Making minimalist statement

`Speed-the-Plow' is at Center Stage


April 09, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On the most obvious level, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow is about Hollywood - how deals are made and trust is trampled.

But Mamet is writing about more than movie-making in this 1988 play, receiving a swift and caustic production under Daniel Fish's direction at Center Stage.

"It's just business ... how business is done," says the character of a movie producer. In a broader framework, however, Speed-the-Plow is an examination of power - the hunger for it, the thrill of achieving it and the fear of losing it.

Mamet demonstrates this by shifting the balance of power among his three characters as if they were cups in a shell game. A different character dominates each of the three scenes in this 90-minute play.

The first scene belongs to Bobby Gould, newly named head of production at a major motion picture studio. In what develops into the most nuanced performance of the evening, David Chandler's Bobby starts out smug and patronizing, full of his own importance.

When his colleague, Charlie Fox, comes to him with a nearly sewed-up deal for a sure-fire hit - a prison film with the biggest action star in Hollywood - Chandler tinges Bobby's gratitude with an unmistakable hint of noblesse oblige.

In the second scene, however, Chandler's Bobby becomes progressively malleable as he unwittingly cedes power to his temporary secretary, Karen. On a bet with Charlie, he lures Karen to his home, ostensibly to get her feedback on a pretentious, apocalyptic novel that the studio has no intention of turning into a movie.

Karen has ideas of her own, however. An ambiguous question mark at the center of Speed-the-Plow, Karen is a character whose motives are never entirely clear, and Lindsay Campbell's portrayal deliberately keeps us guessing. Karen repeatedly refers to herself as "naive," but after she takes the upper hand at Bobby's, she seems anything but.

Then comes the third scene. By this time, Chandler's Bobby thinks he has undergone a life-altering experience, but instead of finding himself, he appears lost and confused. That's when his old buddy Charlie steps in and literally attempts to shake some sense into him.

This being a play about self-interest, however, Charlie isn't looking out for his friend's well being; he's fighting to salvage his own. As portrayed by Mamet veteran Vincent Guastaferro, Charlie begins the play so hyper, he practically vibrates. But in the final scene, Charlie's initial obsequiousness toward his old pal is replaced by a furious streak of self-preservation.

It's hardly coincidental that the prison movie Charlie and Bobby are planning is a "buddy" film. Friendship is a major theme in Speed-the-Plow, and Mamet uses his typical staccato language as a way to demonstrate the characters' closeness. These two men are so in sync, they can finish each other's sentences, and more often than not, they don't have to bother.

The result is a shorthand dialogue that, slickly orchestrated by director Fish, flows like minimalist music, punctuated by bursts of humor and profanity.

Andrew Lieberman's set design is also minimalist. Bobby's sparsely furnished office does double duty as his home, a choice that reinforces the insularity of the world these men inhabit.

The play's title, incidentally, refers to a farmer's invocation: "Industry produces wealth. God speed the plow." It's a blessing that appears to take on several meanings in the play, including plowing over anyone who stands in your way.

Speed-the-Plow is the first play Center Stage has produced by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet. With its easily accessible subject matter, trademark rapid-fire dialogue and seamy characters, it's an excellent introduction - astutely staged by director Fish - to a playwright whose work frequently wallows in the dark underside of the American dream.

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