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Reviews of Speed-the-Plow

Overview of the reviewers of the Piven-Esparza-Moss production.

Speed-the-Plow October 23, 2008.  By David Mamet; directed by Neil Pepe; sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Laura Bauer; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; production stage manager, Matthew Silver; technical supervisor, Larry Morley; fight director, J. David Brimmer; associate producers, Rebecca Gold and Debbie Bisno; company manager, Bruce Klinger; general manager, Richards/Climan Inc. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, JK Productions, Ronald Frankel, Ostar Productions, Peggy Hill, Bat-Barry Productions, Ken Davenport, Scott Delman, Ergo Entertainment, Dede Harris, Alan D. Marks, Patty Ann McKinnon, Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Adam Sansiveri and Jamie deRoy/Carl Moellenberg. At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street; (212) 239-6200. Through Feb. 22. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
Bobby Gould - Jeremy Piven
Charlie Fox - Raúl Esparza
Karen - Elisabeth Moss
First it must be noted how strange this production turned out to be as Jeremy Piven quit claiming illness after less than two months. The producers scrambled to get a fill in after going with his understudy for a few weeks, then Norman Leo Butz played Bobby until January, and for the last month, William Macy filled in doing the role. The three stars playing the same role gave a unique opportunity to compare and discover how actors and text interrelate in fascinating ways. See Ben Brantley's summation in the last review on this list of what he learned from this experiment.
Virtually every review began by noting the play hadn’t aged, and was even more relevant to Hollywood today. Only McNulty in Los Angeles, however, noted the context:  “New York is in a downcast mood now that the tab from the financial industry's orgy threatens to bankrupt the rest of us.” And Gardner: “With Wall Street in ruins …” The context became increasingly painful as Bernie Madoff, the collapse of Lehman Brothers led to other banking bailouts, bankruptcy, sub-prime lending leading to a housing market crisis, bankruptcy, bail-outs of the banks and auto industry, a recession and unemployment. Living on the brink, as the producers do in this play, has a lot of the energy and panic of that context.
With this starting point, most reviewers treat the play as a first run—giving plot summaries and guidance to the readers, rather than treating it as a revival. They all thought Piven showed more variety than in his HBO series, Entourage, in which he plays a similar Hollywood huckster. Most thought he showed some vulnerability. Esparza was universally praised, many noting how he showed such a totally different kind of acting/performance from the restrained Bobby in Company and The Homecoming. His physicality and ability to turn emotionally in an instant were frequently praised.
What is fascinating as always is the construction of “Karen.” David Rooney never says explicitly, but implies she the deceiver: “Bobby allows himself to be bamboozled”. But when he analyzes the scene, it is different: “Karen's impassioned, idealistic response to the material and its spiritual answers to life's punishing emptiness touch a chord in Bobby.” Finally he returns to a view of her “naïvite”: “It's arguable whether Madonna has ever had an uncalculating or unself-conscious moment in her life, so it's hard to imagine her not sabotaging the play. Moss is a little vocally monotone and can't make the scene move any faster, but she keeps you guessing about Karen's ambiguity.”
All but John Simon praised her for her performance—some contrasting her with Madonna—whom Rooney clearly didn’t see. But her understated performance was what shocked the critics.  With Moss, however, it is more often that they see two sides, the innocent and the ambitious. That turnabout confuses them because they are used to playwrights giving very explicit instructions for how to interpret—gaps and abrupt shifts like this tend to confuse. No one gave a very credible interpretation of her, however. Winer called her “credible” but thinks the role “impossible.”
All praised Pepe’s direction and spoke of the incredible speed of the production and quick interchanges and overlapping speech of Piven and Esparza. Of the production, only two mentioned the Pask’ set; Brantley noted the “sterile set” made it a blank slate to be decorated with words. Mamet never wanted realistic sets for his plays; it is the acting and the language that should get prominence, as it did here. Hilton Als, however, saw more meaning: “an office that seems empty, despite the boxes and scripts littering the space. The emptiness is spiritual.” And the Beacon noted the fight scene’s bloody nose that really went to an extreme. But other than that, details of the production were scarce. 

