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I’m told the Baldwin brothers—a couple of them, anyway—were contemplated as a casting option for Theater J’s Speed-the-Plow. Might’ve been interesting in a voyeuristic sort of way. David Mamet’s Tinseltown satire about the machinations of sixth-tier producer-wannabes who get a shot at moving up a tier or two can use a little extra frisson these days.
The problem’s not the writing. Mamet’s staccato zingers (“you can shove good taste up your ass and fart the ‘Carnival of Venice’”) sound as sharp as ever. But the crassness of Hollywood was hardly unexplored dramatic territory at Plow’s 1988 premiere and is significantly less so after having been plowed by everything from Extras to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Making behind-the-camera shiftiness seem fresh again takes some doing, and making it monstrous—as if there’s something serious at stake—well, who knows if that’s even possible anymore?
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Theater J’s production—funny but a trifle bland as it chronicles 24 hours in the lives of two studio hacks and a secretary who throws them a curve—only manages to make it amusing. Bobby Gould (Danton Stone) is about to start rummaging through a stack of terrible scripts (“If it’s not quite art, and it’s not entertainment, it’s here on my desk”) when his buddy Charlie (Peter Birkenhead) brings him an action-flick pitch with a star attached. Their victory dance—they imagine untold riches before they’ve even scored a meeting with the studio head who might greenlight the picture—is interrupted by Karen (Meghan Grady), a pretty temp who convinces Bobby he should film a pretentious, apocalyptic epic instead.
Having just seen Robert Redford’s pretentious, apocalyptic Lions for Lambs, I can vouch for the plausibility of Karen’s pitch, though Plow presents the notion of its ever being made as preposterous on its face. But for Mamet, the relative commercial merits of the pictures are beside the point—just something to argue about as the men posture and pose, jockey for advantage, smarming up the place with chatter that’s entertainingly coarse (“you’re a whore, and you think you’re a ballerina because you work with your legs”) and occasionally revealing about con-artistry (“They’re only words, unless they’re true”).
In Jerry Whiddon’s straight-ahead staging, Birkenhead’s Charlie is persuasively calculating, an obsequious industry hanger-on who talks the talk with the desperation of one who’s never been permitted to walk the walk. He’s decently matched by Brady’s smarter-than-she-lets-on Karen, who has a high time seducing a would-be seducer when he makes a bet that he can get her into bed.
But the hustler these folks mean to hustle turns out to be a little too malleable to be funny. Stone’s Bobby—a mensch in a role usually played for reptilian chill—is theoretically a brutal predator, but as Stone plays him, he’s also anxious to be liked, and the one thing we shouldn’t be worrying about in this play is Bobby’s feelings. Dulls the satire. Mellows the melodrama. Slows the Plow.