Speed-The-Plow – February 2008


By David Mamet

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th February 2008

Who knew this could be so much fun? Steve had some memories of seeing this play years ago; I couldn’t remember it at first, but vague recollections drifted in, especially during the second scene. Neither of us remembered it being so strong and so funny. Shows what you can do with two top class actors, who also have the benefit of years of experience of the movie business. I’m sure they will have drawn on that a lot during rehearsals.

The set was all curves. Two sandy coloured walls curved away to the rear of the stage, where a glass brick curved wall formed the back of the office. There was a sleek desk, fancy black chairs on wheels, which travelled about the office almost as much as the characters, a sofa, and stacks of papers. A ladder seemed incongruous at first, until we learned that the office was being redecorated.

For the second scene, in Gould’s house, another glass brick wall is slotted in front of the other one to create a drinks area. A large round sofa with lots of cushions is about the only other thing on stage, although there are lots of plants along the top of the walls – it’s a garden room. The third scene takes us back to the office, and in between times, a screen drops down with lines from the book being typed across it.

The story is simple. Charlie Fox (Kevin Spacey) brings a film deal to Bobby Gould (Jeff Goldblum). Both men think it’s a great prospect and will make them rich. There’s a delay in getting the studio boss to approve it, and naïve innocent Karen, Gould’s temporary secretary, puts the case for another film, a worthier one, based on the book Gould gave her to read. The book is about radiation, and how it’s killing us all, or helping us to evolve into higher beings, or something. Anyway, everyone dies, which means even I can see it’s never going to make it to the screen (unless some renowned European director did an art-house version which could become a cult classic – you know the sort of thing, seen by only ten people but quoted by everyone as a seminal influence). It’s a no-hoper, a “courtesy read”. But by dint of some passionate and persuasive arguments, and, of course, sex, the young woman wins the day. Or does she?

The first scene is almost entirely hyperactive. Gould starts the scene by trying to fend off Fox, thinking he’s just out to get a favour from his newly promoted friend, but once he actually listens to Fox’s proposal, he’s blown away. Fox has managed to get some fantastic actor to agree to “cross the street” to make some prison buddy movie with this studio, and the odds are it will a big hit. Both men will have their names above the titles as co-producers, and they take some time to fantasise about spending the shedloads of money they expect to earn. It’s an interesting relationship. Both men talk at the same time, and repeat themselves and each other constantly, but through all this camouflage I could see the relationship taking shape. They’ve known each other for many years, but with the pressures of the business no one can really commit to any sort of friendship, as they may have to drop someone in the shit at a moment’s notice. The cement in this bond is the money, and perhaps more importantly the kudos that will come from a major box office success. The secretary’s appearance is mainly to let the other two explain the rules of the movie making game to the uninitiated in the audience. She’s a symbolic rather than real character, with an innocence and naivety that would be ludicrous if not played well, but here Laura Michelle Kelly carries it off competently. The absurdity of a complete ingénue being employed as secretary to a senior movie executive was still there, but her sincerity carried the day.

The second scene in Gould’s house has a completely different quality. The manoeuvring is on a different level. The pace is much slower, and I got that Gould is expecting to get Karen into bed. He seems to treat it as a perk of the job, something he does by reflex, with no great interest in the woman herself, although he’s learned enough to come across all sincere and caring and willing to listen – that is what they call foreplay, isn’t it? She, on the other hand, seems to be sincerely keen on this book she’s been given to read. It struck a chord with her, and she appears to believe it’ll make a much more interesting film than the standard prison buddy affair Gould is lining up. She does the Anne Boleyn thing of saying no long enough to win her argument, then clinches the deal with sex. No wonder some people think women rule the world.

Next day, when the meeting with the studio boss is about to happen, Fox turns up again at Gould’s office to learn that he’s changed his mind. Fox freaks out, attacks Gould, who has to change his shirt afterwards, and does everything he can to make Gould see reason and take the buddy movie to the boss. It’s like watching a drowning man clutching at verbal straws, and it’s an amazing performance by Kevin Spacey. This is Fox’s one big chance at the big time, and he’s not going to let it escape. Eventually he manages to cast doubt on Karen’s integrity, and gives Gould cause to consider whether he’s doing the right thing or not. Finally, commercial sense wins the day, and Gould and Fox are back to being partners again. It was touch and go – these guys really took it to the wire – but normal service has been resumed.

Even as I’m typing this, I can remember how exhausting and exhilarating it was to watch. So much energy was coming off the stage that it was impossible to look away. Jeff Goldblum held the central character together brilliantly. He could be withholding, manic, childishly gleeful, sexually seductive and powerful, all in the space of an hour or so. I was very aware of how this guy’s mind was working, trying to avoid being used, trying to figure out how he could use others, checking to see what was in it for him, and all the time with an expression of regret that he wasn’t living a more profound life, that he was stuck amongst the muck and mire of the all-devouring commercial movie monster. It was an impressive performance, matched by Kevin Spacey as Fox, who took hyperactive to new levels. He threw himself about the stage, constantly moving and almost constantly talking. The dynamic between the two men was beautifully portrayed, and although Karen’s part isn’t as well written, Laura Michelle Kelly did well to keep up with these two. The audience were suitably appreciative, and I don’t expect to see a better production anytime soon. Nor one as good, probably.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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