Als, Hilton. “Fever Pitch: The art of selling in Speed-the-Plow.” The New Yorker 3 Nov. 2008. 
Grotesque view of Mamet as Daumier: “Mamet’s protagonists do not love; they size each other up and assess what they can extract from each other—and the answer is usually money. If they show any physical tenderness at all, it’s brief; they kiss, then withdraw, constantly reminding themselves of the primary rule of survival: Get or be gotten.”  This spiritual vision is reflected in the set: “When we first meet Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven, making his Broadway début), he is sitting in an office that seems empty, despite the boxes and scripts littering the space. The emptiness is spiritual.”

Backalenick, Irene. 'Speed the Plow' races across Barrymore stage.” Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) 12 Dec. 2008.
"We are all whores," one character acknowledges. While the goals of the two men are obvious, Karen is more subtle, more deceptive, and far more lethal. And she is certainly not above using sex as one of the tools in her arsenal. It is such a simple, forthright plot that one has no difficulty following the story line, which, indeed, is one of its strengths.”

Bernard, Audrey J. “David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow is generating lots of must-see revival buzz.” New York Beacon30 Oct. --5 Nov. 2008: 21.
The chemistry of the threeperson cast is mesmerizing. Add to that a very convincing fight scene between the two men cleverly staged by fight director J. David Brimmer (Spring Awakening) - bloody nose and all!

Brantley, Ben. “Do You Speak Hollywood?” New York Times 24 Oct. 2008.
Sees this production as even better than the original, not just because of relevance which others cite, “And the reasons have very little to do with film and everything to do with theater. What makes ‘Speed-the-Plow’ so exciting is its power to define and destroy an entire self-contained world through the tools and weapons of spoken words, expertly wielded by a very live cast.” He amplifies the point noting there are no murders or big plot moments: “What there is is talk. And as in his earlier ‘American Buffalo’ (to be revived on Broadway later this season) and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ talk is rich, even when it sounds cheap: a mighty means of measuring and asserting power, of confirming one’s place in the scheme of things. […] (Scott Pask’s tasteful, sterile sets for Bobby’s office and house are blank slates; words are what furnish these rooms.)” He notes that when Karen enters, the verbal energy deflates, but he finds her performance key: “Ms. Moss is best known for playing another ambitious secretary (turned copywriter) in a testosterone-drenched world, on the AMC series “Mad Men.” But she definitely doesn’t just repeat what she does on television. When Madonna played Karen — as woodenly as she was to play most subsequent parts — she got a pass from the critics, who said that her role was too enigmatic to do much with. Ms. Moss proves the lie in that assessment, bringing a naked clarity to her unvarnished, tinny-voiced Karen that makes the play hang together in ways it didn’t before.” For as a result, “the idea of a high roller in a money-driven society suddenly sensing a scary void beyond the getting and spending acquires a new relevance in 2008.”

Joe Dziemianowicz. “inside the Green-Light District.” New York Post 24 Oct. 2008: 38.
“Esparza […] gives a supercharged performance. As he prowls the stage, dragging on cigarettes and staring out at something - the pot of gold? - he nails the essence of a twitchy man so close to success he'll explode if he misses his shot. Piven is an excellent foil. While downplaying the loudmouthed, sharklike behavior we've seen from him on "Entourage," he shows Gould's power-mad side as well as the vulnerability that gradually becomes more apparent. Taking on the role originated by Madonna, Moss ("Mad Men") is a delightful blend of prettiness, naivete and ambiguity, all right for Karen, who may or may not be that innocent. When she reads the alarming doomsday prose from "The Bridge," her animated sincerity is wonderfully amusing.“

Feldberg, Robert. “Speeding along with cynicism; 'Plow' confirms worst thoughts about Hollywood.” The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) 24 Oct. 2008. G 16.
Raúl Esparza“steals the evening with a dark, hyper, riotously funny portrayal. The view of Karen is the most skewed: “But before that can happen, a snake enters paradise in the form of a seemingly naive temporary secretary named Karen (Elisabeth Moss).”

