Review of Speed-the-Plow Revisited: With William H. Macy
Jeremy Piven just dropped out in December. For a few months, Macy stepped in to make an interesting change in the production.
From the opening moment—to Broadway applause as the curtain comes up—Macy is into the part, reading the dreadful book on Radiation, and seemingly so caught up in it that he doesn’t offer any warm greeting to his friend Chuck, Chuck, Charlie Fox. Instead, he’s caught up in his own head, with his own concerns about his new position, and pays little attention to Raul Esparza’s Fox. Is he really busy? Or just showing off?
What is clear is that this is a Bobby Gould with gravitas. Macy’s face is crenellated—the boyish look showing age. And he’s dressed in black shirt, black suitcoat and black denims—Hamlet, not the Playboy of the Western World (whom he becomes in act 3 with cream colored slacks, long tailed blue linen shirt, open to undershirt (which takes all the blood) and over his chair a tan linen sport coat). But this is not to say he’s really a hard working producer. He punches the line—and throughout Mamet’s pauses have taken on a greater length—all functionally to let the audience soak in the impact of the line—Why are we here? (Pause) )”To have fun.” And Macy does have fun with Esparza adding a physicality to the role and playfulness not visible before.
When Fox kneels down before him, while he’s on the phone to Ross, miming as his head goes back and forth to Gould’s crotch. When He finally stops, Macy points to his crotch and the whole action is repeated. Funny. At other points he mimes punching Fox, or on the bliss f the Dougie Brown film, just leans sideways into him, as if almost fainting with excitement. There is more physical interaction. And the pauses.
The best and most stunning pause, however, is at the end when Karen delivers her changed line, “For Christ’s sake, we have a meeting.” Long pause. Fox just slowly looks at her, then says, My point” or whatever, and this audience laughed! For me there is a bit of tragedy to this play—and clearly especially with Macy a lot of Oleanna. Is it her tragedy? Not for this audience, which instead, cheers for the downfall of Karen. Not me. My friend Jeanne, whom I saw the production with the first time, thought Karen had been stringing him along all through the second act. I didn’t. Jeanne thought Karen would have done anything, picked any book, just to be in on it.
But the second act of the Macy performance was quite different, though the blocking was all exactly as before. Macy did not seem to get anything that Karen said about the book in this erofrmance. EVEn near the end of the scene, he concludes, echoing Oleanna in intonation exactly—“ I don’t understand.” And he doesn’t. He keeps trying to tell her it’s a courtesy read. Is he just talking with her to string her along so she’ll have sex with him? He seems totally mystified at the end of the act when she reaveals she knew that was his plan, and came anyway. Because “I’m bad” , echoing the end of act 1 of Oleaanna again.
The first time through, this was Charlie Fox’s play. Exparz has discovered a masterful new way of playing Mmaet’s lines without affect. He just rattles them off as if memorized, as if to say, here are your clichés, if you want them, but I don’t believe them and neither do you: the tone is set at the start when Gould asks why he should have gotten the promotion, as if asking Fox to Kiss UP—and he does, but not meaning it, ending and you’re “Yertel the Turtle.” It is funny because it’s so insincere, so merely rattled. Rapid delivery of the lines, and cynical detachment of anything said sincerely are countered by his moments of physical excess, delight he can’t restrain himself from feeling that they’ve got Douggie brown. He waves his arms out full, as if doing jumping jacks, and siggles his hands as if to restore circulation. He jumps on a chair at one stage wild with delight that this will happen.
But when Gould shows up wanting to be pure and do the art film in act III, he’s relentless. When it finally registers, he says No so many times I lost count. No rapid rate here, anger, explosion. And Macy added anger and explosion to Act 2 when he yelled at Karen “You don’t care about me.” It was an amazing moment—and delightful in its piles of irony, but he delivered it with fury—nobody loves me or cares about me for myself. And finally that lesson sinks in his pause. After Karen’s gaffe about the fucking meeting—another long pause before he said, “I’m Lost” turning away from both of them…and the audience got it quickly, some laughing at his disillusionment.
