seeing this production, which he loved, what are we to make of those quotes from the book. They sounded so stupid, yet whatever background he’d found on the play implied a kind of profundity to them: “He puts his hand on the child’s chest, and he says “heal,” as if he felt he had the power to heal him, he calls on God …” (47) This sounds like simple religious enthusiasm, and in a sense it is, but it is also just a web of clichés without any profundity at all. Her opening quotation of Act Two concludes:
…and the problems which assaulted him: they do not disappear, but they are forgotten. He says: years later: it did not occur to him ‘til then that this was happiness. That thing which he lacked, he says, was courage. What does the Tramp say? ‘All fears are one fear. Just the fear of death. And we accept it, then we are at peace. And so, you see, and so all of the events . . . the stone, the instrument, the child which he met, led him there. (47)
Two points jump out of this quote: the first are the Tramp’s clichés which she takes to be so profound. The second is that all this is radically unfilmable, non visual. It is purely abstraction. The meaning of an event is only revealed years later—and the event is the loss of fears. This might work in a novel—but it is not profound except as the dream is to the dreamer, but not to anyone else.
            So by associating Karen, and then Bobby Gould, with this piece of claptrap, the play takes the weirdest turn. Their quest for purity has found a purifying object which confers purity on all who touch it. But it is not a movie. And, as Charlie argues, it will not make money; it will instead destroy Bobby’s career just as it’s about to take off. And so we root, as we do later in Oleanna, for the house, the job, the money—all the middle class trappings become our values, and we turn in the third act to hope that Charlie can bring Bobby to his senses, and de-brainwash him from the cult he’s bought into—the cult of Karen and The Bridge.
            Unless one holds on to the values of purity against mammon. Then one roots for Karen and Bobby to hold to their principles. For the quotes aren’t quite stupid enough that anyone could say they were pure drivel. There might be something to them. Only every time someone reads a passage, it falls flat. The best is the last which Karen reads profoundly, and then stops, and says, “No, that’s the wrong bit. That’s not the part...” (80). But it never is the right part—every passage drips with meaning, but is, when held up to the light, purely transparent. Charlie makes this clear at the end when he picks up the book and reads a passage arbitrarily: “The Earth burned. But the last man had a vision…” (80).
            The import of the whole play, therefore, pivots on the performance of Karen. Fox and Gould can do whatever they want, and audiences would be attracted because they’re such great parts. Leslie Kane writes interpreting the play as Karen’s attempt to convert the true Jews into Christians—her sympathies in the book are all with the Jewish religion, so Karen is clearly the enemy. Others, particularly feminists, rightly see that Karen’s role is to disrupt the male patriarchal buddy system, and so side with her quest for purity, and see The Bridge as a utopian attempt to cleanse the world through radiation; Jeanne-Andree Nelson viewing her as sincere. Ruby Cohn concludes that Mamet’s linguistic powers failed him because what he tried to do as satire is taken seriously by other critics.
            Ideologies will separate us, so the burden of performance is on Karen. If the actor is too sincere, as Elisabeth Moss tended to be, then the balance will be thrown off. On the other hand, the best way to act comic lines is to play them seriously (as Raul Esparza did incredibly well). So the actress can’t tip her hand either, or satirize the character’s sincerity in her performance making Karen into a cartoon. Madonna avoided the problem by going with Mamet acting: she gave away nothing, no emotion, no help to the audience with interpretation. And the critics, used to actors who signal what they are to think, were lost and blamed Madonna’s lack of charisma and failure to act. But in fact, as Greg Mosher surely knew, playing it straight down the middle is the best solution. But it puts a substantial burden on the audience to do the work of interpretation.
The balance also tips on how she plays the second act. If she is too pure, then the sexuality of the act will be totally incongruous; if she is too sexual, then the sincerity and passion for the The Bridge will be lost. Karen confesses she knew when he asked her to his house he wanted to sleep with her, and she still came. “ I said, why not? I’m weak too. We all need companionship, the things we want…I wanted them. You’re right. I shouldn’t act as though I was naïve. I shouldn’t act as though I believed you. You/re . . . . but but but:” (58).