Fung, Lisa. “Culture Monster: All the Arts, All the Time.” LA Times 23 Oct. 2009. Overviews reviews.

Gardner, Elysa. Review of Speed-the-Plow. USA Today 24 Oct. 2008. 
Gardner sees a change in the play because of Wall Street’s fall: seems less like a satire than a darkly comic documentary.” The acting, however, is still central: “Raúl Esparza's Charlie is more sharply funny, and more revelatory; his brutal resourcefulness at the end will leave you titillated and haunted. Elisabeth Moss has a tougher assignment as Karen, whose motives and, frankly, intelligence are in question. She professes to be naive, and Moss, with her wide eyes and girlish voice, never entirely rules out that possibility. Of course, innocence isn't a terribly valuable commodity in Speed-the-Plow anyway. Mamet's response to the greed-is-good '80s wasn't just perceptive, but also sadly prophetic.”

Jones, Chris. “'American Buffalo' **1/2; Mamet revival on Broadway leaves Chicago setting far behind.” Chicago Tribune 18 Nov. 2008: 3 
Reviews both Buffalo and Plow: “Once again, you crave more credibility and existential terror. But this play works better on today's Broadway because it's -- well -- all about Hollywood. Esparza unleashes a killer performance, blowing his compadres off the stage. Piven seems to enjoy letting him getting away with it, to his credit. The star of "Entourage" is developing a pleasingly rich self-awareness, a sense that this is all just a game that he and his fellow-Chicagoan writer play uncommonly well.”

Kuchwara, Michael. “David Mamet's take on moviemaking is still savage.” AP, 24 October 2008.
Rave: “Mamet's incredibly punchy and profane dialogue, rat-tat-tat obscenities that explode with assembly-line regularity thanks to Neil Pepe's taut direction and a terrific trio of actors.” “Moss is deceptively low-key, a nice contrast to all the screaming going on around her. She's a standout in the play's second act, set in Bobby's apartment, when Karen persuasively makes the case for filming the seemingly unfilmable novel. […] Piven's Bobby is the play's moral center, or at least, the one person on stage who has qualms about what is happening and doesn't quite know what to do about it. The actor has perfected the persona of bad-little-boy-lost and wears the snarling bewilderment here with considerable expertise. […] Wearing a fierce glint and a sly smile, Esparza is one of those kinetic actors who doesn't hold anything back. He's full-tilt ahead — tailor-made for the pugnacious Charlie.”

Peter Marks Washington Post 24 Oct. 2008. C4
Positive review of  “a trio of actors offering up surprising variations on proven talents in the sleekly seductive production.”“Except that Karen -- whose idealism is of a very pragmatic variety -- falls in love with the tome and uses her unexpectedly formidable powers of persuasion to convert Bobby. We're not quite sure whether the Piven character's change of heart has more to do with libido than soul, but in either case it triggers a splendid final office scene, in which the captivating Esparza lays down the law in crackling fashion.”


McNulty, Charles.  “Greedy, dishonest and so today; The Mamet revivals 'American Buffalo' and 'Speed-the-Plow' remind that conniving is not something new.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Nov. 2008: E.1
Surprised by the production: “Having seen the original Broadway production and the 2007 revival at the Geffen Playhouse, I didn't hold out much hope for this return of ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ But then I underestimated the extent to which actors can lift material when they're in the right directorial hands (and there's no question that Pepe has become Mamet's ablest interpreter).” The performances prove the point: “Piven's Bobby and Esparza's Charlie circle each other like predators who know they'll land a bigger kill if they can maintain an alliance, all the time keeping an eye on their own vulnerable backs. The two men tackle Mamet's language not just with their lashing tongues but with their writhing bodies, every moment expressing the desire to be so rich. […] Enter Karen (a note-perfect Moss), the temporary secretary with a casual sexiness and a sly idealistic streak who becomes the subject of a bet between Charlie and Bobby about whether Bobby can bed her by day's end. Amazing recognition: Moss, whom my "Mad Men"-obsessed friends have been touting to me, is a revelation, capturing not just Karen's corporate cluelessness but also her calculating quixotic strength. Her character may not be as deft as the boys in outmaneuvering opponents, but she's no cipher. Mamet, it seems, really can write complicated female roles -- he just needs to insist that they be cast with actresses who can supplement his chiseled words with their own feistiness.”