My sense was that Macy looked more like a tragic hero. Here unlike the first performance with the younger Bobby—that was a brash quick riser to success. Here it is someone who’s been through the wars. Losing his place would mean being completely out of Hollywood/a job. No one would hire someone of that age—whereas a young up-and-comer could still land on his feet even if he lost the head of production job. Thus the stakes were much higher. When Fox jokes with him about being old whores in the first act, it was clearly a performance just put on as excess of language for Karen to show off. It was clearly play and excess of high spirits by both of them, but especially by Fox. I didn’t quite see the world-weariness though it is clearly there at the beginning as he defines his job—someone pressured from every direction.
But in the second act, when he lost it with Karen, Macy was forceful, insisting she was only doing a courtesy read:
Gould: I told you what the deal was. Don’t you understand?
Karen: But I . . .
Gould: But you. Yes. Everyone is Trying To “Promote” Me… Don’t you know that? Don’t you care? Every move I make, do you understand? Everyone wants something from me.
Karen: [pause]: Yes. I understand that.
Gould: You understand that? […] Well, if you understand that, then how can you act this way? (57).
Of course the emphasis on “understand” is highly reminiscent of the later Oleanna. But Macy’s impassioned delivery of the lines motivated Karen’s shift of strategy, from selling him on the importance of the book she read to a straight sexual proposal. But at this point, Macy’s Bobby is shocked that she would ask him, try to “Promote” him to make this movie
That she then shifts to a sexual strategy is confirmed by her acknowledgement of it later when Fox challenges her, “If he had said “No,” would you have gone to bed with him?” After she stalls a bit, Bobby prompts her “You’re living in a World of Truth. Would you of gone to bed with me, I didn’t do your book. [Pause.]” And after the long pause and she finally says, “No. [Pause.] No.” (77). Like Bobby’s queries above, which masked a number of levels, so does her answer her. All Karen has to do is lie, and she gets to be the Assistant Producer or whatever…but she does tell the truth, and the consequence is Bobby’s immediate, or, momentary pause in Macy’s rendition, then “Oh, God, now I’m lost” which prompted titters from my Friday night audience.
At this point, I’m wondering who is the tragic hero here? And with Mamet’s somewhat defective, or, rather, ironic concept of tragedy there is reversal without full recognition. Bobby reverses totally, to endorse the Buddy picture. And despite the Friday night audience’s seeming delight in Karen’s defeat, the issue is really quite ambiguous. If she’s being honest, isn’t his treatment of her too unyielding, impure. And if he rejects her film, is he rejecting with it idealism, making art, not drek. Since we don’t know anything about the Buddy movie, we have to take her point of view: “Look, I read the script, Mr. Fox’s script, the 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). How can we cheer for that??? The wealthy audience of Friday night could; but I can imagine an idealistic college audience reacting the opposite way. What’s true of Oleanna is also true here: he doesn’t impose his will on the audience to make them think his way, whatever that is, but rather leaves both alternatives undermined, impugned. The audience can make its own choice, but whatever side you pick, you’re wrong.
The only constant in the production, in a sense, is Fox. But even there Esperanza amazingly Himself goes ballistic, as if it’s his tragedy, outdoing even King Lear with five rapid fire lines, and then two more for good measure: “No, no, no, no, no, … No, no.” (75). His fury when he punches out Bobby similarly is so over the top that it is reminiscent of Edmond, another character driven over the brink into violence. But unlike the other two, Fox never really changes direction—he always wants to make the buddy film, for it will make lots of money, regardless of quality/artistic nature of the script.
But the play could also be Karen’s tragedy, and here Mamet’s amazing change of a line makes a substantial difference. After Karen confesses she wouldn’t have had sex with Bobby if he hadn’t ok’d the movie, she still thinks he will respond to her, and finally makes her great slip. In the printed text it is:
Karen: Bob, we have a meeting. [Pause.]
Fox. I rest my case. [Pause.]
Karen. Did I say something wrong….?