            The question is, are these lines sincere? Is she aware of his sexual desires, and so self-conscious that she knows this is her own weakness? Or is she a witch/seductress who puts on an act of naiveté in order to become a producer of a film—in this case, the only one to which she has access, The Bridge? Did she have sex with him to get to work on the movie? Or was she convinced of the merit of the story, wanted purity herself, and so was drawn to it? My HBO producer friend had an interesting take on this choice of purity from Bobby Gould’s perspective. He said he could understand the sudden conversion between acts two and three of Bobby as that of a producer who’s risen to be head of production by making some not-so-artistic works—in fact, that’s exactly what Bobby reveals to Karen in Act One where he says, he’s not an artist. But she offers him a chance to repurify himself—to create one meaningful film that would atone, in a sense, for past failures and would show his desire to be head of production not merely for the pay and perks, but for the good of the work itself. Is that what Karen believes? Or is it a con, as Charlie Fox clearly believes. Again, the issue is how does the actress play it?
            Morally and dramaturgically the crucial point, and one at which my audience went into total and complete silence, was when Charlie asks Karen, “If he had said ‘No,’ would you have gone to bed with him?” (77). Her answer is, of course, first a Pause. And then she avoids answering, so Bobby has to ask it “You’re living in a World of Truth. Would you of gone to bed with me, I didn’t do your book. (Pause.)” She answers: “No. (Pause.) No.” (77). What is fascinating about the exchange is that she could have lied, and Fox would have been defeated. That she didn’t testifies to her desire to be pure, despite falls and weakness; so she does indeed tell the truth.
            For Bobby, however, that destroys her credibility though, for me, it reinforces it. He can only respond, “Oh, God, now I’m lost.” He demands time to think—and perhaps he would have reached my conclusion, but in this production the culminating line which brings a final recognition to the audience is one changed from the printed text:
             GOULD: I have to stop. I have to think now.
            KAREN: Bob…
            GOULD: … No.
            KAREN: Bob, we have a meeting. (Pause.)
            FOX: I rest my case. (Pause.)
When her line was given, my audience audibly gasped in shock that she said the meeting was “We” as well as the addition of the word “fucking” before meeting! This word which Mamet was stereotyped with isn’t used in this play at all, after over one hundred uses in both Buffalo and Glengarry. And its appearance here was stunning as a result—that the pure and naïve girl would use it completely alters the equation. Clearly she’s using the language of show biz men, and it is as if she’s been simply wearing a mask of innocence al the time before. Here, at last, the true Karen is revealed.
            So as much as I loved the line, I hated the way it eliminated the ambiguity about Karen’s motivation. My sense is that the audience, in general, seems to side with Charlie against Karen anyway. And for her to suddenly confirm their view is unnecessary. Rather, my experience with the play is usually that I become Bobby Gould. I am lost. I thought purity was preferable to mammon, and I could have been seduced by purity (see Measure for Measure?), but at the end I cheer for good old middle class values—home, job, income—and no values at all. As Karen rightly argued in act two, “Look, I read the script. Mister Fox’s script, that prison film. That’s, that’s just degradation, that’s the same old… it’s despicable, it’s … It’s degrading to the human spirit….it…. (55). Whatever her motives, we know she’s right because Fox telling Gould doesn’t need to fill in the plot. Two sentences of the set up, and Gould knows exactly how the rest of it goes. “They blah blah,  so on…” (13). It clearly is a retread, with no redeeming value. And no one can question that, yet at the end of the play, we are rooting for Gould to return to it instead of the purifying Bridge. So when we reach that point, we are as lost as Gould and Karen. Fox is the only one who remains committed to his valueless quest for money alone. And he concludes the play rejecting her values: “And what if this fucken’ ‘grace’ exists? It’s not for you. […] I know what you wanted, Bob. You wanted to do good.” (81).
FOX: Well, so we learn a lesson. But we aren’t here to “pine,” Bob, we aren’t put here to mope. What are we here to do (pause) Bob? After everything is said and done. What are we put on earth to do?
GOULD: We’re here to make a movie. (82)
So after we’ve hoped this would be the conclusion, when we get it, we also have to take along with it that making money is amoral. It has no values at all, and we almost have to put values aside in order to make money, to be Bobby Gould. But this is what we, at least temporarily as audience, become. And for that reason, like him, we’re lost.
David K. Sauer
12/16/08