Rooney, David. Review of Speed-the-Plow. Daily Variety 23 October, 2009.
Sees the play as still as “still as fresh as last night's rushes.” He is most positive about Piven’s acting and contrast from “the actor's profanity-spewing agent Ari Gold on [HBO’s] ‘Entourage:’ “Fear runs as thick as cynicism in his bloodstream, feeding a destabilizing epiphany and then a stinging reawakening. It's when the two characters diverge radically that Piven shows what a terrific actor he is, bringing unexpected pathos […].”Moss is contrasted with Madonna in bringing: “a mix of unsophisticated blankness and quiet, observational savvy not unlike that of her character on ‘Mad Men.’” But the reviewer has no idea what Madonna did: “Karen projects wide-eyed, trusting naivete while fueling the suspicion she may be no less ambitious than the men. The simple, unaffected directness of her questions -- "Why?" "Is it a good film?" "Are you ever wrong?" -- is so alien to these guys with their smartass repartee and know-all, shoot-down responses, she's like a fascinating toy to them. It's arguable whether Madonna has ever had an uncalculating or unself-conscious moment in her life, so it's hard to imagine her not sabotaging the play. Moss is a little vocally monotone and can't make the scene move any faster, but she keeps you guessing about Karen's ambiguity.” Monotone is a good clue to Mamet acting emerging—and the key to the very “ambiguity” that is key to Mamet in performance. But there are other ways to convey it, as the review indicates of Esparza: “However, Mamet invariably is at his best writing male characters, and the real juice here is in the opening and closing interplay between Bobby and Charlie. Even when these guys are warmly engaged in mutual backpatting, there's animosity in the air. Piven's casting pays off when Bobby is caught off-guard and the audience in turn is equally surprised by his vulnerability. And with his dark, hooded eyes and manic struggle to keep a lid on his anxiety, Esparza's flashier turn provides the ideal counterpoint.”

Simon, John. “Piven, Esparza Play Mamet's Scathing`Plow' as TV.” Bloomberg 23 Oct. 2008. As always, Simon pans Mamet, this time likening play and performance to television sit-com, but the analysis of acting reveals a different view: “Esparza and Piven deliver terrific performances that magnetically complement each other. Esparza is unsurpassed at revealing ecstatic exuberance or, in a twinkling, unleashed rage. He acts equally commandingly with octave-storming voice, rampaging or cringing body and galvanized or galvanizing limbs. Piven, on the other hand, is an expert at smugly superficial affability, smoothly complacent opportunism, but also unpredictably boyish vulnerability beneath. Their slippery skirmishing and intermittent violence are a guilty joy to behold.” But just as he’d panned Madonna, he goes after Moss as ad hominem: “Regrettably, Moss is nowhere near their league. She has neither the acumen nor the looks for the part (both of which are explicitly referenced in the dialogue); she is cutesy where she should be bewitching and has, or affects, a gratingly squeaky voice. The result is a trio for violin, viola and tissue-papered comb.”

Somers, Michael. “Speed-the-Plow' features TV stars.” The Star-Ledger (NJ) 23 October 2008.
Sees less satire now: “-- Really more of a keen study in personal loyalties than a satire of Hollywood amorality.” This is an improvement: “Neil Pepe fields an assured show dominated by Esparza's forceful presence as nervy Charlie, especially so when his character melts down into explosive rage. By turns jaunty, confused and shaken, Piven believably portrays Bobby as a smarty-pants undone by passion. Playing enigmatic Karen -- the character is noticeably underwritten, perhaps deliberately so -- Moss exudes deep sincerity, which is as valid an approach as any to a problematic role. The play's voltage dips during its middle scene between Bobby and Karen discussing the book's gobbledygook, but Pepe slyly maneuvers his actors around each other to make viewers aware that seductions are happening.”

