Thursday, January 10, 2008

Speed the Plow? No. Sow the material.


I don't have the opportunity to blog about theater that often, though it is by far my favorite cultural pastime. I'm confess to being a bit of a snob about theater, and I don't see local, San Francisco theater that often finding it too usually too safe or entirely too avant-garde. (Or in the cast of Berkeley Rep, very hit and miss, often too esoteric). I admit, I'm picky. My favorite theater company is Manhattan Theater Club in New York. They seem to get it right most of the time.

So with some trepidation I went to the opening night of Speed The Plow at ACT in San Francisco. I was a guest of the Hafner's, who magnanimously have donated wine for the entire season.

I saw Speed the Plow years ago on Broadway. Madonna starred along with Joe Montegna and Ron Silver, consummate interpreters of Mamet. Madonna was excoriated in the press, at least that's what I remember, but I just went back and read the New York Times Review, and they were kind. But I remember the play being serious and intense, and this review confirms that.

I heard Carey Perloff, ACT Artistic Director and the director Loretta Greco speak about the play at the dinner beforehand, and they spoke about how Mamet's misogyny is apparent in most of his work and indeed in this work, unless of course you interpreted the character of the naive secretary as being as powerful as the men. Hmmm, I thought. This is going to be interesting. (I will also note that Perloff went on and on about how terrible Madonna was. "I saw it in previews," she said. "She couldn't even remember her lines." I also overheard Perloff talking to someone at my table earlier in the evening, saying she had just been to USC to speak with some art journalism majors (critics in training). "What could I tell them, I thought? That they were about to join the most odious group of people. . . " or something to that effect. I wonder how she would feel if someone criticized her production based on a preview performance. But I digress.)

The play is about two Hollywood producers, one of which, Gould, just got promoted to be "head of production" of his studio. He can "greenlight" any film under $30 million. The other producer, Fox, brings him a blockbuster project and the two spend the first act getting ready to go pitch it to the head of the studio (we assume it's a project that is way over $30 million). Karen, the secretary brings them coffee, and they start playing with her like a little kitten. Long story short, they make a bet on whether Gould can bed her. Gould lures her to his apartment by asking her to give a "courtesy" read to an obscure, but critically acclaimed, eastern novel. He says she should read it then come to his place and report on it. She does.

But she ends up being utterly moved by the book and convinces him to make it instead of the blockbuster he was going to pitch. This of course causes a serious rift between Gould and Fox.

The plot doesn't matter. The dialogue matters, and it's packed with meaning. It's supposed to show just how "venal" Hollywood is. That's the word Perloff kept using in her introduction to the play.

Mamet is difficult (and fun) to act. Page after pay of incomplete sentences, interruptions, eruptions, profanity. Watch Glengarry Glen Ross.

The director made a few choices that I found really questionable. But all day long I've been thinking about it, and I've softened my position which started as "she got it all wrong. What a missed opportunity" to "I would have done it differently."

The choice I refer to are her decision to play it for broad comedy and her decision to present Karen as every bit as conniving as the men (that's how you show women are equal? Oh brother!). I don't believe the play is written to be comedic, or perhaps only slightly so. But in this production the actors are mugging and rolling their eyes and going for the belly laugh. These actors are extraordinarily talented. They really worked the audience. Way too much. The audience should find itself conflicted, not completely siding with Fox who just wants to make money. An interesting play interpretation would be (and I believe Mamet intended this) where we find ourselves in the audience sort of thinking that maybe this pretentious eastern European novel might just in fact be worthy. Certainly the themes of the novel seem grand and true even if the snippets we hear are horribly wooden.

If you see this play, imagine how it would sound, how it would feel if you were laughing less and thinking more. Imagine if Karen were truly naive and not insidiously ambitious. Imagine if the director had allowed the character of Karen to seduce Gould only with her words and with ideas and not her perky breasts.

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