Speed the Plow
Sept. 18-19, 25-27, 8 p.m., Sept. 28, 5 p.m.
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
Some things just don't age well: cut flowers, last week's doggie-bag leftovers, Michael Jackson's nose. And satire.
Pure satire — the snarky rant — is best enjoyed piping hot, gives us pleasure like the joy of popping bubble wrap: bite-sized and short-lived.
A satirical play, on the other hand, is more than the sum of its wicked jabs.
Case in point: David Mamet's 1988 play, Speed-the-Plow. It's satirical theme ("Hollywood = business = money-making = lowest common denominator schlock") lost its cutting edge ages ago. But Mamet's characters are the play's fountain of youth.
Movie producers Bobby Gould (Mark Mixson) and Charlie Fox (Thomas Burke Heath) came up in the business together. Gould leap-frogged his buddy, landing a plum studio job. Now Fox has lucked into his own career-making shot: a chance to pitch Gould a movie with a huge star.
The film is Hollywood dreck with starpower. Box-office gold. The hitch arises when Gould hands off a courtesy read of an "artsy" novel to Karen (Elizabeth Ferraro), the secretarial temp he has designs on. Her enthusiastic review, delivered after-hours at his home, overwhelms Gould. Should he go with the money-maker or ally with this girl to greenlight the uplifting, if bewildering, book?
Director Keely Enright gives her talented cast free rein in this uproarious production. Heath's Charlie Fox dominates the first scene with antic, physical comedy. He strikes poses, leers, cringes, flits around the office set like a sparkler throwing off nervous energy. Mixson, as Bobby Gould, matches Charlie's enthusiasm but without Charlie's barely suppressed anxiety. Bobby, after all, is the one being pitched.
In truth, Charlie's proposal makes both men equals in a venture that will transform them into powerful Hollywood players. That's Charlie's secret shiv, the instrument of his envious revenge on Bobby. It's a weapon that, in Heath's rendering, Charlie keeps entirely hidden from us in the first act, choosing instead the sitcom boisterousness of this scene over its sly, corrosive edge. To a degree, this decision will undermine his character's credibility later on.
Karen, the temp, enters this over-excited pitch scenario wide-eyed, exuding Dorothy-in-Oz winsomeness. And when she settles in on Bobby's sofa that evening, gushing about the artsy novel's lofty implications, Ferraro's Karen is all charming vitality.
She retains this wholesome poise even while admitting she knew precisely the implications of Bobby's after-hours invitation. This guileless gloss on Karen's motives effectively thrusts the moral burdens entirely onto Bobby's shoulders. It's a set-up and Bobby's too infatuated to notice.
The play's final confrontation brings this trio into sharp focus and shows that Mixson's Bobby is the guy who's played straight with the audience from the get-go. As Bobby's indecision grows and the original deal starts crumbling, Heath's Charlie — the first act's flamboyant putz — suddenly begins channeling Tony Soprano. Ferraro's Karen suddenly has a stainless steel spine.
These shifts are unsettling, distracting.
The last scene pits ruthless ambition against courageous convictions. Mixson manages to bring forward all the insecurities hinted at from the beginning and parlay them into the (literal) knock-out punch Bobby's decision demands. Without entirely spoiling the finale, we note that Mamet's follow-up to this work was a one-act play entitled Bobby Gould in Hell.