Fox. No. We have a meeting, that’s true. Thank you, honey. (79)
For this production, however, the line is changed to,”For Christ’s sake, we have a fucking meeting.” The purity of Karen is completely discarded in one line—and she’s turned into one of the boys, someone as “despicable, it’s… It’s degrading to the human spirit” as one of the other old whores, and she has fallen. Worse, in typical Mamet fashion, she has no idea what she said that lost her case. Mamet’s tragic heroes often have no idea what they said that was wrong, and only wish they knew why their plans suddenly fell apart.
But Bobby, similarly, returning to Fox and male-male Buddiness, both on screen and in his office, never realizes that he’s lost all chance for purity, for being understood. So he too is as “lost” as Karen is. And so is the audience, for we have no side to root for or hope will win. The side of meaning and substance sounds like so much psychobabble—best indicated at the very end when Karen grabs the magic book from the floor to read another terribly moving passage, and after reading a longish selection, concludes, “No, that’s the wrong bit. That’s not the part...” [Gould exits to the washroom.]” (80).
Karen’s last full line, to Fox after Gould exits, is “I don’t understand.” This echoes perfectly Gould’s last line of the second act which he says to her when she declares her sexual intentions to him. Once she exits, Fox then addresses Gould:
Fox: Well, Bob, ou’re human. You think I don’t know. I know. We wish people would like us, huh? To Share Our Burdens. But it’s not to be.
Gould: … I suppose not.
Fox: You’re goddamn right, not. And what if this fucken’ “grace” exists? It’s not for you. You know that, Bob. You know that. You have a different thing.
Gould: She told me I was a good man.
Fox: How would she know? You are a good man. Fuck her.
Gould: I only wanted . . .
Fox: I know what you wanted. […] I know what you wanted, Bob. You wanted to do good.
Gould: Yes. (Pause.) Thank you. […] (81)
Is this a tragic ending. Not completely, because clearly there’s almost no self-recognition. Instead, it is almost a reverse recognition—Bobby tried to be Good, but that only resulted in being “foolish” so now he’ll go beck to being an old whore. Instead of doing “good” he’ll simply make money, do the buddy picture.
Fox tries to console him with that:
Fox: Because we joke about it, Bob, we joke about it, but it is a “People Business,” what else is there?
GOULD: I wanted to do Good… But I became foolish.
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 move.
Fox: Whose name goes above the title?
GOULD: Fox and Gould
Fox: Then how bad can life be? (81-82)
The irony is of course that life isn’t bad, as long as one doesn’t mind living without a soul, without a chance at goodness. That they are engaged in a “People Business” is a cliché that sounds almost endearing, except what they are producing is garbage, at best, “it’s killing people, meaningless…the sex, the titillation, violence…..people don’t want, they don’t want, they … they don’t want this” (55) as Karen tells him. So it is not a people business except in the sense that they want to make money off of people by giving them sex and violence, and so not being “good.” But as far as Fox is concerned, that’s as good as it gets, “how bad can life be?” The good/bad binary underlies the irony of Gould who has lost his soul to make “bad” films. But the choice, or good film, was clearly unfilmable and too abstract to make a movie.
The result is that Gould is reduced to a paradoxical condition, reduced to “nothing” yet still being head of production of an empty and meaningless film commodity maker.
GOULD: Chuck, Chuck Chuck, Charles: you get too old, too busy to have ‘fun’ this business; to have ‘fun, then what are you…?
Fox: . . . Bob . . .
Gould: What are you?
What am I when?
Gould: What are you, I was saying, if you’re just a slave to commerce?
Fox: If I’m just a slave to commerce?
Fox: I’m nothing.
Fox: You’re absolutely right. (4)
This opening exchange sets the terms for the conclusion of the play when Gould becomes “nothing” but “a slave to commerce” making the concluding lines awfully ironic: “how bad can life be?”
All throughout the play, especially in Esparza’s interpretation, Fox’s clichés have mainly been rattled off to strip them of meaning or idealism. When Bobby asks suddenly why he ‘deserve[s]’ to be head of production, Fox answers without a moment’s hesitation, rattling it off as if a long rehearsed speech “Because you’re a prince among men and you’re Yertle the Turtle.” (7) The mockery of any ideal, or of any idea to sucking up to Bobby, is dismissed with this quick response.
David K. Sauer
February 20, 2009