Speed the Plow

It's surprising how much of the sharp edge in Mamet's Hollywood satire is polished off by Austin Playhouse's production

Arts Review

Speed the Plow

Austin Playhouse, through May 11

Running time: 1 hr, 50 min

Every screenwriter, playwright, and wordsmith out there has felt the stinging blow of rejection some time – or many times – in their life. Some writers take their rejection with an extra shot of whiskey. Others give up. And a few aim to get even, like David Mamet, whose scathing portrait of the film industry, Speed the Plow, is currently being produced by Austin Playhouse.

Speed the Plow centers around Bobby Gould, the newly promoted head of production at a Hollywood studio. Gould, played with great timing and delivery by Ken Bradley, has been around the Hollywood block: After 25 years of paying his dues, he's finally made it. Into his office waltzes Charlie Fox, an underling of Gould's who has been toiling 20 years, looking for a big break. And now he has it.

This break comes in the form of a celebrity-backed buddy script set in a prison. Fox takes the project to Gould, and the two blustery producers profusely thank, agree, and congratulate each other for their good fortunes. With the green-light meeting only a day away, the two get to fantasizing about the gobs of cash they're about to make.

Amidst their revelries, Fox and Gould make a chest-beating wager about whether or not Gould can pick up Karen, the unassuming temp manning Gould's phone. Gould lures her to his house under the premise of giving an artsy novel a courtesy read, but the book's effect on her – and her effect on him – cause an unexpected shift in the industry vet's morals.

Mamet's take on the film world isn't hard to decipher. What initially seems like an allegory of the battle between arts and business for entertainment's heart devolves because everyone in Hollywood is ultimately jostling for power. Karen, who speaks of purity, wants the same thing as Charlie Fox: someone who will listen to and respect her. "No one loves me for myself," Gould says. That is a frightening world of which to be a part.

And while our tendency may be to choose artistic integrity over selling out for a cheap buck, Mamet represents this purity with a novel called The Bridge, or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. The book's excerpts sound absurdly awful, like a cheesy self-help guide concerning the apocalypse. And radiation. Is Mamet implying, then, that we should align ourselves with the humdrum prison script blockbuster? Hardly. In the playwright's typically cynical fashion, he offers no solution, silver lining, or hope to grab on to.

Mamet always manages to include plenty of biting dialogue, punches, curse words, and conflict, even if his characters don't change at the end. It's surprising, then, how much of that edge the Playhouse's production polishes off. Despite her frank admission that she used sex to get ahead, Hallie Martin's Karen acts and dresses very chaste, as if her sexual manipulation were accidental or unintended. Likewise, for all their crass comments on women and wealth, neither Charlie Fox nor Bobby Gould is presented as glint-eyed, hard-edged, or ruthless. Smarmy, maybe, and greedy. Sure. But despite the verbal and physical intensity of the final scene, Speed the Plow, as co-directed by Michael Stuart and Lara Toner is as genial a production of Mamet as you could expect to see.

It should be noted that Mamet has written and directed a mixed-martial arts movie, Redbelt, which opens this month – proof that even the critic can become a commodity in Hollywood if he gains enough acclaim. Speed the Plow tells you all you thought you knew about the sleaziness of the film industry with the sharp phrases and bursting moments Mamet is known for.

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Speed the Plow, Austin Playhouse, David Mamet, Michael Stuart, Lara Toner, Ken Bradley, Ben Wolfe

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