Winer, Linda. “Review: Jeremy Piven in David Mamet's 'Speed-the-Plow.”'Newsday 24 Oct. 2008.
The only really negative review: “Despite a cast that looks wonderful on paper, director Neil Pepe's production is small, tight and more angry than fabulously, shamelessly, joyously rude. Piven, perhaps trying not to duplicate his sleaze-triumphant agent, Ari Gold, from ‘Entourage,’ plays Bobby Gould -- new production head of a studio -- with a soft underbelly that works against the surprise of his potential conversion to art movies. As Charlie, Bobby's second-banana on the verge of his big chance, Esparza delivers Mamet's motormouth, poetic scatology with a scowling intensity that overshadows the joy of Mamet's third-generation Jewish punch lines. Moss, best known as the quietly upwardly mobile Peggy Olson in "Mad Men," finds a credibility that Madonna missed completely as Karen, the temp who wants Bobby to green-light a deadly novel about radiation as God's gift to humanity. Of course, the role may well be impossible. Karen must carry an entire scene -- the middle third of the brief evening -- spouting intentionally awful lines that Mamet dreamed up for the novel.”


Brantley, Ben. “With Piven Gone, ‘Plow’ Speeds Apace” New York Times 27 Jan. 2008:C1.
Brantley notes what is not otherwise quite knowable about a play—Piven’s absence allows him to see how the text and performance can interrelate to make a deeper meaning: “[Piven’s] Bobby, as befits a man recently promoted to the chief of production at a film studio, had the hungover air of a hedonist waking up to new responsibilities and realizing that his youth is nearly spent. He was glib and sly, in a vulpine way, but also just a tad unsteady on his freshly acquired legs of authority. That subliminal shakiness set us up perfectly for what later happens to Bobby, who turns out to be the play's most passive figure as well as, nominally, its most powerful.

Mr. Butz, an actor of infectious buoyancy (blissfully in evidence on Broadway in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Is He Dead?"), was warmer, less jaded and more boyish (though, at 41, he was only two years younger than Mr. Piven). Here was Bobby the fair-haired son, whom people instinctively liked, a response that he had always been aware of and exploited for professional ends. Almost matching the inexhaustible Mr. Esparza (as Bobby's wired-up protege and longtime pal, Charlie Fox) in pure kinetic exuberance, Mr. Butz radiated the rowdy energy of a popular but responsible teenage student who has been put in charge of the high school. "This is going to be fun," you sense him thinking, on the one hand; on the other, there's a hint of confusion -- and a dawning loneliness -- in his eyes as he contemplates his change in status.

Mr. Macy is more than 15 years older than Mr. Piven and Mr. Butz. He is also the most naturally fluent in Mr. Mamet's splintered, revved-up dialogue, having practiced it onstage for decades. (I have seen him in Mr. Mamet's "American Buffalo" and, unforgettably, in "Oleanna.") When he speaks his first lines, it's with an even-voiced affectlessness that is classic Mamet performance style. "Oh, I've seen this performance," I thought.

But I was wrong. Mr. Macy uses flat tones -- which by degrees shade into fierce irritability and all-out anger -- and his lean, weathered face to suggest the weariness of a man who has paid his dues, knows the score and is starting to think that he may have underestimated the price.

In different ways the Bobbys of Mr. Piven and Mr. Butz were peers of Mr. Esparza's Charlie. Mr. Macy's Bobby is an indulgent, slightly stern mentor who sees in Charlie the overeager, carnivorous wolf cub he once was. The dynamic between them takes on newly darkened -- and, fleetingly, almost tragic -- shadings in the final scene. The conflict (over which of two movies to produce) has turned Oedipal instead of fraternal, and the stakes seem higher than they ever have before.”